Laughter’s important. Even in the darkest times, it’s necessary to find lightness when you can. Ernestine taught Rosalee that when she was a girl. But now Ernestine is in a form of exiled bondage, having been banished to the Roe Plantation by Miss Suzanna, the same woman whose sheets she and Rosalee once joyfully mussed in moments of unguarded ease. She’s suicidal, addicted to opiates and in an abusive relationship she accepts as due punishment. She’s become far more like the stern midwife (memorably played two weeks prior by Angela Bassett) who scoffed at young Ernestine’s plans of surviving enslavement with dignity intact by cozying up to her master. So when Clara — now under her tutelage, for lack of a better way of putting it — comes running home, giddy after spending the night with Master Roe, Ernestine literally can hardly stomach the sight. But steering Clara toward a familiar path, one that enables delusions of control, could be Ernestine’s only escape route out of South Carolina.
All Cato wanted was empowerment, and to empower the cause. That much was revealed in “Whiteface,” which opened with his Powell’s Players performing a satirical minstrel act for horrified white theatergoers and hosting a stealth abolitionist fundraiser at his palatial home. We finally meet Frederick Douglass as embodied by Underground producer John Legend, though either Douglass was a far speedier casual conversationalist than he was an orator, or Legend was a bit over-caffeinated in his reading. William Still is there as well, and the strands of their plan are coming together. They discuss John Brown’s boys, who speak of Harriet Tubman’s upcoming speech in Philadelphia, a topic that resonates with them both. Still has been corresponding with Elizabeth, who watches as Noah and Rosalee finally reunite.
But those seams start to tear just as quickly. We, and the local sheriffs, discover that Georgia’s been passing for white. With her home targeted as refuge for runaways, the “cargo” must be moved. As John Brown’s men get ready to usher Noah, Rosalee, Valentine, and other escapees through the tunnels, Elizabeth and Lucas pack a wagon and head out West, where they’re soon accosted and threatened by hooded supremacists. They’re “left to the animals” with an imposing warning to cease and desist “stealing” slaves. Elizabeth is once again bloodied, but no less determined to fight, committed to waging war with shouts and fists as a way of amplifying her husband’s quiet, and now muted, voice of reason.
Before parting ways, Elizabeth urges Noah to reconsider joining Rosalee on the dangerous mission toward Macon to find and rescue Ernestine and James. We’ve seen how what Noah has endured since fleeing Georgia changed him; he spoke with William Still about the shock of being presented with choices, and the impulse toward self-preservation. Like Clara and every other “Whiteface” protagonist, Noah wants to seize what white Americans have always been entitled to: some say in their future. Not surprisingly, he cannot turn Rosalee aside, and she most certainly isn’t giving up on family. She can, in fact, survive this, and she’s going to prove that her mother, brother, and unborn child can too. Together. But as everyone splinters off from Virginia in different directions, their travels South all but ensure we won’t see these faces gathered in the same safe space for some time, if at all.
The biggest mystery is what Patty Cannon and her men have in mind for Cato and Devi. Francis, having warned Cato about “poking the bear” with his provocation, is shot dead. Ditto for all of Cato’s hired guns, who outmanned Patty and August Pullman but were apparently no match for their wiles. (Hey, the script did observe that Pullman was reputed to be a singularly skilled bounty man.) And sadly, Devi may soon be exposed to the horrors and injustices of black life in America. In what can only be described as an instance of TV timing, Cato’s beloved — whom he had left behind in England — has arrived right as Patty and Pullman have laid waste to everyone in sight and squeezed info on Rosalee’s whereabouts out of Cato. Except unlike Elizabeth and Lucas’s brush with hunters, Patty and Pullman have no intention of letting Cato and Devi go with caution. Nor will Cato and Devi get to embrace and be together the way Noah and Rosalee did. (Happy engagement, by the way?) Patty’s gonna take up residence at Cato’s mansion for a spell until her men — whom she has under every conceivable sort of sway — bring back her sought-after Black Rose. Though she shouldn’t be surprised if John Brown and Harriet Tubman turn out to be deadly thorns in her side.
Apart from all that:
· We want Daniel.
· The less said about the graying-horse metaphor, the better.
· We know Pullman’s dad was a discharged military man at odds with Andrew Jackson. I wonder what he, and August, would say about the slaveholding president being swapped for Tubman on the $20.
· Patty and Ernestine each have their way of exploiting male egos.
· Noah is strong and silent one minute, expressive and vulnerable the next. It’s very jarring.
· Still said it best: “War is inevitable. The world is getting hotter.”