As exemplified last week, Underground can be essential and empowering. It’s also very often (and often concurrently) unflinching and painful, perhaps never more so than in tonight’s episode. That the show struggles with storytelling contrivances — e.g. Clara’s seemingly instantaneous adaptation of a power-mad persona and the sad inevitability that James would be more or less housebroken by Miss Suzanna — makes it no different than 90 percent of cable drama, nor does it lessen the impact.
Mainstay director Anthony Hemingway flips Aisha Hinds’s composed oratory as Harriet Tubman in “Minty” on its head with “28,” a terse and tense episode that raises the stakes and heightens the risk for everyone’s path to freedom. The heart and soul of this episode, and arguably the season, is Cato. Patty and her gang subject him to all manner of torture, including a primitive kind of waterboarding, with a very clear message: Help us capture and sell freed men back into slavery, and Devi will be spared the uniquely American savagery of bondage and abuse, not to mention the two of you may even walk away into the sunset. In effect, the ultimatum Cato taunted Noah with back at his Philly mansion has now been turned around on him, only he knows Patty isn’t bluffing about the consequences.
Nor does Ernestine take Clara for a fool or think she’s messing around in her quest for blood. But contrary to Clara’s admonitions, Ernestine still has plenty of tricks up her sleeve — and just by getting access to the mainland, has stolen and bartered with a bottle of Matthew’s 24-year-old Scotch to facilitate her escape. Hicks, who’s been beaten beyond recognition for his role in the island’s opium epidemic and left caged in medieval branks, will likely die at Clara’s behest one way or the other, but Ernestine’s through with killing. Tragically, August has only begun sating his quest for comeuppance and halts Ernestine in her tracks mere moments after she finally sets foot on Union ground.
His real prize, however, is Rosalee, whose notoriety as the Black Rose has spread up and down the coast amid her brushes with death and destiny. The same goes for Patty, even if she’s easily distracted by any chance to grow her own legend and line her pockets while on the hunt. Still, no one has been fantasizing about reuniting with Rosalee like Bill, the Macon overseer whom she left for dead and has since been rendered nearly mute and haplessly alcoholic. In the bracing closing seconds, as Bill staggers and stands to brand Rose’s left cheek, with Noah trying to aim his revolver between the slats from outside, she cries out that she’s with child. “That don’t change nuthin’,” he sneers before pressing the poker into her flesh. It’s one more scar — the kind that marks her and Cato and Noah and Ernestine as inseparable in their struggle — but, more important, a heroic act that might provide her and Noah a second chance to survive.
It’s Devi’s fate that fills one with utter dread. She was in disbelief that freed men like the shoe cobbler Cato accosted in a spa — whose detainment and deportation to the South couldn’t help but bring to mind images of recent ICE raids and roundups — could be wrested from their fundamental independence and made someone’s property. But nothing could ready her for the shock of being tossed into caged transport as the sacrifice for saving dozens of other men from that cobbler’s fate. In a awfully perverse way, the experience may bond her closer with Cato than travelling across the world to see him ever could.
The harshest truths in “28” have less to do with distinguishing selfish actions from malicious nature than the ways slavery made selflessness nearly impossible and created divisions not only between, but within, races. Cora, the same house girl whom Rosalee couldn’t trust when Tom was alive, is still more likely to trade her cohorts’ confidence for relative privilege on the plantation than gamble on elusive emancipation. Ernestine and Cora used and manipulated one another, unable to bridge the gap in their experiences and ambitions. And Patty’s brutality has both tested Cato’s loyalties and left him barely hanging on to what makes him matter at all. All of which begs concerted interest as to whether Daniel — attacked and assaulted while teaching other Kentucky slaves how to read — can keep his kin united toward a future like the one Rosalee envisions for her baby and Cato sees slipping past.
Apart From All That
• The shot of endless cotton fields in Macon, and the thought of them endlessly multiplied across plantations, was devastating.
• So, is Ernestine in Philly specifically?
• Maybe Cora didn’t betray them?
• Safe to assume “the big house” as a euphemism for prison originated with plantation estates?
• Twenty-eight freed men left for Cato to corral, 24-year-old Scotch to get Ernestine out of South Carolina. No great insight there — just a minor motif.
• Something tells me we’ll see bloodshed between Miss Suzanna’s men and Patty’s over Rosalee — which may provide her and her family’s best chance at escape.