After establishing a fairly large cast of characters in its pilot, the second episode of Underground, “War Chest,” raises the show’s stakes with a collection of tawdry scenes involving gross imbalances of power, a daring gun theft, and a fully undressed Aldis Hodge.
We open on a clandestine meeting between Noah and the men he intends to include in his escape: Zeke, Sam, Henry, and Moses. Moses tells the group that the only part of the song he can understand is about the Ohio River: “You enter a slave and you come out on the other side a free man.” At the sound of footsteps, the men blow out their lamp and hide. It’s Cato, but Noah assures the skittish group that he’ll be running with them. Not so fast, Cato hedges. He doesn’t think they have a good enough plan yet.
If there were any doubt left that Aldis Hodge is a great choice to play a slave-revolt leader, Hodge lays it to rest in “War Chest.” We get to see him in scenes with many sorts of characters, and he’s equally charismatic and convincing with them all. His performance emphasizes how trust played a crucial role with these escape plans — and how that trust had to be sustained over time, even amid skepticism and low morale.
In the house, Rosalee is an outcast among the other slaves. As they giggle about a dance they’ll attend later on the Shaw plantation, they give her the cold shoulder and mutter that she “thinks she’s too good” for their dances. It’s an interesting spin; I’m used to seeing the divide between house slaves and field hands, but not this. Rosalee is an outsider among those already considered outsiders. The house slaves regard her as even more uppity than they are perceived to be by the field hands. We see that this isn’t true when Rosalee finds a yellow ribbon on the floor and pockets it with girlish admiration. Though she appears saddened to hear her peers’ opinions, she doesn’t counter them here. In fact, Rosalee remains silent through much of this episode, leaving Smollett-Bell to do a lot of face-acting in key scenes. Thankfully, she does that well.
While Tom Macon courts southern businessmen for his Senate run, his brother John Hawkes shows up at a brothel with wife Elizabeth, looking for William Still. The proprietor says Still has been delayed. While they wait, a crate arrives. Inside are a dead black woman and a living, terrified black man.
Over at August’s farm, he discovers that a wolf got into his chicken coop and now the chickens and the eggs are gone. His black friend (Clarke Peters, playing a character who still hasn’t been named) expresses concern that he plans to keep chasing slaves. “That kind of work changes a man,” he warns. Instead, the friend suggests, they should consider selling Charlotte’s ring, but August insists she will wear it again when she returns from the mental hospital. After the friend also says that August should be spending more time with Ben, August tells Ben to get his rifle. “We’re going hunting.” Peter’s horrified concern speaks for us all: They won’t be hunting runaway slaves, will they?
Back on the Macon plantation, Noah is moving at a lightning speed on his plan. He’s enlisted Sam to devise a way under a bridge that leads off the land. He asks Henry to attend the dance and steal a gun from the Shaw big house. He even suggests that Moses forge freedom papers. (“That is, if you can write as well as you read.”) Moses’s wife, Pearly Mae, covers for Moses by pointing out that the freedom papers wouldn’t be any good without the master’s seal — and none of them are allowed anywhere near where he keeps it.
William Still finally arrives to greet Hawkes and Elizabeth, but immediately excuses himself to tend to “the cargo.” Ever since Henry “Box” Brown shipped himself to freedom, he says, others have attempted the same feat. Slave catchers storm the place looking for the surviving slave on the premises, but they don’t find (or kill) him, despite stabbing the floorboards under which he’s hiding.
At the big house, Suzanna and Mary get into a fight that ends with Mary huffing that her life is as bad as a slave’s … because her mother won’t let her meet men. Rosalee quietly asks Ernestine if she ever imagines a different life. Ernestine says that she does. She imagines a thousand fates worse than theirs, which is why she works so hard to make sure they have it as easy as possible. Rosalee again remains silent, if sobered.
Noah tries to barter with the local traveling vendor, a white man, for paper and pencils. Cato catches up to them, mid-transaction, and urges the overseer to make Noah strip. (Naked Aldis! If this weren’t so demeaning, I’d insert the heart-eyes emoji here.) When they’re alone, Cato lays down the law: Because of his proximity to power, he’s “the master,” and he wants to know the whole plan. Noah tells him the bit about the gun and alludes to the fact that he’ll sleep with the Shaw mistress to gain access to the big house. Cato clutches his pearls.
Turns out August and Ben are just hunting the wolf that invaded their chicken coop. Ben proves a worthy shot and August is very impressed, an emotion Chris Meloni conveys entirely with his eyes. Unfortunately, those eyes spot human footprints near the wolf, which August suspects belong to a runaway slave. He sends Ben back home and pursues the trail.
Ready for a cry? Moses is wooing Pearly Mae by recounting how they met. It was at a plantation dance: “It was worth the paddlin’ I got, just to talk to you.” As Pearly Mae finishes his forged freedom papers, he says he won’t run without her and their young daughter, Boo. Pearly Mae protests that Boo won’t be able to keep up, but Moses has already fashioned a sling he’ll use to carry her. Pearly Mae is teary-eyed and I am, too.
While Rosalee serves drinks to Tom Macon’s plantation-owner guests, two of them express interest in bedding her. The yellow ribbon she pocketed earlier is in her hair and one of the men trails it through his fingers. Macon notably tries to redirect the conversation, as Ernestine enters the room at just that moment, suggesting that she should fetch a vintage liquor from the cellar. Tom thinks that’s a fine idea, and Rosalee takes that as a cue to also retreat. She hyperventilates in the hallway and yanks the ribbon from her hair.
Cut to the cellar, where Ernestine is stark naked, pouring liquor over her body. Tom can’t undress fast enough. Ernestine engages in light BDSM and “commands” Tom to promise not to send James to the field, which Suzanna wants him to do. “Say it,” Ernestine demands. Tom obliges, and now it’s my turn to pearl-clutch. It’s also time to explore something the show has yet to state explicitly: Rosalee and James are likely Tom’s children. They’re both light-skinned enough to imply that they’re biracial, and this steamy sex scene makes clear that Tom and Ernestine have long warmed each other’s beds.
This knowledge colors the earlier scene in which Suzanna, Mary, Rosalee, and Ernestine are in the same room. These mothers and daughters “share” the same lover/patriarch, but have very different experiences based on the color of their skin. It also underscores an irony: Ernestine has more “power” — at least while naked — than Suzanna does. She gets away with hitting Tom and bossing him around, something I doubt Suzanna would even consider. Attempting to portray Ernestine as having sexual agency within the institution of slavery — which disallows any kind of real agency — is definitely rocky terrain, but the show’s decided to go there, and it’ll be interesting to see the fallout. My guess is that Tom won’t honor Ernestine’s demand that James be spared from the field.
The pearl-clutching continues in the next scene. As it turns out, the Shaw mistress doesn’t host plantation dances just to give the slaves respite from their toils — she always picks one man to sleep with. Noah tells Cato it’s usually him, so he’ll do the deed while Cato steals the gun. (In a flashback, Noah appears detached and taciturn as the mistress has her way with him. It’s a pointed juxtaposition from the previous scene between Tom and Ernestine.) This time, Shaw chooses a mortified Cato. Noah is amused. While Cato serves as a distraction, we see Noah lift the gun.
Back in the woods, August proves himself to be an even more horrible person than we thought. He tracks down a missing slave, they fight, then August stabs and kills him. Ben witnesses the whole thing.
Meanwhile, William Still and the Hawkeses pull off their first successful bait-and-switch. After realizing that the slave catchers never left the area, Elizabeth rushes to the police station. Still disguises himself and dashes from the back door of the building. When he’s caught and beaten bloody, Elizabeth returns with the police and insists the slave catchers be arrested for assaulting a free man.
After having to sleep with the Shaw mistress, Cato’s pissed. He punches Noah to underscore his disgust. They fight until Noah pulls his newly acquired gun, telling Cato that he won’t let his authority be challenged. Cato grudgingly defers. It’s another of those moments that convinces you Noah is the only leader who can corral this crew of would-be free-folk. Hodge’s wild-eyed performance makes it obvious why nobody could cross him.
Back at the plantation dance, Noah and Rosalee draw toward each other. Rosalee tells Noah she saw the tattoos on his back, and how they were done atop lash scars. “It’s about not letting the white folks find your story. Right? It’s about making it your own.” Noah is so moved that he blurts out, “Run with me.” It’s as hot as it sounds.
Two episodes in, Underground already feels like it’s off to the races. But how long can it keep that up? Noah’s escape plan is progressing quickly, which seems a little implausible. All the moving parts will require a great deal of time and patience — and Noah hasn’t even partnered with any abolitionists at this point. He doesn’t even know there’s a network of people out there willing to help. He also does an alarming amount of stage-whispering (in the fields, in the slave quarters, and in wooded clearings). Hopefully, bringing Rosalee into the fold will temper the folly attendant to his urgency.