“Run & Gun” opens and closes with an inspired choice of song: Shane Eli’s “Die Alone.” It proves to be an all-too-apt frame, as that’s exactly what happens to two of Underground’s most beloved characters.
Yes, Pearly Mae and Zeke sadly meet their ends in this episode, after being double-crossed and abandoned by people they trusted. It’s a grim development, and at the midway point of the season, it reflects a central theme of the show. Underground has honed in on questions of honor and loyalty among the enslaved. Are they obliged to help each other? And if so, at what point does that obligation no longer apply? We faced lighter versions of these questions in last week’s episode, when Sam divulged the group’s escape plan to Ernestine. Although he was unsure of what she’d do with the information, he decided to tell her because it would help curry favor. To him, Ernestine is the mother who chose life in the house over work in the field. Can either one be blamed for those decisions? The show wisely leaves that decision to the viewer.
After Tom Macon places a $1,000 dead-or-alive bounty on each escapee’s head, August and Ben set out to find them. It isn’t long before they’ve tracked their path, and the group’s footprints suggest two things: They’re headed toward a set location, and there’s infighting within the ranks.
We quickly learn why. Moses is angry at Noah for abandoning their plan and leaving early with Rosalee. He blames the hasty departure for Pearly Mae’s capture. Adding to the strife, Cato uses Ernestine’s intel about the Atlanta-bound train to seize a leadership role in the group. Noah predictably objects, but when he steps to Cato to fight, Zeke jumps in as a barrier. Lines of allegiance are being drawn. What’s unclear, though, is how long they’ll last.
Moses suggests they find Jack, the vendor whom he approached a few episodes ago to procure paper and a pencil for their forged freedom papers. Moses thinks Jack will help them find their way to the train. While Moses, Cato, and Noah confer with him, August and Ben catch up, surrounding Jack’s house and attempting to flush them out with gunshots. Moments later, other slave-catchers ambush August; they’re angry about the bounty he “stole” from them in the pilot. (Remember the escaped woman who “hid in his wagon?”) Meanwhile, Jack also turns his gun on the escapees, figuring that he may as well be the one to claim the reward. They’re as good as captured anyway.
In the end, the three factions of white men — Jack, August and Ben, and the three slave-catchers who attacked August — are distracted by the chaos they’ve created. In the fray, the escapees slip away unharmed. They split up as they hightail it: Cato with Zeke, Rosalee with Moses and Boo, and Noah with Henry.
As they flee, Rosalee gets briefly separated from Moses and happens upon August. When he tries that “hide you in my wagon” shtick on her, she realizes he’s a catcher just in time to run, but not before unwittingly giving up the group’s plan to board the train.
Zeke quickly finds that his allegiance to Cato was misplaced. As the team of three catchers approaches, Cato shoots Zeke in the leg and leaves him to fend for himself. It’s been clear for weeks that Cato has no loyalties and believes himself to be the smartest of the escapees, so it’s no surprise that he chooses to sacrifice Zeke. That doesn’t make it any less disappointing, though. After Cato secured the group’s freedom in “Firefly,” it could’ve been easy to assume that he cared more about them than he lets on. This betrayal suggests that he’s just using the rest of the group as a shield of sorts, providing himself cover. That survival instinct has gotten him far, but his conscience has become as disfigured as his face in the process.
In the tremendous sequence that follows, Zeke endures multiple bullets and an axe wound from the surrounding catchers. It’s a quiet, brutal fight scene, and it’s troubling to watch. Zeke’s strength was an irreplaceable asset to the group, and one they’ll surely miss as they push forward.
August is wise enough (and immoral enough) to use that strength to his advantage. When he and Ben stumble on Zeke singlehandedly taking all the catchers down, he doesn’t intervene — Zeke is wiping out the competition for him. Ben, still struggling to accept the family business, mutters that they should’ve helped. Ben has been a loyal son so far, but it’s clear he also remembers Jay’s parting words to him about the good and evil wolves: The one that survives is the one we feed. This journey is a proving ground for August and Ben. It may be too late for Ben to appeal to August’s better nature, but Ben still prizes honor. A father-son split could be looming.
Back on the Macon plantation, Ernestine can no longer afford to acknowledge right and wrong. Her sole objective is making sure Rosalee won’t be caught — and Pearly Mae is just as insistent about securing Boo’s freedom. If we’ve learned anything in the past few weeks, though, it’s that Ernestine will always win in a battle of wits. First, she tries to advise Pearly Mae how to finesse Tom. But after Suzanna later comes to Pearly Mae, offering freedom papers for herself and Boo if she gives up the whereabouts of Moses and the others, any concept of loyalty goes out the window. Ernestine knows there’s no trumping the promise of freedom, so she poisons Pearly Mae before she can confess. Then, to make it look like an accident, she slits her wrist. It’s another ruthless glimpse at what Ernestine has likely had to do to live in the relative “comfort” of the house. Who knows what else she’s done? This dilemma is adeptly presented within the episode, mirroring the treachery Cato deployed for his own self-preservation.
As Underground shows, the pursuit of freedom isn’t purely heroic. It’s callous and duplicitous by necessity; if the choice is between survival and death, is it really even a choice? Noah and Rosalee have yet to learn that lesson. With August and Ben on their heels at the station, they sacrifice their spots on the train to ensure that Moses and Boo make it on board. It’s an incredibly selfless act, but how long will it be until they face tougher choices? What will happen when their moral code is challenged by an impossible decision? On this journey to freedom, no one can make it through unscathed.
- Poor Sam misses another opportunity to secure his own freedom. He’s basically the Aaron Burr to Noah’s Alexander Hamilton. When Tom gives him a gun and turns his back, Sam throws away his shot. How much longer will he wait for it?
- At two key moments in this episode, Ernestine discovers Pearly Mae’s literacy and Noah and Cato discover Moses’s illiteracy. Pearly Mae’s literacy certainly factors into Ernestine’s decision to poison her, since she would’ve been her harder to fool. Moses’s inability made him less of an asset to the escapees; it’s good he got away with Boo before Cato had the chance to slough them off like dead weight.
- This episode really benefitted from the absence of a Hawkes-family story line. Though I suspect the abolitionist subplot will soon intersect with our escapees’ mission, their story has been much less interesting to follow that the main action.
- Suzanna and Pearly Mae were half-sisters! That makes their negotiation scene all the more chilling.
- It’s no surprise that Suzanna talks about children as legacy. That idea is underscored through every parent-child relationship in the series.
- Underground does great things with silence. When Zeke offers Boo half a peach and she touches his face, it’s as powerful as any scene with dialogue.
- Everyone seems to know Tom’s fatal flaw: He needs to be liked. Who else will exploit it? And how?