Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Rosalee.
When Underground premiered, I worried whether I’d be able to return to it each week. A series that constantly reminds its audience of slavery’s atrocities isn’t exactly entertaining — and entertainment is usually what I look for in a nighttime drama. Each episode has gotten more difficult to stomach, and “Grave” is an especially tough one to watch, in part because of the punishment it heaps upon Ernestine, Sam, and Rosalee.
The episode picks up with John Hawkes visiting the Macon plantation to support Tom’s senate run. While Ernestine serves him a meal, he whispers that he’s heard Rosalee and the others have made it to Kentucky. She’s grateful. This is the first time we’ve seen these characters interact, and it’s brief moment of light in what will become a very dark hour.
We saw Sam try to run at the end of the last episode, and T.R.’s snitching has led Tom to worry that another slave’s escape will hurt his chances at the nomination. Ernestine assures him that no one will find out. “Your children will be the death of me,” he says. “Ain’t just mine,” she retorts. Throughout this season, Underground has explored the conflicts that arise when a master fathers enslaved children. Tom’s political ambition has all but squelched his fondness for Rosalee and James — especially as Reverend Willowset keeps pressuring him to take a firmer hand with all of the slaves. He’s already sent James to the field, driven a wedge between James and T.R., and motivated the catchers to focus on the hunt of Rosalee. In “Grave,” he completely crosses to the dark side.
Just before Tom’s coronation as senate nominee that afternoon, a fellow slaveholder visits. He pulls back a tarp in his wagon to reveal Sam in shackles. The reverend, the slaveholder, and other white visitors present for the coronation are all watching the scene unfold, so a decision must be made on the spot. The slaveholder says that if Tom had hung Pearly Mae when she was brought back to the plantation, Sam wouldn’t have run. The crowd pressures Tom to make an example of him.
Ernestine arrives in a barn where Sam is being held; she’s volunteered to amputate his foot. He says he’d rather be dead than maimed and Ernestine tells him not to talk that way. “We can survive anything,” she assures him. Sam says that’s what he’s afraid of — that they’ll suffer even greater horrors to come. Since episode one, Sam has been the most thoughtful, measured, and philosophical of the Macon crew. I should’ve known that wouldn’t bode well for him.
Tom and the reverend come to witness the punishment. While Ernestine readies the knife, Sam lies on a table and holds eye contact with Tom, who’s visibly shaken. The scene echoes Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac in the Bible. Even though Sam isn’t Tom’s biological son, we’ve seen him show Sam a great deal of favor — both because he’s Ernestine’s child and because he’s a gifted, clever craftsman. Like Abraham, Tom wrestles with this demand for a sacrificial lamb, in no small part because Sam is so valuable. He decides to defy the reverend, stopping the amputation at the last moment. Ernestine kisses Sam’s still-intact foot.
Meanwhile, the Macon crew have reached Kentucky. They were transported in caskets, just as they planned, but Noah is delirious from a bullet wound in his shoulder. By the time they break free of the caskets, they discover Noah’s wound is now infected. Cato wants to leave him and move on to the next safe house, but Rosalee says she won’t go anywhere without Noah. Cato relents when he realizes the abolitionists only revealed the next Underground Railroad stop to her — he has no idea where they’re headed. Rosalee hatches a plan to disguise themselves as free blacks, then visit the nearest doctor to steal medicine for Noah.
After they snatch clothes from an abandoned store, Cato is clearly smitten by Rosalee and her choice of dress. If this weren’t such a tense episode — and if I weren’t a staunch Noah supporter — I’d be tempted to ship Cato and Rosalee. Although he’s taunted and harassed her since their escape, it’s also been obvious that he could easily fall for her, if he ever allowed himself. He’s been holding all of his emotions in check, probably for as long as he can remember. Though it’s led to severe consequences — remember Zeke’s demise? — suppressing emotion has always been a reliable survival tactic for Cato. Alano Miller lets Cato’s mask slip a few times in this episode, and every time, he’s looking at Rosalee. It’s a lovely wrinkle in his performance.
At the doctor’s office, Cato and Rosalee pretend to be free, married, and expecting. After determining that she’s healthy, the doctor tries to shoo them out, but Rosalee stalls by charming him with her knowledge of home decor. He invites them to dinner, buying them more time to figure out how to get the medicine from his locked cabinet.
Seeing an opportunity, Rosalee appeals to the doctor’s house girl for help. The house girl reluctantly agrees to help after she explains their situation. Before they can get to the medicine, though, it’s time for dinner — and the doctor has brought his brother. Surprise! He’s the town sheriff. Unbeknownst to Rosalee and Cato, August and his grudging partner, Jeremiah Johnson, have already tipped the sheriff off about missing runaway slaves in the area.
The skeptical sheriff tests Rosalee and Cato, asking them for details about their lives. He even suggests that Rosalee play piano after she mentions that she was trained. She does play, quite beautifully, and that’s the moment Cato’s emotion breaks free: He is all-in on loving Rosalee. His face says it all.
Nearby, August, Ben, and Jeremiah are closing in on the runaways. But Ben challenges August on why they’re doing this: “If Jay ran, would you chase him?” (I adore Ben, with all of his hard questions.) August is appalled that Ben would even ask that. I’m appalled to learn that Jay has been enslaved this whole time. I thought he was free! August says they’re doing this because Charlotte’s medical bills are bankrupting them. He tries to reason with Ben that the slaves have broken the law, so they’re technically on the right side of the law. Ben isn’t buying it. August eventually asks Jeremiah to read the latest letter from the bank to him, and he explains that the bank wants to buy his homestead for a premium. Johnson guesses they want to mine for gold, then suggests that August hold on to it. So August doesn’t really need to do this “work” anymore. Will he finally quit? He looks like he’s considering it.
Back at the Macon plantation, Ernestine gives Tom a pep talk before he enters a room full of rich bigots — he’s courting their votes for the senate run. After they all lecture Tom about the importance of slavery, the reverend again pressures him to make a public example of Sam if he’s serious about becoming a senator.
Ernestine goes to visit Sam that evening and finds him missing. When she runs out to look for him, two overseers grab her.
In a tragic turn, “Grave” reveals that Tom has decided to take the reverend’s advice. The camera cuts from his stump speech to a spot beneath the podium, where Sam has been hanging the whole time. Poor Ernestine is left naked and locked in an underground pit, though it’s unclear exactly why she’s being punished. Did she appear too grateful that Sam’s foot wasn’t amputated? Has the reverend finally found a way to rain judgment down on her for being Tom’s mistress?
The Macon runaways aren’t faring much better. When Rosalee tries to sneak out of the doctor’s house and around to his office, Jeremiah and his men grab her. After Noah spent most of the episode hallucinating visions of Henry, he wanders into a wide open field. Cato, who must’ve run away while the catchers were distracted with Rosalee, happens upon him. Jeremiah tries to lure them out of their hiding spot by using Rosalee as bait. Cato wants to run to her aid, but in an intriguing twist, Noah holds him back. They can’t help her if they’re captured, too.
With only two episodes left until the finale, I can’t imagine how Underground will resolve its many stories. What might await Ernestine when she emerges from the box? Will Cato let his growing feelings for Rosalee sway his callous decision-making? Is Noah going to let Jeremiah take Rosalee, with an endgame of rescuing her? And what about August’s warning to be wary of Cato and Noah? August walks away afterward, which suggests that he may be giving up the bounty. Would he go one step further and offer aid to the escapees? Ben has acted as August’s conscious; maybe he’ll compel his father to redemption.
This week, WGN America officially renewed Underground for a second season. It’s an unsurprising choice, given how compelling the series has been, but I’m still not sure whether or not it’s one worth rejoicing. Using slavery and the Underground Railroad as the premise for an action/suspense series will always be risky, and Underground has valiantly toed the line between entertainment and historical reverence. But that’s a line the audience must toe, too. If none of the protagonists score a big victory before the season’s end, this show runs the risk of becoming too sorrowful.