The Good Lord Bird
“Did John Brown fail?” Daveed Diggs-as-Frederick Douglass asks in voiceover at the beginning of The Good Lord Bird’s spectacular season and series finale. It’s the defining question historians have asked of his life, although Douglass — and Brown himself — were firmly of the mind that his larger success was so far-reaching that the poor planning of the raid mattered little. “He certainly did fail to get out of Harpers Ferry,” Douglass goes on. “Did he lose his life in vain? To this I answer 10,000 times no. If John Brown did not end the war that ended slavery he did at least begin the war that ended slavery.”
In that way, The Good Lord Bird is essentially a preface — to the Civil War of course, but also to every debate of the 19th, 20th, and now 21st centuries over whether insurrection is justified when the oppressors use savagery to maintain their power. Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry was far from the first time that a group of citizens undertook violent means to try to obtain peaceful ends, but it stands out as essential to our understanding of what those outcomes can look like. In Brown’s case, five years of fire and carnage and constitutional collapse, followed by the legal (though not practical, and certainly not total) emancipation of the enslaved.
But The Good Lord Bird’s strength is that it’s never ever preachy, that moments that could veer maudlin — like Onion’s visit to Brown’s jail cell — don’t. (“I deserve to hang,” Brown declares to Onion, and then cracks a joke, “Not for inciting a slave insurrection but for tarrying so long in the engine house. Why didn’t I take the bridge? That was so stupid. For that I should hang.”) Nobody ever steps up and offers a Sorkin-style speech about the glories of American freedoms; after all, there are no damn freedoms for the men and women Brown wants to free from bondage. Instead, “Last Words” strings together a series of quiet, beautiful moments, interspersed with Brown’s final blaze of glory at Harpers Ferry, and then followed by some scenes of Onion’s post-rebel life.
How close does “Last Words” hew to the truth? Well, that truth itself is in some dispute — though Brown wrote plenty of letters detailing the insurrection in the six weeks between his capture and his execution, it’s still hard to know precisely what went on inside that engine house, considering the chaos of blood and bullet holes and anxiety. (But if you want some further reading, Smithsonian Magazine has a good, relatively quick overview of Brown’s life and the raid.) More than any other episode, this finale takes some liberties in the name of narrative development. It’s true that there were over a thousand soldiers in the streets, led by Robert E. Lee and J.E.B. Stuart, but Brown and his men didn’t charge through the door at them, they were ferreted out. A few men did escape out the back of the building and swim across the river, but the two Brown boys who died inside it were Oliver and Watson, not Jason and John Jr. (both those brothers were involved in planning but not present at Harpers Ferry).
But really, who cares about perfect fidelity? What we have here is a vigorous interpretation of the spirit of Brown’s last stand, and, most vividly, the inconceivable bravery of him and his men. For most of The Good Lord Bird John Brown wavers from fanaticism to downright zealous insanity. In “Last Words” that God-driven commitment finally trickles down to the men around him. His son John Jr. insists, through a shaky voice, on leading the charge out the front door. Brown offers the group of Black men fighting with him the chance to slip out the back and escape, and they refuse. All of which sounds like typical Hollywood glory shit until you remember that the men caught alongside Brown were also hanged, that they gave up their lives to their cause, and we don’t all learn their names in high-school history.
Onion’s case is different. He’s a child, dragged along by forces way larger than him. And there’s something quietly wondrous about the way the others pass along their clothes to him, so he can finally dress as himself for the exact moment he abandons his surrogate family. The pretense of his pretend girlhood hung so heavy on Onion, and in the end it doesn’t matter to a single soul that he wore a dress and acted a (rather, ahem, rough) lady for two years.
I worried about the evaporation of tension in the last third of the finale — that after the fighting ended The Good Lord Bird would lose all its bluster and sink away into something melancholy and mundane. But the show doesn’t turn Brown into the kind of hero whose work caused instant change; instead, it uses a set of clever decisions to make a series of digs at how far away change really is. To escape J.E.B. Stuart, Onion has to put back on the mantle of a slave — ironically, it’s safer for him. Back at the Kennedy Farm, Owen, in the pit of his grief for the abolitionist cause, has to act like his owner and grab him roughly by the shirt, threatening him for insolence. (Bob, back from his dive out the carriage last episode, has a readymade answer to the soldier’s question of what happened to his arm: “Master kicked me down the well for fun.”) Bob is sent up to the Browns New York farm in a coffin, the same way that formerly enslaved fighters were brought into Kennedy Farm, and eerily similar to how Brown rides to the gallows. Onion even ends up back at a barbershop — the same kind of place, you may remember, that Brown initially found him. That circularity isn’t just sly bookmarking, it’s connective tissue, reminders that Brown has only lit a fuse, and the wire to the explosive is still long and snaking.
What Onion realizes in that barbershop is that Brown is a legend even before his death. In those weeks between October 18 and December 2, 1859, Brown really may have done more good for the cause of radical abolition than he’d done in his preceding 59 years. And Onion gets it exactly right. “Folks was listening now that a white man was gonna hang, and not just any man: The old man was a Christian who could write. He had friends who could write. Walt Whitman took up the cause, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson. I didn’t know who any of those turkeys were, but we were no longer alone.” Whitman, Thoreau, and Emerson had all been preaching and essaying on abolition for decades comfortably from their East Coast perches. But this mashup of a Bible-spouting super-Christian about to lose his life, along with the agitation of famous white authors, and the loud backing of a certain Mr. Frederick Douglass, who was all too willing to proclaim the goodness of what Brown had done from the safety of England, meant a sonic boom across the already agitated landscape. When Onion arrives at Brown’s jail cell he learns that it’s not even locked; Brown doesn’t need to escape and plot again in order to accomplish what he set out to do. In his failure, he absolutely succeeded.
Onion — well, Henry again — and Brown’s final meeting is soft and egalitarian. Brown finally passes on the leading of prayers, and he matches his surrogate child’s gentle, steady tone. If you detected a hint of cheesiness in the air, well, screw you. I for one am delighted to see such earnest love play out between these two men, and between one long renowned actor and one just arrived. The missing bombast leaves a hole that Hawke and Johnson capably step into, to act as wonderfully small as they did big.
In the end, even if I chuckled a little at Onion packing a box of sweets and a book of poems to go woo Annie Brown (who in real life married an abusive alcoholic and not a childhood sweetheart), I cried real solemn tears that The Good Lord Bird has ended and I won’t see Johnson and Hawke so believably embody these characters again. This show is ending exactly how and when it should, but damn I wish there were more.