It’s worth reminding ourselves that Onion is the only fully fictionalized bit of The Good Lord Bird. He’s a custom-designed sidekick, a well-engineered foil, a little buddy made to chat with John Brown and reflect back the absurdity of Brown’s chaotic ideas. (Remember: “All of this is true. Most of it happened.”) But until now Onion has been dragged along. He believes he’s been kidnapped — he’s tried, more than once, to run away. His reliance on Brown is total. How else could a formerly enslaved teenager with no survival skills or protection make his way in late 1850s America? A man who hears the voice of God urging him to take up arms and free the slaves hasn’t had the wherewithal to realize that the slave closest to him, often tucked right beside him next to fires and on train seats, is now technically free but knows nothing of what that means.
“Smells Like Bear,” an exquisitely rendered piece of television, finally regulates Onion and Brown’s relationship. Set over a period of months, across a swath of northern America and Canada, it brings the duo to a tipping point. Moving through Pennsylvania (where they’re bilked out of $1,700 by Hugh Forbes, a real-life mercenary and antagonist to Brown) to raise more money for their cause, Brown prompts Onion to chime in at meetings, to talk about his “starvation and deprivation” in chains — except Onion lived a relatively comfortable life with Dutch Henry. He wasn’t hungry until he had to boil nuts with Brown’s army, or cold until he had to sleep in the forest in winter. His black skin is a tool for Brown to use.
But standing outside a Canadian church where Brown is about to lift up his voice in the service of his cause, Onion finally lets loose on the hypocrisy that’s kept him tied to Brown for well over a year. “Dammit,” Onion yells, “I am a Negro and I am ready to be free.” When Brown, befuddled, replies, “You are free!” Onion drives home his point, “If I’m so free then why do I do whatever you tell me to?” For God’s sake they are standing in Canada, a completely free country (!) where Onion could simply waltz away into a new life, and he’s still trailing Brown around.
Now I admit that there is something Pinterest-board cheesy about Brown having to let Onion go so Onion can come back to him (“If you love someone, let them go …”). But “Smells Like Bear” is so well crafted, so lovingly attuned to the humanity of these individuals, that instead, when Onion walks inside that church after Brown has sent him off to a Christian mission, some sizable tears rolled down my face.
That church scene (sixteen minutes long, an eternity in a seven-episode limited series) is, so far, the finest of the series. It finesses all of the facets of Brown’s character — his sympathy for his fellow man, his fury at the government’s inaction or downright defense of pro-slavers, his abiding love for his vast family, his resolution that even if no one joins him he will still wage a war — into one emotionally agile performance. Hawke’s range, to move from sedate to irate to dashed to hopeful, is seemingly limitless. And the speech itself is a barn burner.
By this point in 1859 John Brown had been agitating for emancipation for over 20 years, a hell of a long time. And he wasn’t just wishing and hoping. According to H.W. Brand’s new biography, The Zealot and the Emancipator, Brown witnessed a Black boy beaten over the head with a shovel as a child, and knew from that moment that the American system was an ugly one. He was radicalized in his mid-30s after the murder of abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy and then moved away from his wife and daughters — his whole life — and headed to Kansas, a thousand miles from home, to help balance the future state towards the anti-slavers. He’d seen his sons’ farms burned as an intimidation tactic to push the Free Staters out of the territory. Brown is not a bystander or observer. He has, however, mostly failed in his attempts to kickstart a larger movement.
But this speech is his fiercest rallying cry. “We can’t just sit around, idle, for fear, ignorance hatred and stupidity to hurt our own little ones … we are all part of one family, the human family,” he practically cries. And then it escalates. He is screaming, “The Declaration of Independence is a call for sedition and should be burned!” And with a twist of delicious irony for a man who simply cannot ever stop talking, he declares, “No more words, the time for words is over.” He wants bodies, hands to hold rifles. And finally he has an audience full of free Black men, all nodding their heads vigorously, looking for all the world like they are about to bolt out of their seats to sign up. But what’s his plan?
Earlier in the episode Onion pointed out the frustration of attending Brown’s rallies and speeches in America. “It made me a bit sad, truth tell it, to watch all them white folks crying for the Negro, there weren’t but one Negro besides me present.” But even with a crowd of Black supporters, Brown still can’t rally men to sign up for his army. Until, that is, a diminutive woman in a shawl stands up and vouches for him: Harriet Tubman (played quietly by Zainab Jah).
What, the question seems to be, can even the most well-intentioned white man really do for the cause?
The inspirational tone of the episode only works because we know what’s coming — and that nothing this saccharine sweet can last. Brown’s plan — to break into the barely guarded armory at Harpers Ferry, cut the telegraph wires, steal 5,000 guns, flee into the Blue Ridge Mountains, and arm the local enslaved people — will go awry, partly because he cannot keep to the date he sets with Tubman, and mostly because that “hiving of the bees” won’t happen. The beauty of Brown’s (and Hawke’s) emotional commitment is somehow boosted by his forthcoming failure, by the fact that even one of the most charismatic men of his age can’t rally a crowd to “help themselves.”
And through it all, what turns “Smells Like Bear” from good TV to great TV is the absolutely bananas way in which every joke lands and every dada moment so keenly reflects the absurd political culture of the era. At the same time Brown praises “whoever made those sugar cookies which were simply delicious” he’s also banging into the two pistols he’s placed on church lectern, making the deacon quiver with fear. He tells Onion — a runaway slave — to pull a gun on a federal agent, and to aim “point blank and shoot,” a completely nuts idea. He sends Cook, one of those “I don’t see color” white dudes who isn’t entirely clear on what abolitionists stand for, as his advance man to Harpers Ferry.
Only a man as brazen as Brown could stand up in a church and scream that the Declaration should be burned. Only a man as insane as him could put in so much effort and fail so spectacularly.