The Underground Railroad opens with a sequence that feels like a dream. Images of a birth are interwoven with images we don’t yet have the context for — whether a nightmare or a vision of what’s to come. A woman, standing on the edge of a body of water, turns to the camera, and in voice-over we hear her say, “The first and last thing my mama gave me … was apologies.” The camera zooms in and centers on her face, so close we see the complexities in the whites of her eyes. The camera glides up to her. She stares the camera down, and it slinks away. It’s as if she is looking the viewer in the face, knowing we are watching her. It’s an affirmation that this will be her story. It’s a stunning and poetic sequence yet one tinged with sadness.
The most pleasurable image in The Underground Railroad’s premiere is one of escape. We’re able to watch our protagonist, Cora Randall (portrayed by Thuso Mbedu), run away from her forced namesake — the Randall plantation on which she was born — toward a house that promises the small possibility of freedom. The camera tracks her and Caesar (Aaron Pierre) as they run across a field. They begin hand in hand in slow motion, then drift apart as they pick up speed, Caesar ahead of Cora. Then, no longer in slow motion, Cora catches back up to Caesar and grabs his outstretched hand. It’s an elongated scene that asks us to relish in its inhibition, the two free in this moment from the surveillance of white men who have caused them grief the entire episode, the sky stratifying orange, pink, and lavender, imbuing a small hope that there’s something pleasant on the horizon. “The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no,” begins Colson Whitehead’s novel that has been adapted here. This premiere episode, “Chapter 1: Georgia,” is about what leads Cora to agree to that running and to begin her journey out of Georgia and toward the rumored railroad that can lead to freedom.
This story begins on a day of celebration. It’s the elderly Jockey’s “birthday,” and those enslaved on the Randall plantation are eating and singing. The celebration is interrupted by two men: Master Terrance and Master James, two brothers who each control different halves of the plantation. Terrance Randall is the more outwardly menacing of the two (not that that means much), speaking negatively about the leniency his brother permits on his half, and brings the evening to a violent end after a young boy, unable to recite the Declaration of Independence, begs for forgiveness and spills wine on Terrance’s sleeve. Terrance strikes the boy with his cane until Cora runs to protect him. He strikes her, too, and has the pair tied to a stake and whipped, forcing everyone to watch and listen to their punishment. (The audience is spared the violence a bit through the courtesy of a wide shot from Barry Jenkins’s direction.)
While the party is happening, Big Anthony (Elijah Everett), the catalyst for the remaining events of the episode, attempts to run away. We see him sprinting into a darkened forest, hopefully to not be seen again. Before the party and its consequences, Caesar informed Cora of his own similar plans, hoping she would join. “I’m heading back North,” he says. Unlike Cora, who was born on the Randall plantation, Caesar is from Virginia, under the ownership of a “kinder” master who promised him manumission upon her death. The promise wasn’t kept. He was supposed to be a free man, but now he is working in the cotton fields, being forced to produce children at the whims of their masters. He wants Cora to join him as “good luck” in his escape — her mother, Mabel, is the only person to have succeeded. Cora, knowing how risky this is, and still feeling abandoned in the wake of her mother’s escape, says no in her own way: “I ain’t nobody’s good luck.” After her punishment, Cora’s friend Lovey (Zsané Jhé) and two other women tend to her wounds, worrying over her: “When Mabel run off and left, I feel like something broke in her heart. Ain’t been right since.”
When James Randall suddenly dies soon after, what might be a good thing only leaves Terrance to take over both halves of the plantation, not unsettled by his brother’s death but more affirmed in their mission. To make matters worse, the story’s main antagonist arrives. Arnold Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) has captured Big Anthony, now riding in a horse-drawn cage driven by Ridgeway’s sidekick Homer (Chase W. Dillon), a Black adolescent who follows his orders. He is returning Big Anthony to pay a debt he owes the family. He never recovered one runaway in particular: Cora’s mother. Upon learning that she has a daughter, Ridgeway asks to meet her. He has an unsettling fixation with her, the gall to psychoanalyze her. “There’s anger in you,” he tells her. “Best find a way to do away with that. It’ll eat you alive if you don’t.”
I’m not sure there can be an end-all consensus on what should and shouldn’t be visualized regarding the grief and violence encountered in stories about enslavement and historic anti-Blackness (and Jenkins & Co. even had focus groups to discuss this). But unlike, say, Lovecraft Country or Them, the show isn’t gleeful or relishing in its moments of violence (not that this makes them easy to witness when they do arrive). With Big Anthony, “Chapter 1: Georgia” shows us its most harrowing and upsetting scene, and the direction seems to be telegraphing its own grappling with what to show us. It knows that this is more than we would like to see, staying behind Big Anthony at first, then, eventually, making a point to show us his wounds and witness the cruelty inflicted upon him and linger there. Still, Big Anthony is given dignity here, striking back at everything Terrance says: yelling “NO MORE MASTERS, NO MORE SLAVES” and yelling “GODDAMN YOU!” when Terrance holds up a Bible as justification. But then, the flames. In the last moments of his life, the camera enters his perspective, reminding us this is a person with a life, a mind, and a spirit. It’s upsetting, and it’s infuriating, but it serves a purpose. This awful scene is what makes Cora and Caesar finally commit to leave. It’s an image that will stick with them, as well as the viewer, as they journey on. “It’s time,” Caesar says, his hand on Cora’s. Caesar has been in communication with Fletcher, a white station manager for the railroad who will be expecting his arrival. Later that night, Cora grabs a hatchet and the okra seeds from her garden plot (and her mother’s before her) before leaving.
Lovey unexpectedly follows them on the first leg of their escape, Cora adamant that Caesar let her join, but the three are ambushed by a group of white men on a hog trail. Lovey is dragged away, and Cora and Caesar fight off the men atop them. In defense, Cora strikes a man (who turns out to only be a teenager) in the neck with the hatchet. At the station agent’s house — after that elongated, pleasurable running scene — Fletcher tells them that not only are they wanted for escaping but for the potential murder of the boy, who is “in a sleep from which he may never wake.”
By the time we finally see the show’s titular railroad (a literal railroad in this story), we’re aware of just how painful this journey might become. We don’t know where it will take Cora as she journey’s north, but Fletcher gives her a bit of advice for the trip: “If you wanna see what this nation’s all about, you gotta ride the rails. Just look outside as you speed through and you’ll see the true face of America.” But the train is underground; if Cora looks outside, all she’ll see of “America” is darkness.
• The song played in the closing credits is “B.O.B. — Bombs Over Baghdad,” by Outkast, off their album Stankonia.
• The musical score here is the work of none other than Nicholas Britell (who also composed the scores for Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk). It took me some time to notice, but the score often sounds, to me, like the drone of a train whistle being beautifully melodized (take a listen during the prologue).
• While in the swamp as they’re escaping from the Randall plantation, Cora is stopped in her tracks by something: a snake that has captured a frog in its jaws, then drags it underwater.
• “Chapter 1: Georgia” was written by Jenkins (one of only two episodes penned solely by him). The makeup of writers’ rooms is a topic of conversation lately, and, according to my knowledge, the writing room consisted of three Black writers and three white writers (two men and four women). Jenkins directs each installment.
• Context for one of the images in the prologue is revealed to us: The man seen running backward is a reversal of Caesar running through the field ahead of Cora.
• Caesar, upon seeing the underground tunnel: “Who built all this?”
Fletcher: “Who builds anything in this country?”
• Whitehead’s novel is playful with time, not set in a distinct year. That seems to be carried through in the show. In the production notes for the series, Whitehead is quoted as saying, “When I was writing, my motto was, ‘I won’t stick to the historical facts, but I’ll stick to the truth.’ That’s what Barry has done here.”
• Caesar knows how to read and does so for comfort. In the episode, he reads from Gulliver’s Travels (equipped with its full-length title). Fletcher says, “All who journey on the railroad must be documented on the manifest. How else will we account for the souls entrusted to this campaign?” Storytelling and archiving feel important to the plot here.
• In that spirit, in each recap I’ll be recommending a piece of contemporary literature — in a bullet-point I’m calling “Reading Railroad” — that I think complements the show’s themes. This week’s Reading Railroad suggestion is The Prophets, by Robert Jones Jr., a novel about love between two enslaved men on a southern plantation.