The Underground Railroad
“Chapter 4: The Great Spirit” is a look into Arnold Ridgeway’s upbringing and the spiritual ideology he contends with, but also a short story about the first time he helped catch a runaway. The idea of the Great Spirit that young Ridgeway seems to be obsessed with has been inherited from his father. According to him, “The Great Spirit flows through everything, the Earth, the sky, all of it. It connects us all.” Early in the episode, the young Ridgeway recounts a story to his mother’s gravestone about the first time he got close to feeling the spirit his father is always talking about:
You remember when I fell on that big rake in the shed? I never seen my own blood before. I got dizzy. I, uh … I felt something … when I was bleeding … something like he always talks about … the Spirit. But then I … It didn’t last. It didn’t stay with me … What if I can’t find it in me again? What if … he can’t find it in me?
Young Arnold Ridgeway (played here by Fred Hechinger) and his father still mourn the loss of the family matriarch, each man speaking to her tombstone separately across the episode. Ridgeway Sr. (Peter Mullan), after his own trek out to her grave, says to his late wife, “He’s got an anger in him. Burns red-hot and then lights mine. Our boy wants to grip the Spirit in his hands instead of listening to its call.” This episode shows us Arnold tightening that grip.
The father and son live in a large farmhouse, but seem to orbit each other elliptically — avoiding each other behind closed doors or watching the other from afar. Ridgeway Sr. does ironwork out in a workstation, while Arnold hasn’t yet found a purpose, walking through the grounds’ labyrinthine hedge maze as if to emphasize his aimlessness. The two are not alone, however. Ridgeway Sr. has hired freedmen to assist with labor at the house, three of whom are a family: Annie, her husband Samuel, and their young son, Mack. Ridgeway Sr. seems to treat them with a relative kindness and freedom beyond any white folks we’ve encountered thus far; Annie and Samuel laugh together on a seesaw in our first encounter with them. This is not typical of the white men of the area — Ridgeway speaks of townsmen who refer to his father as “deranged” because of it.
Arnold’s inability to feel the spirit within himself leads to him testing the waters in other people. This is made horrifically clear when he finds young Mack playing on a well in the forest by their home. Mack, also taken with this idea of the Great Spirit (it seems Ridgeway Sr. is always speaking of it!), is dropping lit matches down a well because “I wanted to see it. Like your daddy always say. I wanted to see if it’s in me.” Arnold manipulates Mack’s interest and convinces him to jump down the well: “You’ve got to go with it … You’ve got to protect it with your own Spirit.” It’s a shocking moment, even in its premediation, as we watch Arnold slowly convince him to do it. (I was ready to walk away from the show here! No more Ridgeway!) Thankfully, Mack survives, only breaking his leg. But Ridgeway’s actions here are despicable. He’s too old to be just a kid playing, not understanding that this is something that could have killed somebody. He doesn’t care. He is testing the waters (and testing Black people’s relationship to the Great Spirit, too).
After the Mack incident, Arnold fixes his attention on a nice jacket at the local store. The store clerk scoffs at his request to put it on his dad’s credit. Outside, he sees a man in a similar jacket. He’s a slave catcher; Arnold is so struck he follows him into a bar, where he offers to share his knowledge of the area. He knows where a runaway would be hiding. The man, Chandler, tells Arnold that if he can help them capture the man they’re after, he’ll let him in on the cut.
As if seeing his treatment of Mack weren’t enough, the episode commits to showing the extent of Ridgeway’s cruelty. He was right, and finds the runaway, credited as Jeremiah (Dajour Ashwood), trying to soothe his crying infant. The man pleads and begs him to leave his baby be. Arnold strikes him in the head with a branch and calls for the other catchers. Arnold has a moment holding the baby where, in another story, you might expect a wave of regret to come over him, but instead he has some sort of experience, there, a feeling of holding another life in his hands. He looks into the baby’s face, the camera gazing into Arnold’s, close-up and lingering. “Careful now,” Chandler tells Arnold as he pays him, “when it’s little like that [it’s] easy to forget the difference.” Arnold isn’t regretful — he’s pleased. He takes his money to the store.
The whole experience awakens a new level of destruction in Arnold. At dinner he expresses to his dad that hiring freedmen is more costly than buying enslaved people, and explains his new way of thinking that’s been affirmed outside the home. “But think about it: Maybe that’s the real Great Spirit. If you’re meant to be free, then you are free. And if you’re meant to be in chains, then you’re a n- - - - -.” It’s a wild twisting of ideas to serve his purpose, a justification for what he displayed earlier in the forest; it’s not about interconnectedness, but holding power. He interrogates Annie on her opinions about enslavement, but Ridgeway Sr. dismisses her before she has to answer. Ridgeway Sr.’s disappointment in his son is palpable: “Please don’t break my heart,” he says, but he clearly already has.
Later that night, Arnold hears his dad’s clanging, the hammer striking and shaping the iron links. He offers to help, but is refused; he hands his father a package: “Here. Brand new coat for you … it’s got silver buttons on it, pure metal.” But his father already has a coat, and doesn’t need a nicer one.
Ridgeway Sr.: “Man like me ain’t got no need for such finery … Why don’t you keep it?”
Arnold: “I already got one just like this.”
Ridgeway Sr.: Well, look at you, son. Two coats.” (He smiles weakly.) “That’s a mighty fine thing.”
I love this final exchange. Ridgeway Sr. can imagine how Arnold came to get the money, and this dialogue is a final rejection of the idea that there’s any good in it. “Two coats.” It’s as if to say, All this for jackets? For money? For power? It’s a great damning of Arnold’s character and motivations.
• “Chapter 4: The Great Spirit” was written by Adrienne Rush. The song played in the closing credits is “I Want to Be Ready” by Kool Blues.
• Who’s the worst, and why is it Arnold Ridgeway?
• Tombstone detail: Emma Jane Ridgeway — 1793–1816. Meaning she passed when she was 23, likely when Ridgeway was young. I don’t think this is meant to set the show as a whole in a particular time (for instance, electric elevators as seen in South Carolina weren’t invented until the 1880s) but rather to indicate to us that Ridgeway would have been young whenever she passed.
• Ridgeway causes so much hurt in this episode. I’m so heartbroken for Jeremiah and his baby. The white slave catchers are so reprehensible that Jeremiah knows the baby is better off being left in the forest. He takes his jacket off to cover his son before Ridgeway strikes him. “Have mercy on my child. Spare my son. Please, God. Protect him.”
• Young Ridgeway: “How come you call him ‘it’?” Chandler: “Why not?”
• “You know what kind of family this is … You’re my son, your mother’s son. Please don’t break my heart.” I wonder how often this is expressed in the contemporary American moment. I’m not absolving Ridgeway Sr. of any forms of racism (I don’t know him like that), but I like that this posits Arnold as not a “product of the time.” He didn’t grow up in a household where slavery was supported. He chose this.
• The sound of Ridgeway Sr.’s clanging of the iron links recurs throughout the episode, blending into the score. The clanging drones on like a train whistle.
• Having a flashback episode for Arnold Ridgeway feels like a choice. It’s a choice I was immediately resistant toward, imagining other viewers, too, would question a 40-minute detour given to explore the white antagonist’s past. There’s a way that it feels risky, having a lead character of a white slave catcher. But more screen time does not have to immediately mean a character is more humanized — if there’s anything that’s clear to me by the episode’s end, it’s that Arnold Ridgeway will not be redeemed.
• Reading Railroad: The concept of the Great Spirit is a real one belonging to (and differing among) different Native cultures. It’s presented nebulously within the show, and we don’t learn how Sr. came to encounter it. This time I recommend When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through, an anthology of Native Nations poetry edited by Joy Harjo (United States Poet Laureate), with more than 90 nations represented.