The Underground Railroad
After the events from last episode and the death of Ridgeway, this episode feels more epilogue than conclusion. The bulk of “Chapter 10: Mabel” is, of course, devoted to the story of Cora’s mother, Mabel (a heartbreaking performance from Sheila Atim). We’ve not been able to get to know Mabel properly, only seeing her in flashes or hearing about her from Ridgeway’s resentment or Cora’s anger. It’s satisfying to get Mabel more on her own terms. Still, it’s tough to spend 36 minutes back on the Randall plantation, especially with a story that’s so bleak. It asks us to return to the place that Cora has been fleeing the whole time. While it’s nice to learn more about Mabel, the episode is in fact a bit punishing (though not totally hopeless) as a final chapter.
If “Chapter 1: Georgia” was about what got Cora and Caesar to flee the Randall plantation, this episode depicts what made Mabel decide to flee, and it’s just as harrowing. The story is as much about Mabel’s’ friend Polly (Abigail Achiri) in the aftermath of a stillbirth as it is about what might motivate Mabel to leave her daughter behind. In telling this story, the episode demonstrates the particular kind of atrocities faced by mothers and women on the plantation, and the particular kind of care they deserve. Mabel does her best in the role as a midwife, helping Polly with the birth and then, later, assisting Polly as best she can as Polly is forced to breastfeed two infants from another plantation. The men of the plantation don’t accept the trauma Polly faces, and in a tragic ending, Polly kills the children and herself. Polly’s husband, Moses, is whipped as punishment, and Mabel must clean the blood from the cabin.
This is simply too much for Mabel (and frankly, maybe for the viewer, too). In a beautifully acted and choreographed scene, Mabel doesn’t run but walks across the forest, the camera tracking her from the side. When Cora and Caesar made their escape, they had a vigilance about them; Mabel appears almost to be in a trance. When she gets to a swamp—the same swamp we saw Cora and Caesar in, where Cora watched the snake capture a frog—Mabel wades in, the camera tracking her as she goes. But then suddenly, she stops in her tracks; the camera keeps moving, then tracks back to her. She gasps, “Cora!” Cora isn’t with her; or a moment, in all of the loss, she’d forgotten. But she can’t leave her there alone.
Heading back, she trips over a log. As she collects herself, a snake lashes out and bites her. She only makes it a few yards away, to lean against a tree, before she passes. Now we know the truth: Mabel never ran away. Ridgeway was chasing a ghost. Her body lay in that swamp all this time, and there was no way for Cora to know. (In fact, what’s especially tragic about this is that even though we now know, there’s no way for Cora to ever know.)
In a great work of cinematography and editing, the camera descends underwater from the Randall swamp and the blackness of the deep becomes the blackness of an underground tunnel. Now at the other end of the ghost tunnel, Cora and Molly get off the handcart and emerge from a cave. Molly pulls a bag from her sock: “When the fighting was happening, I found it.” It’s Cora’s okra seeds. They find themselves at an abandoned field with a cluster of sheds and buildings among a few tall trees. Cora uses a rock to dig a little hole for the seeds. Her tears fall to the dirt. With no dialogue, and in the wake of both last episode’s violence and Mabel’s death, it’s a beautiful scene, but a reticent one. But as the show has told us before, okra is a resilient plant. She can leave all of this behind her now, to grow into something new.
Cora hears a horse neighing, and peeks her head around the corner to see a Black man driving a covered, horse-drawn wagon. The two approach the man slowly, Cora pulling Molly closer to protect her. “Are you kind, mister?” Cora asks him, having been through enough hardship. “Most times yes,” he considers. “Of course, like anybody, I falters of course.” He’s headed to St. Louis, and then “catch a trail” to California. “Is that good with you, uh, miss…?” he asks. Cora, without saying which part of this journey seems good, answers by introducing herself: “Cora.” He helps them into the wagon, and the three ride off as evening falls.The final image is of Cora with a blanket wrapped around her, arms wrapped in turn around Molly.
• “Chapter 10: Mabel” was written by Barry Jenkins and Jacqueline Hoyt. The song played during the closing credits is Mahalia Jackson’s “How I Got Over.”
• I think the Mabel portion could have worked as its own story a la “Chapter 7: Fanny Briggs” placed somewhere else in the sequencing. It’s a lot to bookend the series with stories set on the plantation. The violence is visceral, and it’s pretty (perhaps intentionally) dissatisfying.
• We get to see Cora and her mother have some small, good moments in this episode—I hope that Cora can one day remember those, too.
• It’s not lost on me that Cora and Okra are kind of anagrams!
• I worry they did a disservice dropping the show all at once, but I’m also not sure a week-to-week release would have been definitively better. If it were up to me, I’d think of the show in three arcs and an epilogue, to be watched in batches, on one’s own time: Eps 1-3 (Cora’s first arc on the Railroad); Episodes 4-6 (Ridgeway focused arc); Episodes 7-9 (Valentine Farm, and Grace); and a finale (Episode 10).
• Reading Railroad: Even after spending this much time with the series, I think the book is worth your time. So I do recommend reading Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad even after watching the series. I think the book and series complement each other in interesting ways, and it’s interesting to see two people approach the same story in different media. (There are many differences and the book does some things that a series can’t, and vice versa. Mabel’s story, for example, is a compressed five-page kaleidoscope in the novel).
• Thank you so much for reading and including these recaps in your The Underground Railroad journey! I’ll leave you with this thought of Mabel’s from the book: “The world may be mean, but people don’t have to be, not if they refuse.” Take care!