The Underground Railroad
The community of Griffin, South Carolina, is a strange one. White folk and Black folk walk along the same streets in fancy clothes. There’s a building called a skyscraper that has an elevator and looks like it touches the sky. It seems so different, so much more promising, than the land Cora and Caesar left in Georgia. Caesar and Cora debate staying here forever, planting themselves down and taking root in this new world of access and approximate freedom. At a party put on for the Black residents of Griffin by the white residents, the local railroad station operator, Sam (Will Poulter), informs Caesar that there’s a train coming the next evening. But what if Cora and Caesar aren’t in a rush to leave?
The dilemma of whether to stay eventually becomes moot, but it’s interesting to see the duo navigate their options for a moment. In South Carolina, Cora and Caesar both have new jobs, Caesar in a factory and Cora at a museum. Both are given beds of their own to sleep in and Cora is allowed reading lessons. But their beds are in dormitories with all the other Black residents, and the jobs have white bosses — an echo of the plantation. Caesar’s boss is threatened when he seems to be able to read (“You trying to tell me how to read, boy?”), and Cora’s boss asks far too much of her as she’s forced to play out debased scenarios from different stages of the transatlantic slave trade: “Work on channeling that African spirit,” he tells her. Even stranger, the Black residents of Griffin are obligated to periodically visit the doctor for blood tests and given varying, vague explanations for why. Still, Cora and Caesar don’t know where the next train might take them; it’s hard to overlook the new freedoms they do have.
The episode opens with a reminder of the stakes: Ridgeway and Homer play detective back at the Randall plantation and set out to find Caesar and Cora. (Cora hasn’t just run away — she’s wanted for murder. I keep having to remind myself of this detail, because it seems so unjust that she’s considered the “criminal” here.) Ridgeway sees that Cora has taken the okra seeds, “her mother’s birthright,” and surmises that she must not know where her mother escaped to: “She’s not running to somewhere, she’s running away,” he puts it. With my exposition-analysis hat on, I guess that makes sense, but with my fuck-Ridgeway cap on, I’m frustrated in his arrogance at thinking he knows so much about how she thinks. He wants to know not only her every move, but her every thought.
With Ridgeway on the hunt, a clock is ticking. But Cora and Caesar are living as Bessie Carpenter and Christian Markson, hoping new, pretend identities are enough to protect them. “Maybe we should stay,” Caesar says to Cora, seated away from the other partygoers. “We’ll always have to pretend, he continues, “[there’s] too much behind us.” He leans in for a kiss but it doesn’t quite land.
By the evening’s end, the truth begins to out itself: Cora’s teacher, Miss Lucy (Megan Boone), takes the stage to praise the “unprecedented” work that Griffin is doing all for the “betterment of Negro life,” but it’s clear something much more sinister is afoot when a Black woman in distress interrupts, screaming, “No! They’re taking my babies!”
The next day, Cora realizes there are no Black children in Griffin and confronts Miss Lucy about the woman: “Where are all the Negro children?” Meanwhile, Caesar has his own suspicions: He’d passed off his “free vitamins” to a co-worker who later coughs up blood. The doctor and Miss Lucy each explain: Griffin is interested in the bodily limits of Black people, testing and controlling them through forced drug use and coerced sterilization. Put another way, “They killing us.” Cora and Caesar flee to Sam’s house to inform him as much and ask when they might escape. “There are things happening here … dark horrific things,” Caesar tells him. “How could you not know, Sam?” Cora pleas. Having missed the train Sam mentioned, they have to wait for the next one.
Unfortunately, in the meantime, Ridgeway and Homer show up in Griffin. Homer finds Cora at the museum, so she runs to Sam’s house, who ushers her down to the railroad tunnel without Caesar. He apologizes to her for not knowing what was happening, or not wanting to know: “I’m sorry, Cora. I’m so damn sorry.” Ridgeway finds his way to the men’s dormitory, where he finds Caesar mid-shave. There’s a moment when I’d hoped Ridgeway wouldn’t recognize him, but Caesar’s “very particular” eyes give him away.
While we don’t see what happens to Caesar, he comes to Cora in a dream (or vision?) as she waits for the train. He walks through the tunnel with a lamp, saying he’ll never leave her and reciting words from The Odyssey: “Be strong saith my heart. I am a soldier. I have seen worse sights than this.” It’s a frustrating good-bye, lacking the intimacy that the pair deserves. Yet another thing taken from them.
A small train comes, but its driver, Ellis, is still a teenager — not a conductor, only maintenance, and not supposed to take on passengers. But when Cora demands to be let on, he obliges, gleefully shouting, “All aboard!” and the two take off. Cora, overcome, cries in the back cart as it takes off, alone and uncertain where she’s headed.
• “Chapter 2: South Carolina” was written by Jacqueline Hoyt and Nathan C. Parker. The song played in the closing credits is the Pharcyde’s “Runnin’,” from their album Labcabincalifornia.
• It’s horrific to watch Mr. Fields slip so easily into the role of a slaveholder as he advises a white actor in the museum. Thuso Mbedu plays Cora’s startled reactions to the whip so well.
• Not the probable ex-master Mr. Fields saying “FUBU”! Too much.
• Cora’s yellow dress is a visually stunning change in tone. And I loved the shot of Caesar and his two co-workers walking through town, their suit jackets open save for the top buttons.
• Cora and Caesar at the dance felt very “what I expect from Barry Jenkins,” like a scene out of If Beale Street Could Talk. They both looked great, and I wanted to buy into the romance (even if that show doesn’t feel as invested in romance).
Caesar: “But when we danced, all of a sudden I saw our future.”
Cora: “One kiss and you’re talking about babies, huh?”
• Caesar, upon the utterance of the phrase “aptitude”: “Never known a white man to show much concern for what Negroes are mentally capable of.”
Doctor: “You know what aptitude means?”
• Miss Lucy is dismissive of Ridgeway’s profession as a slave-catcher, but he underscores their connection by holding up a pamphlet for “tubal ligation”: “It seems like we’re both doing our part,” he tells her.
• We learn a bit more about Cora’s anger at her mother when she tells one of the doctors, “After my mama left, a bunch of older boys took to calling me names and bothering after me. One night they carried me into the woods.” It’s not her mother’s fault, but we see the complexity of Cora’s trauma.
• This episode, Cora borrows a copy of Gulliver’s Travels from Miss Lucy; Caesar is given The Odyssey even though it isn’t on the “approved” reading list for Black residents in Griffin.
• Reading Railroad: Lakewood by Megan Giddings: a contemporary story about a Black, college-age girl who signs up to be a part of a mysterious scientific study.