The Underground Railroad
The scale of “Chapter 3: North Carolina” is much smaller than the two installments that preceded it. The town feels smaller; there are no grand conspiracies; Cora spends the episode confined to an attic, and begins it still underground. Railroad-maintenance kid Ellis needs to be on his way, so he leaves her some water while she waits for her next instructions. When the agent Martin (Damon Herriman) comes, it’s not a warm welcome. While we didn’t witness Cora’s entrance into Griffin — instead plopped into her existence thereafter some time — we can imagine it was much warmer than this.
Cora has arrived at a station that’s been closed. “I’m not accepting any more passengers,” Martin tells her, which seems to be the antithesis for someone whose position is to help those running away. He explains that he only came down to leave the manifest behind for anyone who passes through. When Cora says that she’s come from South Carolina and can’t go back, he tells her, “You should’ve stayed there.” Still, Martin takes her in, but with a warning: “If we do this, I am not your master but you must obey me, you understand?” North Carolina, it seems, is a place to be feared, and she hasn’t even gotten beyond the station.
Martin hides Cora in his wagon, and as they travel to his house, he explains that North Carolina has outlawed Black people, even and “especially slaves.” Any Black person seen (and any white person caught helping them) is strung up on what they call “the Freedom Trail,” a warning to keep everyone in line. It’s a horrific, haunting sight, but we’re spared the brunt of it — Martin shows it to her in the hours of the early morning, covered in darkness.
Cora will stay with Martin in his home, but it’s already a bit crowded. Martin’s wife Ethel (Lily Rabe) seems to not approve of his abolitionist ideals. (But in Martin’s current state of fear, does he still believe in them?) When she learns who Martin has brought with him, Ethel is fearful and angry: “You just got us all killed,” she says, Cora still in earshot. Martin takes Cora to hide in the attic, which would be small enough a space on its own. So it’s even more painful when Martin speaks of the “crawl space” that his own father had built, in which she must stay instead. Plus, the crawl space already has one inhabitant: Grace (Mychal-Bella Bowman) is a young girl, presumably another runaway (though we’re not given the details of her story or how she came to get there). The first thing Grace tells Cora: “You don’t fit up here.” This is true in terms of space, but it’s also indicative of how Cora has been thrust into another new story, with characters with their own plots already in progress. The two must live and sleep in the cramped compartment, navigating creaky floors without making any noise at all. There’s a peephole in the wooden wall that lets a bit of sunlight in.
In particular, Grace and Cora attempt to hide from Fiona, an Irish house servant, and from Ethel and Martin’s daughter and her husband who come to town for what Ethel calls, vaguely, “a ceremony.” When Cora asks how long it will take to get her out of the house, Ethel slaps her: “You stupid, stupid thing.” The “ceremony” is led by Constable Jamison, and has a religious feel to it, but it isn’t just a sermon: They murder a runaway (named in the credits as Louisa) who tried to leave North Carolina when the outlawing occurred. Cora and Grace can see the happenings of the stage through the peephole in the wall, unable to do anything for Louisa but look away. Cora promises that she’s going to get her and Grace out of there, so that they won’t share Louisa’s fate. But, as Grace asks, where is there for them to go?
Coming off of last episode’s use of station agent Sam — his apology to Cora and ability to not know what was going on — this episode really seems to be interested in further exploring white complicity in the face of these atrocities. At the ceremony, for example, Constable Jamison makes a joke that gets laughter from the audience: “I’ll say it’s harder to teach a n- - - - to reason than [to teach] a hog arithmetic.” Martin laughs too, before looking nervous or perhaps ashamed that he laughed. A minute later, Louisa is stabbed and killed. Whatever Martin is doing to protect Grace and Cora doesn’t save her.
The explorations of the varying lines of complicity don’t end there. Later, when Martin and Ethel have the constable and people in their home, Martin is provoked into challenging the constable’s thinking. Jamison uses religious rhetoric to justify his anti-Blackness: “North Carolina is God’s vision of America,” he says, “pure” as God intended. Martin doesn’t manage a full-throated denouncement, but we see him struggle to figure out how to avoid a hanging and also challenge the constable’s vision.
After too long in the crawl space, Cora falls ill. She needs a bath and some care and observation that can’t be provided with her upstairs. To keep the town away from the house, Martin plays sick, making himself throw up in front of Fiona. Ethel is in on the plan too, speaking of a “pox” that must have made him sick, and urging Fiona to stay away until they need her. It’s interesting to watch these moments of care interspersed with racism — Ethel’s relationship to Black people is marked by the peculiar white-savior narrative of religion. “You see?” she says, touching Cora’s face, “I see the wicked in you, girl. In your kind. Your being here, it’s God’s will. He sent you. He sent you to me. And I am grateful.” When Ethel kisses Cora’s forehead twice, Cora wipes it away.
But once again, it’s Ridgeway and Homer, rather than the goings-on of the new location, that bring Cora’s stay to an end (this time they have a new footman and another runaway in tow). Since Cora is wanted for the murder of the white boy from episode one, the constable allows Ridgeway to search houses regardless of typical protocol. Martin tries to buy Ethel time to get Cora back upstairs, but Homer sees her. Rather than let Homer or Ridgeway search the rest of the house and find Grace, Cora surrenders herself. The gathered crowd has the feel of a witch trial, screaming and hurling questions and threats, treating Cora and her Blackness like evil as Ridgeway takes her away. Fiona throws a lamp at the house, starting a fire that spreads to the attic, Grace still inside.
Ridgeway wants to know how Cora came to be in this town, and Martin confesses that it was the railroad that brought her there. Ridgeway demands to be taken to it, but Martin has already blown up the entrance and “damned it with dynamite.” He apologizes to Cora and asks for forgiveness from God. Ridgeway’s lackey shoots him in the head.
In a weird way, Ridgeway’s entry changes Cora’s fate: She won’t die of sickness in the attic, or on the Freedom Trail if she’d been discovered otherwise. Instead, Ridgeway will take her back to Randall. “How’d you find me?” Cora asks. “See, that’s the thing. I do not think that I did. I think … you found me. I truly do.” He believes that the two of them are truly fated to each other.
• “Chapter 3: North Carolina” was written by Allison Davis (a staff writer for David Makes Man, created by Moonlight’s Tarell Alvin McCraney). The song played during the closing credits is Marvin Gaye’s “Wholy Holy” from the album What’s Going On.
• The image of Grace playing with her hands in the shadow of the light … thanks, Barry Jenkins!
• Grace is an invention for the show, not present in the book. So it was difficult for me to work around her feeling plopped in there. I was stuck on Martin saying, “You’re not my worst secret.” Is Grace his secret? Does Ethel know Grace is staying there? She never seemed to acknowledge her presence.
• Martin wanted to leave the manifest for those passing through, so I’m interested in the significance of it going forward. This is the second time our attention has been brought to it.
• I’m so upset with Homer after this episode. I truly don’t know what to think about his character!
• Regarding the Freedom Trail, Martin says, “The savagery a man is capable of when he believes his cause to be just.” A thesis for the episode.
• Is it possible that Martin blew up the station so that no other runaways would end up somewhere so unlivable? Was it purely to keep himself out of even more trouble? Was it a symbolic action of him damning all of abolition? Is it more complicated than any of those options make it?
• Not a book culling! Speaking of … Reading Railroad: Travesty Generator, a book of poetry by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram that uses computer coding to (re)produce poems. It’s stunning work that considers the patterns of anti-Blackness as if they’re coded into American history and culture.