The Underground Railroad
“I want her unfettered,” Ridgeway tells Homer. Cora, Ridgeway, and Homer have arrived at the Ridgeway farmhouse so that Ridgeway can pay his respects to his dying father. As soon as the trio arrives, Ridgeway has Cora unchained, as if his shame (and his father’s disapproval) is already seeping through. His choice of words is interesting here, and indicative of how unrestrained they’ll all become by the episode’s end.
It’s not just Ridgeway Sr. still living on the property; Mack (IronE Singleton), now an adult, is still around and Ridgeway looks visibly unnerved having to confront him again. Mack tells Ridgeway that it means a lot that he came. (I assume that it was Mack who alerted Ridgeway of his father’s health.)
Mack sees Cora and Homer standing behind Ridgeway and asks, “Gonna introduce me to your family there?” It’s a shocking descriptor, to think of these three as a family — husband, wife, and child. Mack walks with a slow shuffle after the well incident and Ridgeway is visibly ashamed. Ridgeway then locks Cora in a barn, hiding her away from the judgment and narratives of the farm. With Mack watching him through the house’s window, just as Ridgeway Sr. used to do, Ridgeway moodily wanders the property, back through the hedge maze that leads to his mother’s grave. He removes some sticks and debris, but doesn’t speak to her.
Being home — and enacting the role of patriarch Mack’s assigned to him — unsettles Ridgeway’s attitude toward Cora. He buys her a new dress that he brings to her in the barn, a new setting that also creates a new dynamic for them, one that only gets stranger across the episode. Rather than stay on the farm — and rather than keep Cora in the barn — the trio goes to a restaurant in town, passing a group of three well-dressed Black men who eye Cora as she passes.
At the restaurant, a Mexican woman named Marisol (Yuly Mireles) waits on them. She is more attentive to Cora than the white folk, at one point touching Cora, who recoils. Homer begins to sing (as if channeling the late Jasper) so Ridgeway puts him in time-out at a different table. He is still just a little boy! “I wanted us to have a proper supper,” Ridgeway says; the three of them, a grotesque warping of a family. He orders himself a bottle (!) of whiskey, and thus begins Ridgeway’s drinking. He says many things while drunk, rambling about manifest destiny and musing that Cora’s mother has made it to Canada and is laughing at him — this episode is a bit grueling in how much of his rambling it asks the audience to listen to. But it’s an interesting exercise in the subjective quality of dialogue. As Cora puts it, “You go on about reasons … calling things by other names as if prettying them up will change what they is.”
Cora asks to relieve herself and makes a joke about ruining the fancy dress, a middle finger to Ridgeway. She goes to an outhouse behind the restaurant and Ridgeway follows, trying to jab back at her. He slowly tells a drawn out, visceral story about Caesar’s murder, as if he’s been waiting for the right moment to hurt her with it: “Those civilized, decent people from South Carolina with their schoolhouse and their Saturday night socials just tearing apart a grown Negro. See, in the end it turns out they ain’t no different from their neighbors to the north.”
Marisol comes out to check on them, calling to Cora in the outhouse, “You okay, miss?” She’s interrupted the story, but it’s mostly too late. Ridgeway offers one more jab: “Just like I said: plucked those blue eyes right out of his head. While he was still breathing.” Cora muffles her sobs in the outhouse.
Cora and Ridgeway (though Homer isn’t anywhere to be seen) return to the farmhouse. Ridgeway, drunk and stumbling, passes by the room in which Mack is staying, seemingly frustrated that he’s now living there. He goes into his father’s room where Ridgeway Sr. is sleeping . “Just want you to admit one thing … the Great Spirit … ain’t no such thing. You made it up, didn’t you?” He asks him repeatedly to admit it. His father eventually reacts but says “I wish I had done more to shape the boy into the man,” then lets out a labored breath.
This is too much for Ridgeway, who decides the evening is over. He cuffs Cora to the bed and takes off some of his overclothes. Cora resists and pleas, unsure of his intentions. He keeps babbling as he lays down, eyes closed, trying to calm her down. “Yes, close your eyes. Oh it’s not fair. It’s not fair. No he just made it all up.” It’s a gross boundary broken, him lying next to Cora as if they were anything but a catcher and a woman trying to get free.
While Ridgway sleeps, the three Black men from town (at least one of them with a gun) sneak into the house. It’s the men from earlier that she passed on the way to the restaurant: Samson (Trevor David), Red (Ryan James), and Royal (William Jackson Harper). They undo Cora’s chains, shackle Ridgeway to the bed, and help Cora escape the house. But outside, before exiting the property, Cora stops in her tracks and turns back around, explaining, “As long as that man up there is drawing breath, I’m gon’ be running,” and she’s right.
Royal goes back inside with her, but Mack stops them out of duty to Ridgeway’s father: “I reckon old Arnold deserve all your fury ma’am. But this here is a house of mourning. And his Pa was a great man.” With some urgency from Royal, who reminds Mack that “ain’t been a man what brought as much pain upon our folk as him,” Mack gives his word that Ridgeway won’t trouble anymore; he will kill Arnold himself.
Samson, Red, and Royal take Cora to the Tennessee station of the Underground Railroad. It’s a beautiful and wondrous departure from the other stations: built like a fancy subway station, it has a bar and a café. The Black (!) station agent, Mr. Thomas, shows up and asks for Cora’s “testimony,” handing her the station’s manifest. She dips the pen in ink as the men have a conversation. The train that arrives is much bigger and nicer than those we’ve seen before, too. Wherever she’s headed next, she’s in community with these people, and there’s hope that her luck might just be turning for the better.
Back at the house the next morning, Mack brings a gun to where Ridgeway sleeps. He pulls up a chair, not hiding what’s about to happen: He’s cuffed Ridgeway to the bed in his sleep. It seems that Ridgeway Sr. has left the house to Mack.
Ridgeway, awake now, talks of being jealous of his father’s admiration of Mack, and his ability to see the Great Spirit in him: “He nearly messed hisself from euphoria, he saw so much of it in you … And yet here we are. Old man’s son … and his favorite n- - - - . One chosen, one disgraced. One with spirit, one without.” He goes on expressing that the Great Spirit that his father was able to see in Mack, in other Black people, is “nothing compared to the will of the heart that’s overrun with hate.”
Ridgeway gives a final non-apology: “I know you don’t believe it but I always felt sorry about the well.” This might be true, but his feelings don’t change all the damage he’s done. He has no intention to stop seizing what he believes is his to seize.
Mack goes downstairs to get Ridgeway a last glass of whiskey. But Homer enters and shoots Mack. Mack’s blood pools as Homer takes the whiskey glass to Ridgeway. He offers to get the saw to cut him out, but Ridgeway wants him to sit there with him, still cuffed to the bed. The two pass the glass of whiskey between them.
• This episode was written by Nathan C. Parker and Barry Jenkins. The song that plays in the closing credits is Kendrick Lamar’s “Money Trees” from good kid, m.A.A.d city. (I’ve always liked this song, especially because of the Beach House sample.)
• I found the ending of this episode so frustrating and very on the nose! The candle extinguishing; Mack struggling to light the match as he did that day on the well. All the episodes set at the Ridgeway home are extremely literary in this way.
• In the fourth episode, there was a group of Black men standing outside when young Ridgeway exits the shop. Perhaps this spur of the Underground Railroad has been there for some time, and those men were doing something similar to Samson, Red, and Royal, here. Presumably this restaurant is the same bar-restaurant where Ridgeway went to to meet Chandler, the slave-catcher.
• Okay, did Caesar have “blue eyes” though? I’d say Aaron Pierre’s eyes are green? Maybe hazel? Is this just Ridgeway being reductive?
• I’ve brought our attention to the manifest before. Here, the station manager asks Cora to give her “testimony” to the book. Which is new language that the show uses regarding the sharing of one’s story. This shift feels intentional to me.
• Cora: “So Arnold Ridgeway is human after all. And here I thought you were just some demon who murders folk in cold blood. “
Ridgeway: “You’re a murderer, too, Cora. Yeah, or did you forget? Georgia? Little boy?”
Cora: “He wasn’t little.”
• Ridgeway’s final conversation with Mack … it gets so dense, and it feels true-to-life of how a person can get pretty incomprehensible, especially when drunk or hungover. I know what he means but it’s a bit difficult to track.
• Today’s entry in the Barry Jenkins Shot™ Hall of Fame takes place in the Tennessee station. Cora looks at a mural on the station’s wall, which appears to be of the building of the Railroad itself, and the camera watches as she turns back toward the sound of the train, pivoting slowly across to the cafe.
• Mr. Thomas: “Train should be arriving shortly.”
Royal: “Heard that before!”
• Reading Railroad: HULL by Xandria Phillips