The Underground Railroad
“Our stories will always be right here.” *pats heart*
What a small relief this episode is. I want to say first that I enjoyed this story. It’s an imaginative lyric of a piece that allows Grace, whose real name is Fanny Briggs, a beautiful exit and a different fate than what was expected to have befallen her in “Chapter 3: North Carolina.”
This episode picks up where we last left North Carolina: Fiona, who tried to be some sort of hero — saying that she knew Ethel and Martin were up to something; throwing the lamp after spitting at Ethel — instead starts a fire, which spreads from Martin and Ethel’s house onto the entire street. In the chaos, after someone shouts a slur at her, she’s dragged away, kicked, and stoned. Whatever proximity to the whiteness and status of the other townsfolk she’d hoped for is lost.
In Ethel and Martin’s burning home, Grace climbs down from the crawlspace into the attic and uses some fabric as a mask so she doesn’t inhale too much smoke. On the ground floor, we see her silhouette against the burning orange of the front of the house. (In the prologue, and again when Cora imagined her as she eulogized her to Jasper, we saw a version of this — here, Grace’s fabric mask shows us the difficult reality.) She exits out the back door. Since everyone is distracted with the fire, she flees unseen.
In a captivating aerial shot, we watch the black smoke rise and billow from the row of houses as the fire begins to engulf this entire, vigilantly white-supremacist town. Fiona bleeds from the mouth and crawls toward the altar, stunned, as the image slowly fades to Ethel, who has been strung up on the Freedom Trail. Fiona was stoned earlier, and it looks like Ethel has been too before being left to bleed to death, slipping into a fugue religious state to ease her passing.
Grace (Mychal-Bella Bowman) walks through the woods toward the railroad station. Inside, she climbs through the wreckage of the dynamite explosion down to the railroad tracks. She finds the manifest amid the rubble, but must leave it behind as she follows a group of fireflies through a small hole in the block tunnel passage. And behold: On the other side of the blockage sits an idle train.
It’s all very dreamlike, and Grace is greeted warmly by the train’s attendant, Mae (Denitra Isler): “Well hello, li’l missy. We’ve been waiting for you … You looking for a ride?” They can leave as soon as Grace gives her “testimony.” Then, a couple of interesting things happen. First, we learn that Grace isn’t really her name. “Mr. Martin, he call me Grace,” she starts, “But I had another name before that, a name my mama gave me. Fanny Briggs.” Then, when Mae asks who Mr. Martin is and Fanny explains that he ran the railroad in North Carolina before it was closed, there’s a solemn moment. “Yeah, we closed that station,” Mae says. “Yeah … Y’all did,” Fanny says, clearly feeling betrayed. It’s an interesting thing. Before, it didn’t seem like someone could express disappointment in the railroad, but her feelings make sense. Why did they close the station? I’m sure there were reasons, but it left her alone.
When asked where she wants to go, she tells Mae, “Wherever it is Cora went to.” It’s not clear to me if this is something that’s possible, as Mae doesn’t know who Cora is, but the railroad seems to work a bit differently for Fanny — the train is nicer, and no one’s yet asked Cora where she’d like to go. But Fanny has one final concern: “I left the book back there, the one with all our stories in it,” she explains. “Don’t you worry about that book,” Mae says, “Our stories will always be right here.” She points toward her heart and leaves the cart. Fanny gets to writing and the train takes off. The camera sits on top of the train and we watch it chug along, black smoke blowing out.
I very much like the feeling of this episode, the almost magical quality to it. Compared with Cora’s experience of the railroad, though, Fanny’s experience shows just how little of its actual mechanics we’ve learned — or how little we’d be able to understand. (Colson Whitehead’s novel isn’t too invested in these details, either.) Was the train waiting for her? If so, why did they ask her who she was? Is it because she needs to be the one to utter it? How was the train just sitting there on the other side of the blockage? Is it a one way track?
I’m not actually interested in these questions being answered — arguably, this episode marks a speculative split from the main narrative, marked by Fanny’s invisible slip out of the back of the house, so it’s not worth getting hung up on those details. There’s a mysteriousness and sense of awe to what’s been built, although it’s not totally surreal. If the logic raises some eyebrows, there’s a tender essence in this episode, a gift to the audience. A bit of wonder, and of hope.
• This episode was written by Jihan Crowther. The song played in the closing credits is Michael Jackson’s “I Wanna Be Where You Are” from the album Got to Be There. This is my favorite needle drop so far!
• “I like the cut of your jib, Fanny Briggs!”
• I appreciate the late title card (occuring after we see Ethel) because I like Fanny’s story on its own, and I at first wasn’t sure why we were checking back in with other folks in North Carolina. It’s all a lot of violence and destruction to take in, so I appreciate the soft reset.
• Also, the inclusion of Ethel and Fiona anchors us in the real in a particular way, even as there’s a possibility to read this episode as a dream or an imagination of Fanny’s death or afterlife. I want this ending for her!
• My understanding is that Fanny Briggs is a reference to a fictional historical person in another Colson Whitehead novel, The Intuitionist! She was “a slave who taught herself how to read.”
• I do wonder why we get this episode NOW. I’m curious about the decision for the order here, and the decisions around what episodes or locales to devote more runtime to. Some of these episodes are LONG. If something like this was possible, it makes me wonder what the possibilities could have been for a series of episodes with much more variant lengths …
• So, is the book of testimonies important or not? The thesis of the episode seems to be No. But Mae still has Fanny record her story! Two things can be true at once, I suppose.
• Reading Railroad: The Black Condition ft. Narcissus by jayy dodd, and Erou by Maya Phillips, two sharp books of poetry, use myth and mythmaking to reimagine or re-contextualize Black storytelling and possibility.