The Underground Railroad
Midway through this episode, Royal (William Jackson Harper) says to Cora: “There’s a sadness in you. I wish I knew the root of it.” It sticks with her, echoing later as she imagines aiming a gun at him. Having followed Cora for so long, we know the roots of this sadness: all the loved ones she’s lost, a life of freedom never offered to her on the plantation. Royal means it innocuously, but there’s an ignorance to it. Cora responds, “You born free, ain’t you?” Royal nods. He hasn’t experienced half the horrors that Cora has. Cora explains, “When you a runaway … lot of things get left behind … It’s like a piece missing. It’s heavy. Like dead weight.” These absences have accumulated. Of course Cora carries them with her.
This exchange occurs at the tail end of a date in which Royal has taken Cora horseback riding and taught her how to shoot a gun. Earlier, he’d found her tracing and sketching a map of her journey so far: Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and now Indiana, the first four states marked with a star and a name; Lovey, Caesar, Grace, and Jasper, respectively. “You came all this way on the railroad?” Royal asks. “Yeah,” Cora answers, “And left behind all those peoples.”
Royal takes Cora to an old abandoned house, to show her an old abandoned underground station that he calls the “ghost tunnel.” He pries open a trapdoor behind the house and the wind echoes from beneath. It has a gravity to it like none of the station’s prior. They descend down a very long ladder, in an echo of the very first glimpse we got of Cora, falling down in slow motion in the prologue. Royal explains that it “ain’t made for a locomotive … the tunnel gets too small.” There’s a handcar a few miles in but it’s likely never been used. He thinks Cora might be able to understand it better than he could: “You’ve seen more of the railroad than most. I wanted you to see how it fits together. Or it doesn’t.” Cora doesn’t want to figure out the mysteries of the Underground Railroad: “All I know is I’m tired of running.” Frustrated, she leaves abruptly.
This episode marks an unexpected, but interesting, turn as the idea of freedom turns out to be complicated as it becomes more real. At first, Indiana brings Cora to the Valentine farm, an idyllic Black-led community run by John Valentine (Peter De Jersey) and his wife Gloria Valentine (Amber Gray). At dinner, Gloria tells part of the story of the farm, how John Valentine negotiated the deed to the land with white folks some time ago. “Lord knows when we first showed up they had no idea of the colored love and joy coursing through his veins” — a reference to both his plans for the land as well as a racial passing narrative.
The episode is full of vibrant colors, an expansive palette we haven’t seen before in the series. Black people mill about, sharing work on the compound; life seems peaceful; little girls twirl in their dresses. Love is in the air, too: Cora and Royal are taken with each other, and the episode follows Georgina (Kara Flowers) as she pursues the resident poet, Rumsey Brooks (Donald Elise Watkins). Cora has been living in a cabin with a young girl, Molly (Kylee D. Allen), and her mother Sybil (Deja Dee), who in turn gets cozy with Samson. There’s a vineyard on the land, and its wine keeps the white folks in town nearby happy — the local Judge Smith trades favors for it, like alerting John Valentine and Brother Mingo (Chukwudi Iwuji) if there’s a warrant out for a runaway’s capture. It’s a system that, for a time, has worked.
Brother Mingo represents one side of the philosophical dilemma the compound debates across the episode. Should they stay in Indiana but make “concessions” (like not accepting any more runaways) to the white people, as Brother Mingo argues for, or should they pack up and move out West as Valentine suggests? Mingo explains to Royal, “white folk aren’t gonna let us keep a place like this if we continue to taunt them with our arrogance.” But while this dilemma is “burning underfoot,” as Cora describes it, it’s just another obstacle to her.
But this episode’s interest in romance is refreshing. Previous to the day of their date, when dinner is winding down and Rumsey starts to read his poem, Cora leaves — the poem brings Caesar to mind. Royal follows. (In a nice touch, the deep red of Cora’s scarf matches the deep red of his blazer.) Royal tells her that once Rumsey started reading, he knew she’d “be running off.” “Hasn’t been but a month and you already know my ways and means, Mr. Royal?” she asks. It’s nice, also, to see her flirt — to see a lightness in her. They walk close together, almost brushing ever so slightly; Royal makes Cora laugh. “You real pretty like that. When you smile, you know,” Royal tells her. “I mean, you pretty anyway, but boy when you smile like that.” This would be very corny if not for Cora’s echo a few minutes later when she flips his words back to him: “You real pretty like that, you know. When you smile. I mean you pretty anyway, but boy when you smile like that.” And she looks so happy! I was onboard!
Days after their horseback date and the ghost tunnel, Royal and Cora are still on rocky terms — he’s apologized “20 times since last Sunday,” but Cora still wants to be left alone. Even when Royal tells Cora that there’s another mission down South for him to take, she treats him coldly: “I’d be gone a good while, he says, I can tell them to find somebody else. Cora, I’m asking you.” “You do what you want,” she responds, “No need to worry about me.”
Cora returns to the cabin, not feeling up to chatting with Sybil and Molly. She returns to her room with a headache, her head “filling up with thunder.” Cora holds up her map, her entire journey held in her hand — and she lights it on fire with a candle. And then she has a nightmare.
I loved this episode until the dream sequence, which is unsettling and eerie and has a distinctly different tone from the lighter, tender moments that came before it. Its nightmare logic shares some of Cora’s anxieties about the railroad’s own mysterious logic. But I’ve pivoted towards being more intrigued by the move than put off. In this dream, the Railroad — its systems, the people who run it and engage with it — aren’t only presented in a benevolent, positive light. In the dream, she goes back behind the old house Royal showed her, opening the trap door and climbing down the ghost tunnel herself. She encounters a train that takes her to a busy station, full of well-dressed Black people with just a hint of menace. It’s overwhelming — there’s a large, confusing train schedule being updated in chalk, people almost running into her, and no one seems interested in helping her. At a help desk a woman interrogates her about her story, searching through manifests that scream when they’re opened. “I’m not finding a Cora Randall in here,” she explains. “In order for us to move you forward, we are required to confirm your testimony.” As she moves through the nightmare-train station, she runs into Caesar, whose ominous speech about a leaving train and not being able to find one’s words echo in the station. Then, he begins to literally echo things he’s said to Cora before: “May I have this dance?” he asks. They dance and cry in each other’s embrace. “How long this gonna last?” she asks him. “Long as you need.”
When she wakes up, she seems to have decided it’s time to share her story. She walks to Royal’s empty cabin, but is told that he’s gone. He left while she was dreaming, and she doesn’t know when he’ll be back.
• “Chapter 8: Indiana Autumn” was written by Jacqueline Hoyt. The song played during the credits is “Groove Theory” by Hey U, off the eponymous album Groove Theory.
• In the ghost tunnel, there’s a small moment where Royal gives Cora the lamp to hold, instead of the torch she’s holding. It’s a sweet gesture!
• The opening scene with John Valentine plucking a grape from a bunch in the vineyard, bursting it, and tasting the juice is great! He spits after, leisurely on his plot of land.
• From my notes: “Poet Laureate of Valentine Farm: Rumsey Brooks” & “Gloria Valentine is giving Thandiwe Newton as Maeve from Westworld.”
• The blacksmith telling Cora “How should I know [when Royal will be back]? I look like his mammy?” … WELL DAMN! It was harsh and I’m still offended. Also when Georgina corrects Cora about using the term “pickaninny” — hasn’t Cora been through enough!
• Royal: “Now in Indiana we got rules, we got law and order.” We know how little that means!
• Cora on the ghost tunnel: “Maybe it don’t start beneath the house … maybe this ain’t the start of things, but the end … Make you wonder if there ain’t no real places to escape to. Only places to run from.”
• Reading Railroad: The Black Notebooks by Toi Dericotte.