The Underground Railroad
This episode is tragic, but cinematically the best so far — it feels like a full film.
Some undisclosed amount of time after Royal left for his mission, Cora is greeted with not one but two welcome returns. Royal has come back with a familiar face: It’s Ellis! The maintenance worker who drove Cora from South Carolina to North Carolina. He and his partner Olivia are expecting a child, stopping at Valentine farm before heading West, having heard about it for years. Royal apologies to Cora for how he left, and the two make up. Inspired by Royal’s return, her dream, and the Railroad’s persistent asking for folks’ testimonies, Cora finally gives her own.
That Cora not only ran away from the plantation in Goergia but is wanted for murder is news to everyone. Mingo in particular is upset by this, but Gloria defends Cora: ”We all know the story — you worked, and you saved, and you bought yourself and your family out of slavery. But what of those who can’t?” This new bit of information contextualizes Mingo’s commitments, making him seem not quite as conservative as he seemed last episode: he feels that his hard-won freedom is precarious. This whole episode anticipates a big debate between Mingo and John Valentine, after which everyone on the farm will vote about whether to stay or move west, and Gloria defers the conversation about Cora’s fate on the farm until then. Later, Sybil tells Cora she “did a mighty fine job testifying today,” and Molly gives her a hug. They don’t think of her any differently.
In the run-up to the debate, the farm’s still able to live as normal, finding time for some festivities. Many of the men participate in a corn-shucking bee split into two teams: the “elders” versus the “whippersnappers.” When the elders win, Mingo and John Valentine drink from a jug of wine. It feels important to note that they aren’t painted as nemeses here, that they are truly invested in figuring out what’s best for everyone, and it’s nice to have a moment of camaraderie on the farm.
That evening, love is in the air again. An unfurling scene moves from the farm group to various couples to one of the most singular, captivating scenes of intimacy I’ve seen on television (backed by Debussy’s evergreen “Clair de Lune”). Cora and Royal navigate each other intimately by the crackling fire of Royal’s cabin. Cora presses her hand to the center of Royal’s chest. “I hear your heart, Royal. From the very first … I always did.” His response is simple: “I love you.” Cora doesn’t say it back but accepts, they lean in to kiss and lay down. Then it’s the next morning. Ellis and Olivia head west and we’re left to hope whatever waits for them is kind.
As the debate gets closer, a few things happen for Mingo, Royal, and Cora, and for Ridgeway. First, Mingo meets with the white leaders of the nearby town, attempting to strengthen their relationship in the hopes of continuing it if he convinces the farm to stay. One man in particular, Tom Hardman (Jim Klock), seems troubled by Mingo, and Mingo’s claim that he’s not singular: “There’s a whole farm of men like me,” he tells them. It escalates to the point where Mingo invites them to the farm to witness the debate. This doesn’t sit well with Hardman, and afterward, Judge (first name Peyton, we learn) Smith warns: “Wouldn’t hurt to not parade around how as good as white men you are every chance you get.” “But I am, Peyton. But I am,” Mingo responds.
Second, Royal helps coach Cora for the debate — they seem to think she’ll be called upon to give her testimony again — and they discuss the fleeting nature of her “freedom.” “Land is property,” Cora says, “Tools is property. I’m still property, even in Indiana.” Royal offers that the farm has a lot of money, that they could buy her out, but this provokes her: Why haven’t they? Why haven’t they settled her papers or bought her freedom? Why haven’t they done that for as many Black folks as possible?” Royal’s answer isn’t totally satisfactory to her, and when he promises her the debate won’t come to a vote, Cora refuses the promise. “Everybody keep telling me how special I am,” she says, full of frustration. “What good is a railroad if only special folk can take it? What good is a farm full of freedom if only special folk can till it?”
And finally, Ridgeway and Homer make their way to Indiana from Tennessee. Ridgeway goes to Judge Smith to get permission to seize Cora, but Judge Smith says he’ll need the deed before he can get a warrant. Ridgeway has Homer order a telegram to the Randall plantation, but it takes too long for Ridgeway’s liking. He makes a public plea to the mayor, intentionally making a scene. It works, riling up some men watching — including Hardman. Hardman and a companion find Ridgeway and Homer later, offering to help.
When the debate finally begins, Gloria tells a story about the origins of the farm: “A woman came to us, out of the bitter winter, sick and desperate, and we didn’t take her, because we felt we couldn’t save her. And being here as we were, two negroes living under the cover of their own skin, the risk was just too great. When I look in this room, I see that woman’s face in each and every one of yours.”
Despite the optimism of this story, the residents never make it to a vote. In a long, real-time scene, Mingo and John Valentine have an impassioned, thrilling debate about the philosophies and possibilities that animate the future of the farm. I won’t quote too much from it here, as it’s heady, and worth rewatching to experience the nuances in their arguments and the back-and-forth as they address each other’s argument. Notably, they argue over the importance of what they call “delusion” — of believing in it anyway, or not. “Sometimes a useful delusion is better than a useless truth,” Valentine says. But Valentine also returns to Mingo a line Mingo’s previously cut from his notes: “Nothing was given. All was earned. Hold on to what belongs to you.”
As the debate proceeds, though, we also watch a group of white men slowly surround the church. And when Valentine finishes his speech — “if there’s one thing I know about every white man that I have ever known, it’s that if you give him a piece he’s coming for all of it” — they burst through the door and shoot him. Mingo, Sybil, and Samson are all shot inside the church, among others, but eventually they reach a stalemate. The attackers in the church have been killed or driven back, but the white men still surround it. In a grim tactic, the men in the church use a body as a decoy to disarm the attackers, and rush out. When the shooting first began, Judge Smith asked why the men did this, and Hardman said, “He said it hisself. The whole farm full of men like him. Well, that’s just too many.”
Slightly away from the church — and slightly less vigilant — Royal and Cora encounter a mob straggler. He shoots Royal, and Ridgeway shoots him before he can shoot Cora, too. The chaos gives him a way around the warrant and he scoops up a screaming Cora, demanding to be taken to the railroad. She takes him to the ghost tunnel, and we know how this will end up from the prologue — the two of them falling down the hole. Ridgeway descends after Cora, Homer standing watch with a gun. When he gazes up toward the light coming from the trapdoor, she pulls him off the rope. I love this sequence — they fall in slow motion, Cora now above Ridgeway, and then she goes full speed as they hit the ground. He breaks her fall and his bones crack as she rolls off of him from the momentum.
Homer drops his gun at the top to go to Ridgeway, and Cora and him get in a standoff. The gun Homer pulls from Ridgeway’s body is empty; Cora doesn’t bash anyone with a rock. Cora almost leaves on the handcart, but changes her mind — she goes back up to the farm, where the fight continues. But Molly finds her, and the two of them return to the tunnel. Ridgeway, not quite dead, is still telling Homer what to do, telling Cora he’ll find her. Cora takes the gun Homer had dropped up top, and as she approaches Ridgeway we see flashes of all the people she’s lost because of him. The camera watches her face as she shoots him three times; she sheds a tear, but not for him.
• This episode was written by Barry Jenkins. The song played at the end is Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.”
• Not the universe BEGGING for Cora to give her testimony, only for it to be received poorly by Mingo and put her status at the farm in limbo.
• Judge Smith: “You should’ve let ’em win a little. Wouldn’t hurt to not parade around how as good as white men you are every chance you get.”
• Mingo: “But I am, Peyton. But I am.” I’m struck by how bold this exchange feels. Mingo is right, yet it’s this idea, this fear, that drives so much anti-Blackness to this day.
• Tracking the gun: Ridgeway has a gun on him, but he also takes Royal’s gun after his death and gives it to Homer. Homer dumps that gun when he goes into the ghost tunnel to check on Ridgeway after his fall, but tries to use Ridgeway’s gun on Cora, only it’s out of bullets. When Cora returns to the ghost tunnel with Molly she picks up Royal’s gun at the top, a small piece of him. It’s this gun she uses to shoot Ridgeway.
• Olivia’s invocation of Cora’s mother is sweet, but Cora bristles: “You’s a mighty fine woman Miss Cora, I’m sure your mama real proud of you.”
• I chuckled when Sybil teases Cora about Royal, and she gets even by telling Molly: “Your mama just trying to marry me off so she can move Samson in here.”
• Mingo to John Valentine: “That’s the thing. We’re not the same. Folks look at you. They’d never believe you were ever in chains. But look at me. Look at me and they refused to believe I could ever be free.” I love this exchange. It tells us a little bit about the consequences and outcomes of colorism at the time.
• Even having read the book, knowing this scene was on its way — I’m so saddened by how there can be so much loss at the hands of whiteness and its supremacy being threatened. I’m really feeling the grief.
• Reading Railroad: Black Futures, edited by Jenna Wortham and curator Kimberly Drew.