The Underground Railroad
The fire follows Cora out of North Carolina. In an ash-worn field, fire and smoke covering the ground, we watch a procession: Cora, walking alongside Ridgeway’s wagon, hands and ankles cuffed and chained; horses steered by Homer and Boseman; runaway Jasper (Calvin Leon Smith) in back. Ridgeway, on his own horse, circles and surveils the group, making sure no one tries to run.
This scene takes its time, much like most of “Chapter 5: Tennessee - Exodus”; it tells us that what’s to come will be an exercise in endurance. Through the length of this episode, we learn a bit more about each character as they talk, traveling alongside them as they crawl their way across a burning Tennessee.
This episode is about a handful of returns. Ridgeway plans to take Cora back toward Georgia, but as Cora notices from the position of the sun, they’re headed west, not south. The travelers that the group encounters on the way there are fleeing not just the fire but also yellow fever. So why are they heading that direction? When Boseman says, “That old man whistles, you just come running,” we understand it’s because Ridgeway’s heading home.
When Ridgeway showed up in North Carolina and finds Cora, it was unexpected. “I figure you’re itching to find out how I really caught up with you in North Carolina, hmm?,” he starts. “Truth is, you were a surprise.” Ridgeway had heard the mention of a “station” after an abolitionist was apprehended in Southern Virginia, so he thought he’d do some detective work. “No sooner had I arrived than I found you,” he finishes. Ridgeway is obsessed with narrativizing his experience, seeing himself and Cora as fated antagonists to one another.
This isn’t his only eye for literary dramatics. The origin of the fires can’t be agreed upon. Ridgweway simply says it’s due to a “lightning strike,” but Boseman has other thoughts. They’re on Cherokee land — in fact, on “The Trail of Tears — and death,” as Boseman puts it. “Must’ve done something to make God angry,” he says, implying that maybe God or the universe has stepped in here, punishing the white folks for their wrongdoing with fire. Ridgeway, master of explaining his wrongs away, says, “No. Just a spark got away is all. Just a spark.” Later, Ridgeway follows a fleeing man on horseback. We hear a gunshot and Ridgeway returns with his bag of food.
From his first line of dialogue, we know he’s despicable — he says something to Cora never worth repeating. He spends his time drunk, getting in tiffs with Ridgeway, or trying to get his hands on Cora. One night, drunk around the campfire, he pushes Ridgeway even more, frustrated with their plans to keep moving forward.“Tennessee is cursed,” he says, “… keep going and we’re gonna starve. And for what, your tortured soul?” Later, Homer tattles on Boseman. “It was he who undid [Cora’s] chains today. With an eye towards indecency, sir.” Ridgeway hits him and pours out his beer in punishment. Angry, Boseman says that if he leaves, Ridgeway will only have Homer to beat on and talk to. “I bet he’ll like it, he says, “All that talk about not believing in the Great Spirit … The Great Spirit didn’t believe in you!” He’s gone too far. Ridgeway shoots him twice, killing him.
Homer at least sees something wrong with the treatment of Cora through Boseman’s advances. Even more, Cora finally asks the question I’ve been most curious about, “How long he been with you?” Ridgeway explains:
“I bought him. Down in Atlanta from a butcher who was trying to settle a debt. Paid five dollars for him. Something about the disposition in the boy appealed to me. Don’t know why … I’d never owned a slave before in my life. Thought of that did not appeal to me. So … I drew up emancipation papers the very next day. Tried to shoo him away and he followed me.”
Cora challenges this idea that Homer is free or has agency here. Buying a child to then free him might not leave that child with many options. Cora asks, “You make him lock himself up at night?” after noticing how Homer sleeps. “Oh, that,” Ridgeway starts, “he says it’s the only way he can get hisself to sleep.”
Thanks to the frame and duration of this episode, we hear more from Cora than we have before. We get to witness her personality, and even humor, come out a bit. When Ridgeway asks if she’s “itching” to find out how he found her, she says “No … But it seem like you’re itching to tell me.” I laughed a little.
When he gives his explanation, Cora levels up the pressure:
Cora: “So it was luck? And all over this land they talk about Arnold Ridgeway, ‘the Great Slave Catcher’ having some kind of divine gift.”
Ridgeway: “You rest assured that I would have scooped you up sooner or later.”
Cora: “The same way you scoop up my mama?”
I gasped! It’s great to watch her be able to do this and take some power. But Ridgeway retaliates, describing Lovey’s death in detail for Cora — how Terrance Randall “hooked through the ribcage with a spike” on the gallows, where she stayed alive for two days. Ridgeway draws the story out, but the camera focuses the entire time on Cora, quietly weeping.
The standout scene of this episode for me is Cora’s conversation with Jasper that night. When he doesn’t respond, she ends up talking to those she thinks have passed — it’s an exciting way for her to say her good-byes in the form of little elegies.
First to her mother, Mabel, she says, “Mama you there? I know you are. You up north having a grand old time. If we ever meet, I’ma kick you square in the teeth. That’s a promise.”
Second to Lovey: “Hey Lovey, what you doin girl? I’m sorry over what happened. I know you alive somewhere. I know you lookin down. I miss you.”
Third to Caesar: “Caesar (she whispers) If I could go back. I’d do things different. But I think you know that. One day, I’m gon’ see you again, and I’m gon’ make it right.”
Finally, to Grace: “Grace, you strong. You stronger than me. You ain’t chained to no wagon. You’re free.”
Jasper has spent the entire trip not eating and not speaking, save for singing hymns. Cora’s elegies, though, get him to talk to her: “Praise the Lord you ran out of words.” Jasper’s grumpy, but they talk about Florida, and why he doesn’t eat: “What’s the point?” When Cora says that he’s given up he responds, “I ain’t given up. I’m free. Can’t nobody touch me.”
In the final act of the episode, Ridgeway and Homer get distracted hunting raccoon. Unsurveilled, Cora runs away. She finds a lake — this is where we saw her in the first episode’s prologue, with the same melody playing, her in the same outfit. Unlike in the prologue, though, we don’t linger on her face — Cora slowly walks into the lake, her hands still cuffed. She moves slower and slower as the water gets progressively deeper, and the camera moves to an aerial shot as her head disappears underwater.
Instead of staying at the lake, we cut to Jasper in the back of the wagon, releasing his last breath. When we return to the lake, Ridgeway is “rescuing” Cora, dragging her out. He spins her over and hits her in the back to knock the water out of her. She coughs. “Dying’s not easy!” he says to her. “Is this what you want? He puts a gun to her throat, then removes it. “It ain’t that easy.”
As punishment, Homer and Ridgeway chain Cora up to Jasper’s corpse for the night. Before they depart, Ridgeway leaves Jasper’s grey body in the dirt. Ridgeway returns to his horse beside the wagon, surveilling Cora just as the episode began.
• “Chapter 5: Tennessee - Exodus” is written by Nathan C. Parker. The song played during the closing is Jasper/Calvin Leon Smith, singing “Down By The Riverside.”
• Ridgeway, Drama King, really shot that man for his bag of food! His fireside monologue about the resiliency of okra … he loves a symbol.
• While Boseman is an awful person, it’s nice to encounter someone that’s just sick of Ridgeway and his antics. Between Boseman’s, Cora’s, and Jasper’s final words to him he really gets dragged!
• Cora: “The white folk of Tennessee got what’s coming to ’em. But if there’s such a thing as justice, what I ever do?”
• Thuso Mbedu’s performance in this episode is STELLAR. I can’t get over how nice it is to hear Cora laugh (however briefly) once Jasper begins speaking. Calvin Leon Smith’s performance makes his brief presence so haunting. (Which reminds me of Brian Tyree Henry’s brilliant, similarly brief entrance and exit in If Beale Street Could Talk.)
• The exchange between Cora and (an at first silent) Jasper might be the longest we’ve gotten so far — it’s captivating!
Jasper: “I was a picker.”
Cora: “With them skinny arms?”
• Jasper’s fate is different than it is in the book, and this version rounds out his character. The Bible verse that Jasper recites seems to be Psalms 137:9;” Happy … shall he be who taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.”
• Well this was a bleak, difficult midway point. If I weren’t recapping, this might be the point where I took a break from the show for a while, not because I don’t want to see it reach its conclusion, but just because now five hours in, it’s been so much loss. I need to sit with all that’s transpired for a while.
• This episode provides some interesting insight to how these characters think about death and escape. Cora thinks Jasper’s unwillingness to eat is giving up, but he doesn’t see it that way. Jasper thinks Cora’s attempts to run away are futile, but she doesn’t see it that way.
• Reading Railroad: I have two books of poetry as recommendations for this installment and the themes encountered across the colonized Tennessee we see burning; (1) Build Yourself a Boat by Camongne Felix, who interviewed Barry Jenkins about the show; and (2) Whereas by Layli Long Soldier.