Immediately the show sucks us in with intense music and the dramatic chase of a slave hunt. The characters are intriguing, compelling us to want to know more. Each character contributes to the plot, building a storyline that’s hard to turn away from. You want to know these people; who they are, how they came to their way of thinking, and the interdependence of their lives.
Not many cons in this episode. There are a lot of storylines introduced that intermingle together. The show presents hard truths that will draw many to watch, but may also offend some viewers, but any show laying out the ugliness and brutality of slavery will always have a negative impact on some.
Episode 1 runs you through the gambit of emotions in the best way possible!
Underground creators, Misha Green who wrote for Sons of Anarchy and Joe Pokaski producer for Heroes, Daredevil, and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, scored big with the season premiere of the show. This episode gave viewer so much to think about and feel. We immediately connected with the characters, regardless of love or hate, we felt intensely about the people in this show. Anyone who’ve had any background with the history of slavery will recognize the roles each character play, yet each character still gave us something new, a perspective that has been missing in so much of the slavery narrative…hope and determination, a need for something more. We experience the oppression with a newfound anger and desire for something more. The slaves in the Underground knew they deserved better and meant to get it!
Director, Anthony Hemingway known for his work on the Wire and Treme, introduces us to the show with Noah (Aldis Hodge), running through the woods to the insane beats of Kanye West’s Black Skinhead. Our hearts race as we watch Noah weave through the branches, hiding from the predators chasing him. Trying to escape who, we don’t know and we don’t care. As the music intensifies, we hold our breath to see if he escapes. Before we can find out, they cut to another scene. It was like sitting and watching the opening scene of some big budget movie on the big screen. Not many times does a television show demand our attention in such a jarring way from the very moment the show opens. You got to love it!
“Fear is something powerful. Ain’t no fear like the fear you have for your child.” – Ernestine
What’s more charge with emotion than a mother’s love for her children? We worry enough about our kids in this day and age. Can you imagine having children in the 1800’s? Your flesh and blood born into a time, if Black, they could be taken away and sold, worked in the fields until almost dead, or broke and beaten until death is a welcomed solace. The mothers on the Underground make our hearts break for them. Ernestine (Amirah Vann) loves her children fiercely. She has protected them with whatever she has to do, but Suzanna Macon (Andrea Frankle), the master’s wife, will take every opportunity to make Ernestine’s life hell. Even though we hate Suzanna for what she stands for and how she seems to take so much pleasure in her place in the world, she too is doing what she believed is right for her children. Then, we meet Seraphina. She breaks all of our hearts with the sacrifice she made because of her love for her baby. Any mother terrorized by so much fear that she believes death is better than life is broke to the core. These women, these mothers, are all fighting for survival and to carve out a better life for their children no matter what the cost may be. Those of us with children can connect with these ladies. We grieve for them. We cheer them on. We scream at then to understand. And in the end, all we want to do is pray they find the safe harbor they desire for their children. Let’s take a deeper look into the Underground pilot.
Trust should’ve been a four letter word! There’s a constant struggle to understand who people can trust.
Yes. This is a show about slavery so it’s difficult to understand who to trust. Christopher Meloni lived up to the bar he set on Law and Order SVU. He plays August Pullman. August seems to be a complicated man. Not sure just how to feel about him yet. While he committed some conniving and despicable acts, there’s something that doesn’t make us immediately hate him. It was amazing to watch the ease he had lying to the runaway slave, making her believe he was some type of angel saving her, while all along he knew he planned to turn her in for the money.
John (Marc Blucas) and Elizabeth (Jessica De Gouw) Hawkes are an interesting pair. John is an attorney who’s fighting for the rights of slaves. Elizabeth is a house wife like most women during this era. She’s struggle with the fact that she can’t have a child. The Hawkes live up north close to the Ohio River. John is approached to help with the movement of the Underground Railroad. When John presents this information to Elizabeth, she tells him he needs to think about his family. John is also on the fence, easily swayed to play it safe. While we want them to “do the right thing,” the danger they would risk would make anyone think twice. These characters make us understand the dilemma abolitionists suffered during the pre-Civil War era. The writers built layered persona which gives John and Elizabeth depth. While we root for John’s passion for equal rights, we understand Elizabeth’s and his personal struggles and see the connectivity of the two as they make decisions.
“It’s going to be the slaves left behind that’s going to pay the price. That’s why I don’t want to be left behind.” – Cato
There’s always one…Cato (Alano Miller) is the slave that assist the overseer. A lot of times this role is seen as a traitor or someone to watch out for by the other slaves. They know that Cato is for himself. He will do what’s in the best interest of him, always. You can’t ever trust someone who’s only concern is for the betterment of themselves. The jury is still out on Cato. His blatant extortion of Noah is off putting. He’s playing both sides to get to his end game. Do we fault him for wanting to surviving, even when it’s at the expensive of his fellow slaves? Why is it that we feel so conflicted about those who play along with the villain in order to flourish? Is it that they work with the bad guy that infuriates us or that they are willing to sacrifice their fellow man that’s the trigger? The character’s in Underground make you want to know more, understand their motives, especially those who walk the line of morality.
Why run? When does death become an acceptable risk to escaping the life we live?
Perspective is everything. Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) has been born and raised on the planation as a house slave. Her experience is different than the field slaves. She has had the opportunity to sleep in the main house. She hadn’t experienced the brutality of those not in her position. Her mother as protected her, but as she starts to make her own decision to protect those she love, the sting of reality begins to wake her up. Smollett-Bell fit this role perfectly. She balances the naivety of being raised in the main house with the harsh truth of what slavery really is. We feel why she can’t understand the reasoning of a mother who would rather kill her child than bring them into slavery and when she took the whipping from the overseer for her little brother. And a knot built in our stomachs as we watched the Macons sit on the porch taking in the scene as if this was as normal as brushing our teeth. Tasting the sting of the whip puts a new taste in Rosalee’s mouth. Her world is viewed through a new lens. Then, Noah enters her protected world bringing additional flavor to her experience.
“I can’t even imagine what being free would be like.” – Rosalee
Noah knows he wants more than what his life offers today. We love the strength and confidence of his character. Not many times do movies or shows about slavery show slaves who are smart, brave, and bold in a not so quiet way. Noah’s a natural leader. He understands how to influence others and uses this to his advantage. How many times have we had the opportunity to see a flame burn bright in the fight for slavery from this vantage point? Blatant and unapologetic? Noah meets a slave while with the hunters that promises the map to escape north. Noah wants the information bad enough to use his own blood to make a copy of the message carved into the wall of the prison. Armed with the “map,” he returns to his planation to gather resources to run.
Noah begins to recruit others to run with him. He goes to Moses because he believes Moses can read. Moses is the preacher for the slaves. He hides the fact that his wife is the one who can actually read not him. It makes sense to seek out someone who can read and also provide spiritual guidance to the group. Noah’s been preparing Henry (Renwick Scott) to run. Henry looks up to Noah. It’s like a big brother situation. Noah also turns his focus on Sam (Johnny Ray Gill), Rosalee’s half-brother. Sam is a carpenter by trade. He’s been working, saving money because he believes he can buy back his freedom. Zeke is devastated by the loss of his son. The impact of knowing your wife killed your only child to not have him born into slavery is overwhelming. He needs another way out and is an asset with his strength. The secondary character, if we can call them that, in the Underground are dynamic. The quality of acting and robust storylines brings these people to life. We feel their pain, understand their journey, and fear for their hope. At no point in this episode are you not connected and embedded into this world.
Final Verdict: Underground is a fast paced, emotion driven journey into the past that leaves us breathless and wanting more.
Creators, Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, gave us a window into a world we knew but through a lens of strength and pride instead of oppression and despair. History is a tricky creature to capture. Its moods and presentation is always in the voice of the storyteller. Finally, someone is telling the story from the voice of those determine to overcome their circumstances. Yes. All the stories talk about slavery ending. We hear about some slaves who contributed to the movement, even then their stories are tainted with the fear of the time. This is one of the few times slaves are not portrayed as weak or downtrodden. The show gave each character a purpose and strength. We understand and THEY understand their value. This is what’s been missing!
Let’s talk about the amazing production of this episode. Who pairs Kanye West’s Black Skinhead with a show about slaves? Brilliance. That song added to the urgency and relevance of the opening scene. Then they continued to layer music purposefully throughout the show, mixing old negro spirituals with more current day beats to create this connection of old and new, luring us into the scenes, like Pied Piper with his flute. We can understand why music plays such a large role in this series with someone like John Legend as an executive producer on the show. It’s almost as if the composition is another character we fall in love with.
The costuming and set bring us into the 19th century. Karyn Wagner is accredited with a long list of movies which she designed for such as The Green Mile, The Notebook, Eve’s Bayou, and Friday Night Lights. The costumes fit the period, paying attention to the details of each role from a field slave to a house slave to the master and his wife. The series is set in Baton Rouge, LA which provides the southern back drop of woods and swamps. Plantations are also a backdrop of the Louisiana landscape. It would be interesting to learn if the show used one of the standing plantations or created something specific for the production.
This episode was everything we wanted and more. The only thing that could deter views from watching the show is the actual topic of the show. Slavery can be a very sensitive subject, especially with the unapologetic truth of it. Some, both White and Black, may be turned away with how honest and raw the show portrays the brutality of the era. But if you can stomach the truth, Underground is absolutely worth your time!
Questions, Comments, and Concerns:
- Tears when Rosalee holds the baby in her hands. How bad is life when that’s a better option?
- Who can understand the strength of the women raising children in slavery?
- The way Noah looks at Rosalee!
- Emotions from anger to fear to tears!
- They need a soundtrack for this series.
- Who wants to smack Mrs. Macon?
Underground Review 1×01: The Macon 7