Seamlessly blending modern music in with a period show works, as always
Female characters with something to SAY
Diversity on and off camera
Amirah Vann's stunning change of circumstances
Sometimes it would be better to switch more frequently between storylines
The Underground premiere offers new faces, a catch up with old favorites, and an explosive ending we didn’t see coming
Season 2 of WGN America’s Underground premiered Wednesday, March 8th and came roaring back onto our screens. We were able to catch up on some of our favorite characters and had a chance to meet some new ones we love already. Underground also threw a curve ball at the end of the episode with a death we did not see coming. The show did a wonderful job of catching us up with where the majority of the main characters for season 1 are and how they’ve fared since then. As previously mentioned, Elizabeth (Jessica de Gouw) has made a connection with a group of abolitionist women led by Georgia (Jasika Nicole). These woman kick ass. They believe in emancipation through education but also believe that sometimes you need more than a book to make your point, so they’re also sharpshooters who take Elizabeth out for a little target practice. Meanwhile, Noah (Aldis Hodge) has been languishing in prison for the past five months while John (Marc Blucas) takes on the establishment to try to have him released. John’s no match for the establishment, however, and Noah is sentenced to hang. This leads to one of Underground’s usual breathtaking escape sequences, where unfortunately Noah is recaptured by slave catchers.
Ernestine (Amirah Vann) has been sold and is living out the monotony of life on a plantation in South Carolina. She’s holding herself apart from the other slaves with the exception of another slave she’s sleeping with who is also abusive. Oh yes, she’s also addicted to huffing something and is hallucinating the ghost of Pearlie Mae (Adina Porter) whom she killed last season. We finally get a glimpse of Rosalee’s new friend and mentor Harriet Tubman (Aisha Hinds). She proves she’s a pretty handy lady as she bargains for the life of a runaway slave. Tubman senses Rosalee is on a reckless path because she seems determined to rescue Noah at all costs, but she seems content to allow her to make her own way for now.
Beyond Georgia and her “sewing circle”, we also began the episode meeting Daniel (Bokeem Woodbine), a slave who is a skilled artisan (it was heartbreaking watching him hand all the money he made for his skills over to his owner) teaching himself to read. No sign of August (Christopher Meloni) and Cato (Alano Miller) but we know they can’t be too far away. There was also a big shock at the end of the episode that we didn’t see coming! Let’s take off the chains and dig a little deeper into the episode!
From a life on top to one below the bottom
Last season saw Ernestine as the mistress of her own destiny. She was a slave, but she was her master’s lover and clearly the boss. Too bad she lynched Tom in the last season’s finale and it backfires big time on her when his wife Suzanne places her on the auction block. Now she’s a Gullah slave (the lowcountry portion of South Carolina), addicted to some sort of opiate she huffs from a scarf she wears around her neck, and involved in a cycle of abuse with another slave who is abused in his turn by a foreman. Ernestine’s situation was crystallized by a brilliant piece of editing by Anthony Hemingway. Ernestine, day after day, the slaves singing the same song (incredibly powerfully, by the way), arranged in perfect rows with the exact same movements, with beautifully composed camera angles as the days spin on in endless monotony. It was the best moment of the episode.
“So this your life now?” -Pearly Mae
We are thrilled Vann is now a series regular and that Ernestine seems to be stepping further center stage. This episode made us really eager to watch Ernestine’s journey this season. We saw hints of her claiming some sort of agency for herself in sexual scene late in the episode, but we’re eager to see how she navigates the ghosts of her past (both literal and figurative) and moves forward.
The fact that this entire episode was propelled by women wasn’t lost on us. Between Rosalee and Tubman discussing Rosalee’s plans to rescue Noah herself, to the sewing circle welcoming Elizabeth to the grim monotony of Ernestine’s life, it was definitely lady-centric. Thanks to executive producer & director of his episode Hemingway along with writers Green and Pokaski for writing such rich, developed characters for women. Many shows right now are calling themselves empowering for women and claiming badass female characters, but though many shows talk the talk, Underground walks the walk. The show seems well ahead of the curve in terms of fully fleshed out female characters with nuance. There is a realism with their struggle for power and sense of self through the lens of slavery and the abolitionist movement that is at once captivating and educational (in a good way).
History: With Attitude (and Beyonce)
The premiere of Underground does what the show does best: Showcase history but in a way that constantly seems current. When you open with Beyonce, it makes total sense to see Harriet Tubman wielding two guns and generally kicking ass. Did she actually do that in real life? Who knows. But when a show makes a character this fun, who cares? Tubman’s entrance is electric and it would be easy for the character to fall into caricature. She’s a well-known historical figure and in less capable hands than Aisha Hinds (supported by excellent writing by Green and Pokaski) could turn really sappy, really quickly. Her generally kickass nature could veer off into the ridiculous but we never get that.
John Legend, one of the show’s executive producers, is responsible for choosing each piece of music on the show. This season he’s pulling double duty as he’s also appearing as Frederick Douglass (though Douglass didn’t appear in this episode). This episode’s second electric escape scene (which have become a feature of Underground) was accompanied by K Bishop’s “Shackles and Chains”. It’s a choice that works like a charm. But the other powerful musical moment came from the spiritual “Sinner You Can’t Hide” during Ernestine’s monotonous field work. Seamlessly intertwining traditional spirituals, hip-hop, and R&B? Legend crushed it here.
From Citizens to Soldiers
It is not a coincidence that Daniel’s only dialogue this episode is the world “soldier”. Before the premiere, Underground was asking this very question on their social media accounts. Each of the characters this episode have begun to ask this question of each other and themselves. Some of them have even started to formulate their answers. Elizabeth has decided she is no longer content to sit on the sidelines of the abolitionist movement. Yes, she brought her sewing needle to Georgia’s “sewing circle”, but you’d better believe she grabbed that gun and hit her target by the end of the scene. Sometimes characters in the show don’t have the agency to be soldiers. Early in the episode, Rosalee is working at a hospital someone demands her papers. Certainly, with her association to Harriet Tubman, Rosalee has chosen to be a soldier. At that moment, however, she has to choose her battles and produces falsified papers.
“The system was built with the best of intentions, but those in power have found a way to corrupt it.” -John Hawkes
John Hawkes chooses to be a soldier within the system. He spends the entire episode fighting to free Noah with an absolutely disgusting defense (as Noah is property, he can’t be tried as a murderer because he isn’t a person). Though the argument is sound, the judge simply overrules it. That kind of corruption is a slap in the face of John’s idealism, and it’s depressing watching Rosalee be proven right with her more realistic view of their situation. Determined to do more to combat this and further pressed towards more political action, John first mounts the daring rescue of Noah with Rosalee and then John announces himself a judicial nominee. This proves to be a fatal decision for John. You can’t push people who don’t want to be pushed, and John has been loud and vocal. In some of the final moments of the episode, someone calls John’s name before shooting him in the head right on the steps of the courthouse. This is a completely shocking moment. Up until now, we’ve seen the deaths of a great number of black characters who fight for the freedom, but how many white ones? And thus with this shocking death, the stakes are ratcheted up exponentially. Did John & Elizabeth foresee this consequence for themselves, really, with their literal white privilege?
Let’s hear it for the ladies
Underground lays a solid foundation for what promises to be an exciting season. Anthony Hemingway, who coincidentally is fresh off some directing triumphs with American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson, has really seemed to hit his stride with the show. Our only quibble with the series opener was that sometimes scenes felt long before we switched to another storyline. We weren’t necessarily bored, just getting a big restless. The overall tone of the show strikes the right balance between the many genres Underground seems to fall into. Misha Green and Joe Pokaski have set up a lot of storylines that we’re itching to see play out. What will the fallout be for Elizabeth now that John is dead? Will she double down with her abolitionist sentiments, or be too overwhelmed to continue? Who on earth has kidnapped Noah? Where are Cato & August? Will Ernestine break out of this horrendous new situation she’s in, or will she continue to spiral downward? We cannot wait to see.
Underground’s creators have set up a female-centric season that we will appeal to all audiences. It should also be mentioned that it’s a pleasure to see a series about people of color that has people of color executive producing, writing, directing- This shouldn’t be unique but unfortunately is. It’s a pleasure watching a quality show that really gets it right in terms of diversity. The current political climate made the show feel exceedingly relevant. It’s hard to watch and not experience moments of outrage, or moments you wince and almost have to look away from the screen. Underground has always felt timely – But never so much as moments in this episode watching a federal judge flout the law on his own whim or Elizabeth meet with a totally badass abolitionist version of a “sewing circle”.
Questions, Comments, Concerns:
- Did anyone else notice the costuming team’s attempts to cleverly hide Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s pregnancy?
- We’re curious about whether Ernestine’s lover/abuser is just one-dimensional or if there’s more to him that we’ll discover going forward.
- Poor Noah. He goes from one mess to another.
- Now that Elizabeth is a widow, we’re curious to see how she stands on her own.
- Will we ever get tired of the “formula” of the show (i.e. an escape or two an episode)?
- We can’t wait to catch up with the characters that were missing from this episode (especially August).
- Does anyone else watch this show with google in hand? I’ll admit I didn’t know much about Harriet Tubman beyond the fact that she was so instrumental in the underground railroad- does this show inspire anyone else but us to spontaneous historical research?
Underground airs on WGN America on Wednesdays at 10 ET
“Underground” Review [2×01]: Contraband