There are two moments in this week’s Underground that set the stage for what this truly brilliant episode of television will be about. The first moment is in the requisite opening teaser with Daniel, whose reading is getting better by the week (though we don’t know how much time has actually passed for him within the show itself), even though his wife warned him of the consequences of getting caught reading. This week, he reads an article from the newspaper to his daughter, and not just any article — it’s a transcript of Sojourner Truth’s beautiful “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. His daughter is surprised to know that blacks are talking like this up north, but the crux of the speech she gets from her father, who tells her that as a woman — as a black woman, especially — she’s strong in both body and mind.
The second moment comes from Patty Cannon’s traveling historian, Mr. Donahue. In the Cannon-Johnson Gang’s pursuit of the “Black Rose,” Donahue points out a “scientific” concept that looms over this entire episode: “Well it is widely believed, in some scientific circles, that the negro woman has an almost supernatural ability to bear pain. Perhaps that came into play.” As far as theories about black people go, that certainly falls far more into the positive #BlackGirlMagic camp than something like the idea of black people having an extra bone in their foot, making them faster. (Not to get too off topic, but the latter is literally something one of my college roommates was shocked to find out was not at all true.)
But both moments are integral to this episode, because while there’s not necessarily a “supernatural” element to the pain both Ernestine and Rosalee bear (whether they want to or not), there certainly is an element of necessity — one that Donahue, as well-intentioned as he appears to be, couldn’t possibly grasp. It’s a necessity that Patty Cannon — who at least shares with Ernestine and Rosalee the designation of being a woman — couldn’t grasp either, because to her, necessity begins and ends with money… and she has a luxury simply based on the color of her skin to make that so. This is an episode that strives to show the parallels between mother and daughter, as well as where they diverge, and Patty Cannon — as much of a blowhard as Underground is proving her to be, albeit a dangerous blowhard — is the perfect contrast to that. And before moving on, let’s just give props to both Jurnee Smollett-Bell and Amirah Vann, as they take this episode and hold it up on their shoulders. Underground has a fantastic ensemble, but let’s never assume that the ensemble is a necessary crutch for the show.
Ernestine’s story kicks off the episode in a heart-achingly perfect transition from Daniel’s point about black women’s strength. Strength is obviously something Ernestine’s currently lacking, and it should be acknowledged just how jarring it still is to see her in this form compared to her season 1 form (which this episode constantly flashes back to). Even more jarring is just how beautiful the Roe Plantation and the beach are, especially with all the sadness there. This week, Ernestine’s high delusions are causing her to see the ghost of Sam. They’re also causing her to just daze off at the beach and miss work, which means Hicks has to cover for her to the overseer. This episode serves as a reminder that Hicks is still not a great guy, but at the same time, Ernestine gravitated to him in the first place because she felt she deserved that punishment… and he sort of realizes that himself here. It’s apparent just how much Ernestine is spiraling, getting downright bold in how she tells Hicks, “Ain’t nobody ask you to save me,” after he points out how he covered for her; she clearly wants to make a scene in front of everybody, but Hicks won’t bite. Of course, he assumes this is only about Clara, and he gives the classic abuser response (as Janet Jackson sang): “You mad about that girl? She ain’t mean nothing.”
Sadly, poor “ain’t mean nothing” Clara is enduring a shaming ritual from the other slaves — led by her father, the Gullah slave preacher Table Tapper (Keith Arthur Bolden) — for aborting the baby and not revealing the father.
Patty makes it clear that “Black Rose” is only good to them alive, not just because of the money, but because a live “Black Rose” leads them to Rosalee. And to be fair, while Patty isn’t dealing with the same struggles as Ernestine and Rosalee, this episode does show that, for all her bluster, she truly is good at what she does. She’s aware of the old turkey feather trick (stuffed in clothing) to avoid buckshot (which Rosalee used, but it didn’t stop her from getting a bullet to the shoulder), and she’s a good tracker. She also puts two and two together that “Black Rose” is Rosalee of the Macon 7, worth $1,000 when turned in as opposed to the average runaway slave’s $500. She knows what she’s doing. She just clearly has a weak spot when it comes to her pride (in addition to that whole slave catcher thing).
Rosalee’s pain, you see, is all purely of the physical nature — the body to Ernestine’s mind. She’s alone in the woods, bleeding from the shoulder. All she can do is survive. As badass as it is, no one would blame you if you admit to getting very queasy as Rosalee tends to her wound. She removes the bullet from her shoulder, smacks some dirt on it, and cauterizes the wound with a gun… going deaf in the process from the gunshot. (Luckily she knows how to read the moss and follow the trail.) So in addition to all the rest of the pain, Rosalee spends the rest of this episode deaf. And for the most part, the episode makes sure the audience experiences what she experiences — though it has no problem forcing us to hear the sound of her (just to jump ahead real quick) biting Jack’s ear off.
It’s here, as Rosalee’s dressing her wound, that we get the first of this episode’s many flashbacks, as Young Rosalee and Ernestine jump on a bed together at the Macon Plantation big house. It’s surprisingly sweet, especially compared to the versions of Rosalee and Ernestine we were introduced to in the pilot. But the point of this is, as Ernestine explains to her daughter: “This life be hard. And unfair. You gon’ know pain and ain’t much I can do about that. But every once in awhile, we can steal moments like this one. If you can hold on to them, it’ll help you through the hard times. Understand? Good.” Ernestine even makes a joke about setting Patty Cannon on Rosalee if she doesn’t make the bed perfectly, and that (and the adrenaline Rosalee injects) jolts us back to the present.
Ernestine, on the other hand, flashes back to her pregnancy with Sam and the happiness she and French felt coming up with names. We learn that Ernestine’s first baby was taken away from her, but French promises he won’t let that happen to this one. Technically, he was right, but as we — and ghost Sam — all know, they still managed to take this baby away from her.
The thing about this episode is how quiet it is in comparison to other episodes. And that’s not even because of Rosalee’s deafness; it’s because of the introspection and because of how it’s all just about the simple matter of survival. Jurnee Smollett-Bell has the most difficult job in this episode, because for 95 percent of it, she has absolutely no one else to play off of. (Acting is reacting, after all.) But even with all the people Amirah Vann has to bounce off of, Ernestine is clearly still always alone in her scenes, whether she’s with an actual living person or a “ghost.”
Table Tapper tries to get through to Ernestine, telling her that the pain she feels thrives on isolation and that she’s not in this alone, but at that does is remind her that she is in this alone. The next flashback of her is tending to French after he’s been lashed to death, with a young Sam asking her, “Will you do this for me, Momma?” If anything was going to set her into motion as the Ernestine we knew from season 1, it would have to be that.
You know what else thrives on isolation? Leeches, which get all over Rosalee after she crosses the river. That woman is definitely living a horror movie in this episode. Meanwhile, Patty Cannon has an entire gang, but that doesn’t stop them (well, Jack) from questioning her authority, and she sends Jack to cross the river alone to try and catch Rosalee. First of all, the fact that Jack’s whole argument against crossing the river is that the water is “cold as hell” is the ultimate bit of evidence when it comes to the black woman’s necessity in survival compared to her would-be captors. Second of all, Donahue makes the most amazing “oh snap” reaction to Patty just outright saying that she’s regularly sleeping with her second in command, Smoke (Jesse Luken), and if you’re looking for some type of levity in this episode, you can’t go wrong with the way Donahue reacts to and interacts with Patty Cannon.
So Jake follows orders and makes it to Rosalee (after Rosalee herself has vomited, gone in and out of consciousness, carefully hid from him, and then ended up getting caught… because she can’t hear), and he ends up earless and dead for his troubles. Thanks, Harriet Tubman. No, seriously: The flashback shows Harriet Tubman working with Rosalee, axing down a tree, and bonding over their stubborn mothers who made them the women they are today. “For [Ernestine], it was about making the best life inside the pain,” Rosalee says. “She’d do anything to protect her children.”
Now look at Ernestine. As she prepares to sing for Master Matthew (part of Hicks’ plan to keep her from getting punishment), she looks the most like she does in the flashbacks and did in season 1, but even now, it’s clearly all a facade. Ghost Sam even tells her as much, asking her why she looks like she’s going to a funeral when she’s going to her favorite place in the world: the big house. Sam even says she was “at [her] best” when she was in the big house, but a broken-down Ernestine finally questions that: “I was at my best when I was his whore?” Well, it’s hard to say she’s at her best now, getting high to prepare to sing (a choice even Hicks questions). Then again, Sam also shuts down the idea of Ernestine ever having any power or control in the first place, claiming she merely fattened him up for the slaughter. And now she’s singing for this new master? She never sang for anyone before.
In something of a twist, Master Matthew ends up being the type of guy who hates this lifestyle. He even sounds like a John Hawkes in training. (His friends are lushes, but they’re seemingly harmless lushes, with one of them drinking side by side with Hicks.) Matthew hates the idea of inheriting this plantation and speaks of his friend who inherited a plantation, a girl who was sweet as could be and hated the idea of being waited on hand and foot… and ended up becoming a monster to the slaves and everyone. He also speaks of things he’s heard of from the North, like how the term “bondage” (instead of “slavery”) captures how this practice affects both parties and warps them. It’s interesting, but it’s all cut short by Hicks calling Ernestine to sing. It almost sounds like, for a moment, Ernestine is willing to seduce these men… until you realize that her song is all about her relationship with Master Tom Macon. But it’s not just the good times, so what starts off sexy becomes amazing as she goes off script (at least, from Hicks’ side of things) and sing about how “she hung his bony ass.” Sam’s ghost loves it, and to be honest, the house slaves kind of do, too, and in that moment, it’s a bit cathartic. Sure, she snapped, but she didn’t play their little reindeer games.
But then you’ve got to realize that she’s playing with fire. Of course Hicks is pissed off with her afterward, though they’re lucky Matthew and his friends didn’t do anything to punish them. She blames Hicks, saying he knew she didn’t want to go to the big house (he didn’t), yelling that if he wants to be the master’s “bitch,” he can do that, but he needs to leave her out of it. Then she fights him. She loses — a punch to the nose does that — but then it becomes obvious she wants to lose. She eggs Hicks on to do it, as he holds back, questioning why she tries to get him to hurt her. And not in that “you make me hurt you even though I love you” way — she very clearly wants him to hurt and possibly kill her. Instead, they have sex as blood runs down her nose. No, it’s not sexy, obviously.
So obviously, we’ve seen Rosalee in flashback with her mentor (Harriet Tubman), but now it’s time to see young Ernestine with her own mentor… played by Angela Bassett. Yes, the best Underground episode of the season features a surprise cameo by Angela Bassett. There’s your proof of the power of spirits right there. Young Ernestine goes to Angela Bassett because she heard she knows how to “help” pregnant girls (the way Ernestine did with Clara), and Ernestine never wants to have children. (Ouch.) Even at this young age, Ernestine knew how to work things to her own advantage and into the big house: “I’m trying to protect myself. The only one trying. So I’ma use what I got.” Angela Bassett points out what ghost Sam said about Ernestine not being able to protect or control anything — but she’s got her looks, and that’s what will get her where she wants and needs to go. The key is to “cut [her] insides out” and be the cold, calculating woman we saw in season 1.
The thing is, what keeps Rosalee going is a desire to protect her literal insides: her baby. She literally hides underground to protect that. She attaches a leech to her leg — then eventually eats said leech — to remove snake venom to protect that. With Ernestine’s lack of desire or need to do the same, she decides to just end it all, taking a large rock and walking into the ocean with it (in a beautiful white dress). Ernestine sees the ghosts of Sam, French, and Pearly Mae as she goes, as she hopes to effectively cut both her inside and outside out. But while Ernestine is dying, Rosalee is also fading; it’s the most beautiful, aching, A-grade stuff of this episode. Only Rosalee is saved by wanting to save her baby, eventually reaching the horse and carriage that will provide a straight shot back to safety. Ernestine is yanked back to life by Hicks and the other slaves. Intervention, but is it divine? Will Ernestine even see it as such, or will she see it as more punishment for her to endure?
In a way, going from a Rosalee or Ernestine scene to a Patty Cannon scene kind of messes with the momentum of this episode, but it’s also clear that it’s intentional. As we see Rosalee and Ernestine go through some intense stuff, you have Patty, who thinks she’s hot stuff. And why? Because she has a gang of men do everything for her? Sure, even with her own legitimate skills — as Smoke points out, when Patty shoots, she doesn’t miss — she’s still just an example of the high life, not actually facing any true adversity, at least not compared to Rosalee or Ernestine. Yet she ends the episode so satisfied with herself, even though she’s absolutely done nothing in comparison. She got one of her men killed and posed for a photograph. And her latest plan is to get August Pullman to do her dirty work for her, which should also prove difficult, because the two of them definitely disagree on whether or not Rosalee should be captured dead or alive.