Rosalee and Ernestine must learn how to survive, both in body and mind
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.