Underground recap: 'Nok Aaut'
Cato's freedom dream becomes Noah's waking nightmare
Something’s truly brewing on Underground. They’re on the precipice of true war, and this week’s episode finally puts things into that particular perspective. It all begins with Daniel, who’s asked by a fellow slave named Bo to read a seemingly important letter that was sent to their master. And it is important, as it kicks off just where we’re at in history and how much worse things are going to get before they get better: The letter is all about how “Kansas is bleeding,” with a fellow slaver suggesting that this master sell his slaves off down South to avoid a potential (or eventual) attack from John Brown and his men. It’s also here where one of the lessons of the episode is brought up, as Bo wants Daniel to teach him to read, not caring about the risk of getting caught. But to Daniel, that’s not what he should worry about: “Ain’t about the risk. Reading is a curse. All the words — they gave voice to feelings I never told nobody, not even my Bette. And I’m crushing under the weight of the knowledge. It opens up the world to you and shows you how small the one they got us chained to is.”
(Much later in the episode, Noah finds himself crushed by his own inability to have certain words at his disposal, but considering the way he beats himself up, Daniel is probably right that the weight of the alternative would kill him.)
As for the rest of the episode moving forward, after the absolute hell Rosalee endured in last week’s episode, she gets to take a break here. She made it to the tunnels, where Elizabeth and Georgia were able to find her, bring her home, and sedate her. The woman earned the rest. The sewing circle is planning an anti-slavery rally, hoping to sway citizens from voting for a pro-slavery legislator — especially since some of John Brown’s men will be in town for the rally and election, and if the vote doesn’t go their way, they’re not going to accept it peacefully. We also learn that Georgia surprisingly doesn’t fancy herself a public speaker and won’t be giving a speech at the rally, which Elizabeth is right to call out as being ridiculous; as we’ve constantly seen this season, Georgia’s quite the motivational speaker, and if not for her, Elizabeth probably would’ve assassinated someone in the aftermath of her husband’s death. Instead, we’ll just leave the assassinations to the Free-Staters, who Georgia warns Elizabeth are more men of action than men of words.
Take, for example, Lucas (Lane Miller), the leader of the Free-Staters who arrive at the boarding house. He and Georgia have quite the friendly debate, but it’s pretty clear they see things differently. To Lucas, the Free-Staters are merely speaking the language of the slaveholders with their violent acts: “Those who uphold the institution of slavery deal in brutality. Action is all that they understand.” And while Georgia argues that “we live in a peaceful society,” Lucas points out that “they” (slaveholders and their allies) unfortunately do not. Elizabeth eventually speaks up about how the wife and kids of the men fighting are the biggest victims, as their husbands and fathers and sons are “condemned” to slaughter. Hot take, but Lucas hits her with an even hotter take, specifically about how “the black ones are already condemned.”
Later, one on one, Elizabeth tries to figure out what makes Lucas so passionate about all of this, to try to figure out how his mind ticks, only to be fed an amazingly made-up story. Why would he do such a thing? “Slavery is wrong. I know that. You know that. Your late husband knew it. He was shot in cold blood because of it. Now ain’t that enough reason to take up arms? To end it?” Can’t get more of a convincing argument, and Elizabeth clearly realizes that. It’s the same reason she eventually turns the rally — after Georgia has too much stage fright to read the speech she ended up writing — into a call to action. It’s the same reason she is about to throw a bottle in retaliation after a man throws a rock at her head during her speech (and only doesn’t because Georgia grabs her and takes her back to safety).
It’s easy to say that Elizabeth’s attraction to the Free-Staters’ way of things is a symptom of her grief over John’s brutal murder, but at the same time, this extremism has arguably always been bubbling under the surface for her. While she was obviously proud of John when he told her he was going to become a judge to legally effect change, it was somewhat apparent that she had hoped he was going to go with a more “active” approach to things. What Lucas and the rest of John Brown’s men are doing as Free-Staters — while she may initially talk about how they can only lead to more suffering — is more in line with the action she’s hoped for and buries deep inside. Just like how her initial meeting with the sewing circle had her shocked by the fact that they were engaging in target practice… only to be a crack shot herself. She doesn’t want to admit that she’s this extreme, this angry, but with the way things are going, it was all only a matter of time.
On the other side of things, we catch back up with Cato and Noah. As the previouslies remind us, Noah left Cato behind with an arrow in the leg — and a knife, to give him a fighting chance — while being chased by Patty Cannon’s slave catchers, and Cato somehow ended up getting the upper hand. He also ended up with a bunch of money, and honestly? If you win in that kind of situation, you deserve all that money. So the episode has a good amount of flashbacks to what Cato has been up to in the past four months, and it all starts with a British-Indian woman named Devi (Rana Roy). Post-windfall, Cato moved to Europe, and based on the flashbacks, boy did they love his money in England and France and Ireland. And he himself loved Devi. They danced and partied all over Europe, with him flaunting his wealth and her just trying to get to know the real him. But according to Cato, if she knew what he’d done, “you wouldn’t see a man, you would see a monster.” But still, she’d tell Cato she wasn’t going anywhere, and she told the truth. It was Cato who did the going, after she’d help him channel all of his rage and anger into amateur boxing. (You know, as you do.) He even proposed to her. But eventually, he decided to leave her (with the deed to his flat as a parting gift), unable to fully accept a loving relationship or a world where he wasn’t getting hurt.
In the present, it’s just Cato in his own big house in Philadelphia, waited on hand and foot by his white servants. It’s a life of decadence and obscene wealth, but it doesn’t completely scream “new money” or “look at how rich I am.” (There’s no 1800s equivalent of a massive Scarface poster, whatever that might be.) Noah is more unnerved, but at least he gets a shave out of all of this, because it’s all emotionally downhill from here. He goes to lunch with Cato, hoping for an explanation as to what’s going on, but it’s mostly Cato tearing Noah down (after he gives him his ring, at least) for always being the man with “a plan.” We saw it when Noah was in prison, we obviously saw it to begin the series — Cato’s not wrong about Noah in that context. But Cato’s specific point is about how Noah’s plans have a funny way of ending up getting everyone but himself (and Rosalee) killed or at least left for dead (like he was). “Truth be told, I don’t think you ever think about that what happens after your brilliant plans,” he tells him. And because he knows Noah, he knows that he’s holding a knife under the table, and he also knows the way Noah would attempt to fight his way out of the restaurant, and through all of Cato’s hired guns. Boy does Cato have a lot of hired guns. So Noah puts the knife down in the most dramatic way possible, but that doesn’t resolve things, not by a long shot.
Cato just can’t stop dwelling on Noah’s survival over the rest of the Macon 7 or why his and Rosalee’s “freedom dream” is supposedly more important than anyone else’s. It’s here where we’re reminded that Cato’s bitterness, and pettiness isn’t very flattering and never has been: He’s so clearly “won,” and yet he’s still not pleased. He’s still upset by the little that Noah has. (Are we to truly believe he cares about Moses’ or Henry’s deaths?) For some reason, I just can’t get Hamilton’s “Satisfied” out of my head. Noah is able to momentarily turn the verbal sparring tables on Cato by essentially telling him that money can’t buy class (or equality to white people) because everyone knows he’s not really “good enough” for this life. But Cato turns it around to say that Noah wouldn’t have even made it off the plantation without his help. Or Moses’ help. Or Henry’s help. It’s that guilt trip that has Noah at least admit that their deaths are on him and that he’d “do anything” to change that… a declaration that Cato wants to put to the test.
Enter seven slaves on Cato’s property and Cato’s proposal: If Noah goes back down South with the slaver, Cato will buy all of these men and women their freedom. Basically Noah’s life for theirs. Noah, however, after struggling — Cato teases him for no longer being “fairly certain” what he’d do in such a position — says no to this deal, sending the slaves on his way. And officially sending him and Cato into a fight, because there was truly only one way this was going to end. Only, it’s obvious (and later confirmed) that Cato is throwing this fight. But maybe he doesn’t need to, as Noah ends up having that knife. Yes, he brought a knife to a fist fight. Cato calls out the fairness of that, but Noah’s absolutely right when he says “ain’t nothing fair about this.” And while he could kill Cato right here, he won’t help add to the number of dead black men. It’s a nice moment, of course buttoned by Cato ordering his men to escort Noah off the premises. To where? William Stills. Not prison, not another slaver — to a man who knows his people and can help him be free. The only punishment Noah receives is the guilt he has from people calling him a hero, when he certainly doesn’t feel like one.
And it turns out Cato did buy those seven slaves’ freedom and had them sent to Canada. So why the act? Other than the fact that he truly does resent Noah, it allows him to get in that bit of self-loathing (allowing Noah to beat him and potentially kill him) while also letting him play the monster (as he did with Devi to end their relationship). This is his twisted version of a freedom dream. He could have had a rich life of happiness in Europe with Devi, but he chose to come back to America: “I chose to come back because now I see what this country needs. It needs to be torn down to nothing. It needs a forest fire. A biblical flood. An earthquake that rips it in half. It needs me.”
William tells Noah that he gave the slaves who ran with him something they never had before — a choice — and this right here? This is Cato’s choice.