Underground recap: 'Whiteface'
For the 'Underground' crew, danger lurks around every corner
This week’s Underground starts off a little differently, with the audience greeted by the image of the episode’s namesake, whiteface. Last week’s episode wasn’t just a one-off: Cato’s free world is the new normal, and this episode begins with one of his many new ventures, a minstrel show. Like a lot of Cato’s behavior on the surface, it’s highly questionable, especially as the waiting white patrons talk up the show. But then the show begins — with his black actors in whiteface, talking of lying down with the lamb and the “truth” behind “the city of brotherly love” — and those patrons are absolutely appalled, storming out pretty quickly.
Yes, this is what Cato does for laughs and fun these days, a far cry from his days in England with Devi and his only friend Francis (Alex Collins). If it sounds like a bad idea in the long run, that’s because it is, and Francis calls Cato out for his behavior. But where Francis sees “poking a bear,” Cato sees himself as “putting the bear down” with acts like this. Plus, when he’s not doing the 19th century version of Punk’d with his minstrel show, he truly is working for the cause of abolition. In fact, he hosts a fundraiser party at his home with William Still and Frederick Douglass (John Legend) in attendance, fully putting his money to good use.
“What I’ve learned on my journey to freedom is there is nothing in your past you cannot forge into a weapon. What I got right here was a lesson in how to hurt them. It’s all about the money. They ain’t nearly as much cruel as they are greedy… This is our weapon. This is how we hurt them.”
Underground’s second season has introduced a few ideological concepts, but a lot of them boil down to the fact that money talks. And that is Cato’s most powerful weapon… but it’s not a perfect weapon. As Cato’s living the good life in Philadelphia, that quickly comes crashing down as Patty Cannon arrives at his party — alongside August Pullman, whom she’s just sprung from prison to help her catch her “Black Rose.” August is pretty much a mess, by the way, barely living off prison wine and shutting down whenever his son is mentioned. This coincides with Cato also receiving news that Francis has sent for Devi, so as Cato clears out his party to quickly confront these slave catchers before his two lives cross paths, there’s the expectation that he’ll come out on top like he did last week. That he’ll show them who’s really boss when they see his men and realize they’ve made a huge mistake. That his pre-shootout speech is as cool as it sounds.
But the Cato we see at the party, the one who quips with Frederick Douglass and freely talks about how much he supports John Brown’s methods — because who’s going to stop him? — loses. Then so goes his “whiteface,” his power through money. His hired help that he flaunted in Noah’s face last week? They’re quickly bested by the more desperate Patty and August. August proves to Patty that he’s a dog that “can still bite,” but the fates of Devi and Cato are now very much up in the air… sadly, justifying Cato’s decision to leave Devi behind in London in the first place, as she’s put in peril the second she sets foot on his estate. All we know now is that Patty Cannon is moving in. So things don’t look great.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth also finds herself drawn to John Brown’s way of thinking in the aftermath of the rally, what happened to Rosalee, and now with the Georgia situation. That last one is this episode’s revelation that Georgia is a freed slave who has been passing for white, a fact that Elizabeth learns as she has to bail Georgia out of imprisonment on the basis of “fraud.” And while Elizabeth gets Georgia out of jail with her free papers, word travels fast, and cue the harassment toward Georgia by men who promise they’ll be watching her, waiting. Now the safe haven Georgia has created is no longer all that safe, and while she knows the “cargo” now must be moved, Georgia doesn’t see fit to tell Lucas and the boys the truth as to why she was arrested. Consider that the one less-than-honorable flaw in Georgia’s otherwise impenetrable virtue, but really, who can blame her, especially at this time? As Georgia points out, nothing would change about the Free-Staters’ lives if they knew that she was passing: “The minute that they called themselves abolitionist, they put a target on their back. I’ve lived with one most of my life. There’s nothing easy about this secret.”
Of course, not knowing the deal, Lucas does end up getting snatched by Border Ruffians with Elizabeth while they’re in a middle of a trip, and these guys give Elizabeth an especially hard time. But if Elizabeth weren’t pissed before (over Georgia and Rosalee’s lies, over feelings of helplessness), here, she’s absolutely fed up. She’s sick of hiding, and she calls the captor’s bluff on branding her like a slave. It works, too, as he and his friends leave, claiming to be leaving her behind for the animals but also promising that if she doesn’t stop what she’s doing, they’ll come and find her. Whatever the 19th century equivalent of “Sure, Jan” is, that’s basically how Elizabeth reacts as she sets about untying herself.
This is just a glimpse of the danger of being an ally, while Rosalee is living in the aftermath of going through absolute hell. Elizabeth tries to talk some sense into her about how she’s going to get her baby killed if she continues to try so hard to get her family back, but all that logic pretty much falls on deaf ears as soon as Rosalee’s reunited with Noah. Finally. But things gets stressful pretty soon, as Rosalee turns their reunion into part of the grand plan (which would involve Noah pretending to be her slave, based on a mission she’d previously done with Harriet) to get her mother and brother back. On the one hand, the way Noah looks at Rosalee as she tells stories of her missions with Harriet are a real treat, because he should know how much of a badass his beloved has become. On the other, Rosalee doesn’t tell him about the pregnancy. Also, for dramatic irony’s sake, it’s pretty stressful knowing things are going to get out of hand once Rosalee learns her mother’s not still there.
Elizabeth tries to convince Noah that he’s the one who can stop Rosalee from going, but sadly, he doesn’t believe that, probably because he still has no idea he’s going to be a father. And the scene, like Noah’s eventual choice to go with Rosalee, sadly depends on that lack of knowledge, even though there’s no reason Elizabeth shouldn’t mention it to him at all. Going back to Macon is the “last thing” Noah wants to do, but of course he’ll do it. Love makes you do the wacky, especially when you have the freedom to do so, and that’s exactly what Noah has now. So he agrees to Rosalee’s plan, telling her, “I will follow you anywhere,” and giving her the ring he made for her. Noah’s all in on this.
Then there’s Ernestine, who was saved from drowning, but isn’t exactly back to being “all in” on life itself. She’s of course shamed by Table Tapper and the other Gullah slaves about her “poison,” but unlike Clara, she doesn’t just take it. In fact, she talks back to her shamers before storming off: “This ain’t about me speaking. Y’all don’t really want that. ‘Cause then half of y’all standing here would have to admit to taking the devil’s blood. This ain’t even about what I done. It’s about shaming others so they don’t do anything you don’t want them to. This here ain’t family.”
What follows is a tale as old as time about men, women, abuse, and manipulation. Again, word travels fast, and the other slaves know all about Ernestine’s past life and affair with her former master – which is why Clara approaches Rosalee for help in seducing Master Matthew (Tyler Barnhardt) and gaining some power for once. Like Angela Bassett did for young Ernestine, Ernestine becomes Clara’s mentor. This isn’t information Ernestine could’ve passed down to Rosalee since she taught her daughter to “keep her head down,” but Ernestine can be something close to the powerful maternal figure she once was by helping Clara.
Ernestine: “All men feel like nobody listen to them. That’s where you start… Shut your mouth and listen. That’s how you find out what he love. Then you let him teach you ‘bout it. Men like to feel like they showing you things ain’t nobody else has.”
Clara: “I just pretend I like whatever he like.”
Ernestine: “No. you got to find something real in the lie. It’s only believable there’s a part of you in it.”
There are also little lessons in between, but this is the crux of what Ernestine has to teach Clara, and it ends up working as she interacts with Master Matthew at the stable. (After Ernestine apologizes for the scene she caused when she was up in the big house, of course.) And while Clara is worried at first that it won’t work because she’s dark skinned, Ernestine makes clear that the skin isn’t actually the point — and she’s right. Clara’s able to connect with Matthew, but her excitement after a successful rendezvous with Matthew (Ernestine of course tells her the perfect time to engage) shows that this is all an exciting power play for her. She’s simply wearing her own mask (her own metaphorical version of “whiteface,” if you will) to get what she wants. Hopefully it stays that way, because Ernestine is proof that it can all go south once true emotions get involved.
But this invigorates Ernestine, and in this episode, even though she’s sick from withdrawal, she has more of a life to her than she did before she tried to kill herself. Hicks tries to come to her, apologizing and saying that he loves her, but Ernestine is finally bold enough to tell him that he can’t even see he’s just repeating a pattern: He gets hit in the field, so he brings that shame home and hits her, and she’s so full of her own shame that she thinks she deserves it. Again, it’s a tale as old as time, just like the things Ernestine admits to using to endure life instead of live it, like the big house, the opiates, and even Hicks. So then Hicks, who was so apologetic before, turns it around on Ernestine with an “after all I done for you” and a “you’ll be back,” before he drops a vial of said opiates in Ernestine’s lap. Yup, he’s that much of a cliché.
So it’s all settled now. Elizabeth is going to Philadelphia with Lucas and the other Free-Staters, leaving Georgia and the boarding house (and the sewing circle and peace) behind. For now, at least. Patty Cannon’s men and August are going down South to find Ernestine, while Noah and Rosalee are also going down South — back to Macon — to find Ernestine and James. And Clara is sure she’ll soon be able to get Matthew to do whatever she wants, which pleases Ernestine (who’s sadly back to getting high) because she’s going to use Clara’s pull to get her off this plantation. Ernestine is fighting back again, though it’s still a sad version of fighting. The question is, however: Where is everyone going to end up?
That’s a question for another time though, because next week’s episode is going to be all about Harriet Tubman.