The Underground cast and crew have been hyping this episode for the past two weeks, so going into this, expectations were high. Even last week’s episode of Underground hyped this one, giving characters dialogue about how Harriet Tubman had agreed to speak in public for a change. As I mentioned when Aisha Hinds made her debut on this show, the woman is legit and an instant highlight no matter where she shows up. Casting her as Harriet Tubman meant something, even without a special episode dedicated to her. Showrunners Misha Green and Joe Pokaski know that, so they made sure to use the endless resource that is Hinds’ acting ability for this episode. And what an episode this is. The screen may say, “Guest starring Aisha Hinds,” but that’s semantics. This is her episode. She owns it, and there’s no other way to put it.
It’s 99 percent a monologue, with that 1 percent dedicated to the brief moments during which a nervous Harriet Tubman prepares for this speech (silently praying beforehand, as the soundtrack plays a song that asks if freedom has ever been free), and then a moment when her audience finds itself caught off guard by a concept she introduces. Obviously, Green and Pokaski deserve a huge chunk of praise for writing such an episode — the term “tour de force” comes to mind — but it takes so much to turn those words from just words to something meaningful. To something powerful. Which is where Aisha Hinds comes in. Though we also can’t forget to send some praise the way of director Anthony Hemingway, who also directed this season’s premiere, as well as the season’s stellar “Ache.” Harriet simultaneously comes across as a woman of the people and a larger-than-life figure thanks to Hemingway’s direction.
Harriet’s walk to her rocking chair feels like longest walk ever, and to be fair, the way Underground presents it, it probably feels that way to her as well. But once she’s there, we are off to the races and on to a weighty episode. Harriet tells quite a few stories of her life and her struggle, and it’s hard not to just quote the entire episode line by line: “The world be affected by two things: what we know and what we believe. The first thing I knew was to be afraid of the white man. To be terrified of them carrying me away.”
Harriet calls slavery “the next thing to Hell,” and it’s here we get a more visceral discussion of what bondage means than the intellectual discussions Master Matthew has with his drunk friends over on the Roe plantation. She speaks of growing up “like a neglected weed” that was “ignorant of liberty.” But she was a defiant little weed, thinking that any “small victory” was akin to actual freedom. Like when she’d refuse to cry out during punishments, denying the slavers the reactions they were expecting when she got whipped.
But she eventually realized that pain couldn’t possibly equal freedom, so she truly knew nothing about being free: “I was the most rebellious thing. Mischievous too. And I took pride in that. Knowing they ain’t own me, in spirit. And maybe that’s how I ought to have ended up, finding freedom on the edges.” But then a white man threw a heavy iron weight at his rebellious slave and ended up hitting Harriet in the head with it. At the time, she was fussing with her hair, so she didn’t see it coming. After that, her “spells” started. “In my spells, my spirit would go traveling. Flying to distant lands. And I heard a voice of someone speaking in the language of the old prophets…” That someone, she says, was God, “showing [her] what was possible.”
That’s when Harriet realized her fits of defiance weren’t doing anything, and she set out to change that. “There ain’t no negotiations on freedom. I was spending all my time knowing things instead of believing them. And that’s the first step to truly being free. When you can see past all the things that you know and believe in something better. It ain’t easy, but that’s the work that must be done. I was finally on my way to being what everybody accused me of. I was ready to be a rebel.”
“Funny thing is, just because you believe something, doesn’t mean anybody else ready to.” Amen.
Harriet was already a proactive woman, but at that point, she had something to focus on. She convinced her master to let her hire herself out (as opposed to the way he constantly hired her out to other households), she got married to John Tubman, and things were going as well as they could, given the circumstances… until she got sick and her master, catching word of it, planned to sell her. Harriet prayed from Christmas to March that God change the man’s heart to keep him from selling her. Then, on the first day of March, she changed her prayer strategy and prayed the God would kill him instead. Barely a week passed before the man died. (That story of course gets a lot of “ooh”s from the crowd.)
Here, Harriet learned another lesson: God wasn’t just speaking to her; he was listening, too. From then on, she knew she had to be “intentional with [her] aim, because He [would] provide.” And she “aimed to escape.” Of course, things couldn’t be easy, as Harriet convinced her brothers to run with her (to avoid being sold after master’s death), only for them to give up after barely a mile of confusion and drag her back with them. That’s when she realized that the “freedom fire” wasn’t something you could ignite in people; it had to already be there. So she decided to go it alone. An abolitionist woman whose husband owned a nearby mill gave her directions to the first safe house, but other than that, it was all on Harriet to make it to freedom. Obviously she did so, though some places were more difficult to get through than others. And the real lesson came in making it to freedom in Pennsylvania:
“I listened to the Lord’s voice, guiding me, protecting me from danger… I knew He wouldn’t lead me astray. And then finally, I crossed the line. I was in Pennsylvania. I looked at my hands. See if I was the same person. There was such a glory over everything… But there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land.”
The tears in her eyes at this moment add to the power of Harriet’s words. But she acknowledges that her home and her heart were still in Maryland with her kin, because why should only she deserve to be free? She knew she needed to go back. By the time she did, though, the Fugitive Slave Act was in full effect. (Though, in one of the episode’s few moments of levity, this acknowledgment leads to Harriet doing her own impression of Frederick Douglass.) “But the most important thing was I had a purpose. To get my kin out of bondage. By any means. Ain’t nothing can’t be endured when you got a purpose.”
First, she was able to start a pattern (“working, planning, and waiting”) in order to free her niece and her niece’s family, using the connections she’d made in her time as a free woman. Harriet succeeded there, but as for the rest of her family, well, she wasn’t content on saving them from the sidelines. While she found a sense of pride in finally doing the “housework” or “domestic work” that she rebelled against as a slave — the result of actually getting paid for said work, obviously — and saved up that money, she also found something much less worth being proud of in her plan to retrieve her family. Her husband John had married another woman in her absence, and they were living together in the home Harriet had once called her own. He didn’t want to be free with Harriet.
“But the Lord had a reason for that betrayal. He was trying to show me something: that I was thinking too small.” Other slaves had heard Harriet was waiting for John, and they asked her for help, so instead of going back to Canada (she didn’t trust the American North anymore, as “the ground kept shifting beneath us”) with just John, she brought 11 different folks to freedom instead. After that, she’d start walking trails near the slave quarters, singing “Let My People Go” (an interactive moment for Harriet’s audience) so slaves would know she was there to free them if they wanted. (And as she mentioned to Rosalee before, she did get to free her parents.) And when you’re with Harriet on the trail, there’s no turning back.
There’s also no turning back when Harriet pivots into the true reason for her speech — because while she acknowledges the work she and her audience are doing, she’s “starting to believe it ain’t enough.” This is when everything gets really stressful, as Harriet tells them about her new dreams (when she can even sleep). There’s no more flying in these — just her feet planted firmly on the ground in the wilderness. She sees a serpent transform into an “old man with a long white beard.” Two more heads (with “the faces of younger men”) pop out of his body. That old man? She later realizes who he is when he comes to see her: He’s John Brown.
That cues the crowd’s infighting, as plenty of them say John Brown isn’t a true friend to the cause, while Lucas of course defends his Captain. Elizabeth gets everyone back in order to listen to Harriet, but little do any of them know that their infighting is a large part of why Harriet now supports John Brown’s ideology, especially when it comes to war being the answer to all of this.
Harriet acknowledges that she had to take some time to even get her thoughts on John Brown straight, as, well, he’s essentially a white ally who has no stake in a black world, yet he’s more extreme than seemingly any of them. “Here was this white man standing before a room of black folks who had all been in bondage, telling us that he was ready to take up the cause. Of a race that was not his own. He ain’t know the crippling grip of slavery.” She didn’t truly believe at first he’d “risk his own blood” for black folks, until she realized that he had already sacrificed his own son for the cause (“his son bled with Kansas”).
“Everything that confused me about him built my admiration for him,” Harriet says. “I only know two other men ready to sacrifice their sons: the prophet Abraham and the one who done ordered that sacrifice.” Brown spoke to them of “the conspiracy of the slave power,” right down to abolitionists who actively refused to do anything about anything. He said that everything about slavery already constituted an act of war — the government just wasn’t speaking on it: “A conspiracy, as the Captain called it, of slaveholders, actively at war, working hard to make it seem the way of things. They pass it on to their sons and daughters, they strengthen it through government, they justify it through religion, calling it Christianity. That ain’t my Christianity! Calling it God’s will? That ain’t my God!”
And while Harriet says she didn’t want to go to war — just like most of the people in her audience — she also acknowledges that they’re already in it. In the last year, she’s helped free 50 people — “50 souls” — but the world still hadn’t changed, even though it needs to. Instead, people in Philadelphia, “where freedom rings like that bell,” stay quiet when the Fugitive Slave Act yanks slaves who have made it to freedom back down to bondage or when they wear clothing that comes from the cotton slaves picked. And then they’re fighting among themselves about the best way to be abolitionists without ever actually abolishing anything. Harriet knows debates are important, but they’re not actually action — and the enemy is gaining more ground while they bicker over their presentation. “Yeah, winning this war is tough,” she says. “But not impossible.”
And then it’s time for the big finish. If you hadn’t already been able to draw parallels between what’s going on in Underground and what’s happening in the world now, Harriet’s final words to close the episode make it even clearer. Things may be more “advanced” in 2017, but several conversations this season have contributed to a sense of history repeating itself. The show brings it home here, as Aisha Hinds delivers these lines directly to the camera and straight to the audience watching at home, not the audience watching Harriet speak (keep in mind, at this point, she’s made clear that a prayer is just a plea):
“If you don’t have it in you to take up arms against the injustice, then you gotta pray another prayer. And you gotta walk in it with conviction. He will provide but you’ve gotta do your part. You gotta find what it means for you to be a soldier. Beat back those who are trying to kill everything good and right in the world and call it ‘making it great again.’ We can’t afford to be just citizens in a time of war. That’d be surrender. That’d be giving up our future and our souls. Ain’t nobody get to sit this one out, you hear me?”
We hear you. And that’s it. The episode immediately fades to black before it cuts to another Underground title card, then to a tribute card: “With Reverence and Gratitude: Araminta Ross.” That would be Harriet Tubman, aka “Little Minty.” Thank you, Underground, for an episode of television that hopefully won’t soon be forgotten.