Last week’s episode was the ultimate standalone, but now we’re back to the stress that comes from knowing all these plans are going to end in disaster. And it all starts with the return to Daniel and his struggles. Daniel has started teaching other slaves how to read, and like clockwork, the danger of that plan is revealed in this episode. He and his fellow slaves are found (his daughter is able to get away) and beaten, which segues quite “nicely” into our regularly scheduled program… which is Cato getting the stuffing beaten out of him by Patty Cannon’s gang. That comes with waterboarding (with the aid of Patty’s stocking, which is especially insulting) and shaving off his hair and eyebrows. Patty took Cato’s home (and wealth), and now she plans to take whatever dignity he apparently has left.
“Trust,” Patty says. “It’s how you get people to let their guard down. And people trust those who look like them more than they trust those who do not.” Patty is such a blowhard that it’s quickly gotten to the point where the best course of action during her scenes is probably to fast forward them, but then I suppose you’d be missing out on valuable plot information. Patty wants Cato to help her wrangle up “slaves” in exchange for his — and Devi’s — freedom.
It’s “slaves,” because this episode serves as a reminder (as though anyone could forget) of the corruption of this slave-capturing business — which is actually a good choice after Harriet Tubman called for war in last week’s episode. Here, Patty sets up a deal with the magistrate to collect freed men (for $3 out of the $10 he’d get for any returned runaway slaves) and essentially sell them either back into slavery or into slavery for the first time. Yes, it’s just like Elizabeth and Lucas and Harriet have been saying: They’re taking these “laws” and working them to their disgusting advantage, day by day. Cato does this to keep his and Devi’s lives, which are especially in peril as Patty threatens to sell Devi into slavery (as she’s brown enough to be considered different); as he later tells Devi, the deal is for him to get Patty 30 “slaves” for his freedom and 30 “slaves” for Devi’s. And like Patty said before about trust, Cato’s hook when it comes to trustworthiness is that he’s an affluent, solitary black man who can get in with other affluent, solitary black men. That’s the story for victim No. 1, at least.
Once Devi learns what Cato did, she’s not on board, calling this “horrible country” his excuse. “You need it to justify all the bad things that you do,” she tells him, “when the truth is, you’re just a bad man.” Yes, what Cato is doing is awful, but at the same time… He kind of told you that he’s a bad man, Devi. You just insisted on believing you could get to him to reveal his inner beautiful soul. At the same time, Devi clearly doesn’t understand the survival instincts needed to survive as a slave or possibly get to freedom; as Noah told Cato, even he was only thinking of himself and his kin, which is what you’ve got to do. Yet Devi says she’d rather give up her own life than be responsible for the lives of these others, so even though it’s aggressively wrong, Devi is sold into slavery. If you knew in advance that this episode was titled “28,” how much did it sting to slowly realize the episode represented the number of “slaves” left for Cato to capture once he sold out Devi? Thanks, Cato.
As frustrating as Cato can be, it’s even more frustrating to see him be brought down as quickly as he has been by Patty — especially after his proclamation to burn this world down. The same goes for the Clara/Ernestine story line, as Clara’s transformation from meek slave to mastermind feels very rushed. It actually appears to be a symptom of the Return to Macon story for Noah and Rosalee, as that story pretty much necessitates that these other stories catch up with it.
So, the first order of business for “Miss Clara”? She has Matthew send in the overseer to remove all the opiates from the slave quarters, with “severe punishment” for anyone caught with them. If you’re thinking, “I hope Ernestine doesn’t go through withdrawal,” (1) don’t worry about that. She knows how to hide her stuff. (2) Don’t worry about that. It’s actually Hicks who gets caught, completely beaten down, and stuck with a cage over his head. Now Hicks is a pariah, and Clara is on top of the world. And boy does she make sure everyone knows it, especially Ernestine. In fact, Hicks being an outcast isn’t enough for her, and she wants him dead (“just like my baby”). She wants Ernestine to make a poison to have that done, and while Ernestine is quick to tell her this isn’t something she should do, Clara is even quicker to tell she’s not her mother — and if Ernestine truly wants off this island, she’s got to do what she tells her to.
As for Clara’s actual parent, when he shows his disappointment in finding out that the rumors she’s sleeping with Master Matthew are true (he assumes that means he was her baby daddy, but as we know, that’s not the case), Clara isn’t much more respectful to him, either. She reminds him that he didn’t even ask how she was doing when she got pregnant and lost the baby — all he wanted to know was who the father was — and if anything, he should be thanking her for getting the opiates out of the slave quarters like he wanted. (At the same time, Ernestine is trying to speak to what is presumably Clara’s heart, Matthew, trying to convince him to talk Clara out of doing something bad.)
But when Matthew goes off to ride and Clara invites Ernestine over to the big house for a one-on-one, we see Clara’s already a lost cause at this point. In fact, she’s become the type of person Matthew mentioned in his first episode, as her experience having other slaves wait on her has apparently made her forget what it’s like to be on the other side of things. She’s completely rude to the house slave who calls her “Miss Clara,” before she turns her attentions back to Ernestine. Apparently Matthew did talk to Clara like Ernestine asked, but she’s still not deterred. In fact, she assumes Ernestine knew from the beginning that she’d want to go after Hicks, because it’s like she taught her: “Listen and learn” in order to “stay one step ahead.” But again, she didn’t learn not to play herself, because she also talks about how she might actually be mistress of the house one day. Girl, please. (At one point she mentions how Matthew talks about impending war, but this daft girl apparently tunes him out when he starts on that. Big mistake. Huge.)
Ernestine even says, “This feel like freedom to you, but it ain’t,” kind of like what Harriet was talking about last week. Yet Clara still thinks she’s on top of the world and goes on about forgiveness — specifically how she finds it to be a sign of weakness. Which is how she tells Ernestine she doesn’t forgive her for her part in the death of her child, and she’s dosed her drink with the poison Ernestine made for Hicks on her behalf.
Ernestine’s momma didn’t raise no fool though, and of course she didn’t make a real poison. Lemon water and thyme is what she made, and well, don’t try to play a player, Clara. “You’re owed blood. But you can’t have mine,” Ernestine tells her. So Clara totally takes the loss like a mature adult, right? No, because she’s not. She tells Matthew Ernestine’s a sneaky, untrustworthy liar — in a way that’s so manipulative Matthew is honestly painted as pretty dumb now for not realizing — and has him send his men to do to her what they did to Hicks. But Ernestine is actually two steps ahead, and it turns out that she traded a very expensive bottle of Matthew’s booze that she stole (which Clara just told a house slave to say she drank herself, to avoid having to look for it) to a boat captain to take her (and her leftover opiates) to the mainland. To freedom… which is short lived, as she bumps into August almost immediately. Thanks again, Cato.
Obviously, everything that came before this is evidence that nothing will go right in this mission. Things start off pretty well, even though we all know that Rosalee’s plans for herself and Noah saving her family are all going off knowledge of the original lay of the land. (At one point, Noah floats the idea of the mistress letting James stay in the big house, but Rosalee says the only way that would happen is if he worked there. Oh boy.) Based on help from an old ally, they get back to Macon, but again, things done changed.
Ah, Rosalee in this episode is… You know how it was mighty frustrating that she didn’t tell Noah she was pregnant? Well, she does apologize here for at least how distant she’s been since they first went on this trip to Macon, promising things will be “better” and “different” after all of this (the Hicks special, if you will, sadly). But all of that flies right out the window as soon as she realizes things done changed. First comes her realization that her mother isn’t the one who comes out of the house when expected; it’s a different house slave, and she’s got her mother’s keys. From that moment on, Rosalee is severely close to ruining this whole mission, with only Noah to stop and remind her that she needs to be strategic, just like Harriet taught her. Then, when Noah tries to get them to move away from the house, all Rosalee can say is that she’s not leaving without her mother, even though all he wants to do is move to a better location, away from the ungodly amount of cotton they’re standing in. “Think. This. Through,” he tells her. For all of Rosalee’s ingenuity this season, this episode, all of that comes crashing down.
So while Rosalee stays in a safe place (promising the baby that it will never know the life of this plantation), Noah goes to the slave quarters to gather intel — and brings back former house slave Corra, whom Rosalee has never been a fan of, to help. But hey, she actually tells them what’s up: She tells him that her mother was sold after the death of the master and that James is mistress’ “favorite now.” She also tells them she wants to go with them, because she’s not built for working the field. At the very least, they now know they need a new plan ASAP. Part of the plan stems from the fact that James is getting a new pony for Christmas (he really is the favorite) and another part is all about finding the “big green book” that has the information on where Ernestine was sold. With the latter, Rosalee and Noah learn that overseer Bill is still very much alive. Remember, the whole reason they first ran when they did is that Rosalee thought she’d killed that mean drunk. And now? Yeah, things are all a mess. But they have a plan. “The book, the boy, then we wait.”
Things start off poorly because Corra doesn’t return after dinner like she promised, and hothead Rosalee assumes she’s turned them in. But they still go on with the plan. Rosalee gets into the main house without a hitch around midnight, and Noah’s able to get into Bill’s quarters fairly easily (as Bill is of course very drunk). Things fail, however, when Rosalee makes it to James’ bedroom and wakes him up. While her little brother is first surprised to see her, as soon as she tells him they’re leaving, he changes his tune. To screams of “HELP!”
That basically sends off a red alert on the plantation, and while Noah is able to get the book from Bill and hide under his bed until he passes out, Bill wakes up as soon as the alarms sound. In case everything about this plan screamed unhappy ending, this episode makes sure everyone knows that wasn’t just a bad feeling. Rosalee is caught, and Bill gets to punish her. At first, the fact that Noah has a gun and Bill decides to give a Bad Guy Speech makes it seem like she might be saved, but Underground chooses now to keep it real: Rosalee reveals to Bill (and Noah) that she’s with child, but according to Bill, “that don’t change nothing.” Then he brands her face, and that’s how we leave things.