Christmastime is here

By LaToya Ferguson
April 26, 2017 at 11:00 PM EDT
WGN America

The episode starts with a quick check-in on Daniel, who received his inevitable punishment for learning to read (and teaching other slaves) in the form of basically being blinded. We then go from that punishment to Cato’s… Well, it would be too much to call it punishment, as he’s looking less like a hostage this week and more like a willing participant. Cato show Patty Cannon the progress on Donahue’s book, first fueling her ego, only to anger her with the part of the book questioning if Patty could ever possibly capture Harriet Tubman. He then convinces her to focus her resources on “going after the queen herself, not just the court.” “Easier said than done,” Patty retorts, but that’s when Cato tells her about a song he once heard, a song that worked as a map (“each verse, a step along the way north”) to make it to all the safehouses and eventually make it to Harriet. That song? The Underground theme song, making its return.

The fate of the boarding house is in flux, as rumors of Georgia’s true race swirl around town after the raid on the boarding house and leaves her without boarders to keep the house financially afloat (or to fund Rosalee and company’s train back up north). Georgia and the sewing circle hold a bake sale to raise funds (with baked goods in line with the “free produce movement,” not from slave labor), but things are not looking good. Sure, there’s people like Elizabeth, who wants to help all that she can; but then there’s people like Laney, one of Elizabeth’s acquaintances who claims to think it’s “wonderful” that Elizabeth is “helping the negroes,” only to snidely refer to Georgia as one and come up with excuses for not donating. She also claims that “us women” can truly “identify with the plight of the slave” because of their husbands’ rule, as though you can either be a slave or a woman but not both. (As though a “slave” is not a human, of course.) She then tops it all off with: “Maybe we can do tea soon. Just the two of us.” She’s very unpleasant — in an actively horrible, not just “annoying,” way.

But the boarding house and Rosalee really need money. This all coincides with Elizabeth’s own continued crisis of faith, since she’s just “so tired of begging even good people to join the fight.” She’s still not sure what her part is in all of this. This is where Harriet steps in with an anecdote and solution, asking her when the last time she prayed was. So they pray… and then we find out that Elizabeth is going to church.

Because it’s time to plan a heist, baby. We learn that there’s a pro-slavery church on the other side of the river — one with a printing press and rhetoric linking slavery to “godliness.” Basically, if you were a good person planning to steal from a church, this would be the church to steal from. And it is, as they follows the plan set up by Harriet: Elizabeth attends the Christmas service (when there will be the most people and most collection money), alongside one of the sewing circle members posing as a slave, who creates the distraction. The distraction’s in the form of a bag of snakes, and with that, they’re able to grab the collection money. There’s some static from this church’s reverend (calling them sinners for this act of thievery), but Georgia and a gun allows them to get away with the money. It’s enough money for the train tickets for Rosalee and her family, but there’s still not enough to keep the boarding house open. That’s an issue for another time, though. Or is it?

Interestingly enough, this episode doesn’t address the fact that this is Elizabeth’s first Christmas since John’s death. But it does keep her mighty busy, perhaps too busy, to possibly avoid that. And as such, that’s how we get to Laney’s ultimate Christmas present. After dinner, Elizabeth goes to Laney’s house to collect her promised donation. After all, she said she’d do it after she spoke to her husband, so now is the time to put her money where her mouth is. But Laney is committed to being terrible, stating that she “won’t be donating to anything that Georgia woman is involved with.” The thing is, Elizabeth’s not asking; she’s done with empty condolences, and she wants Laney to fill up the empty box she brings with cash, coins, and jewelry. Because if not, Elizabeth is going to tell Laney’s husband about all the men Laney has been sleeping with about town. And she’ll do it every month when she comes to collect — if Laney doesn’t give in, that is. “I think there’s a good person in there, Laney,” Elizabeth tells her. “I think you just need help in finding her.” What’s a little blackmail between old friends, right? She gets the money… and then she and Georgia are greeted by Cato at the boarding house, saying “a friend of a friend” sent him. It’s the opposite of a Christmas miracle.)

For Ernestine, Christmas means running. Only in her case, she’s being forced to run with August and Smoke, who are bringing her up north to meet Patty. This plot is half a literal showstopper, halting things to a somewhat listless stage, half emotionally resonant. But the former half is also the first half of the plot, and that’s as August and Smoke alternate rowing a boat to take Ernestine up north. August doesn’t have much to say as he’s rowing, because he’s more focused on drinking, but Smoke isn’t at the same reserved state of mind, so he complains about taking the slower route (land would be quicker, especially since Ernestine’s masters have to know she’s gone by now) and the fact that August isn’t treating this like the partnership that Patty assigned. This is when Ernestine realizes Patty Cannon has taken an interest in her, so she questions why. August tells her in between drinks that she has business with her daughter, and while Ernestine might not really care about her own life, the same can’t be said when it comes to how she feels about her daughter.

Now that right there makes her want to run again, because she’d rather press her luck with the Roe Plantation slave catchers than with anyone who wants to do harm to her family. First she tries to escape by jumping off the boat once they start getting shot at, but as Smoke points out, she can’t really escape if she can’t swim. Then they’re finally on land, so Ernestine removes scraps from her rope in order to leave a trail… but August notices and picks up the scraps she leaves behind. (In between both of those attempts, Smoke finds Ernestine’s opiates and hands them off to August.)

At one point, Ernestine asks August what happened to Rosalee, to no response, only to follow up with a question about what happened to August’s son. She gets no answer either time, and August only fires back to ask her about her boys. So no one wants to answer, until they set-up camp for the night. Ernestine opens up first, telling August about how Sam was her “favorite.” In fact, he was her “heart.” And his death basically doomed James, because she hung Master Tom without thinking of the consequences and how that would affect her youngest. Then he tells her about how he couldn’t just be satisfied grabbing only Rosalee and making his money, so he kept “pushing” for more — and because of that, his son got hurt.

Despite Patty Cannon recruiting August because of his past with and resentment of Rosalee, it appears that he now fully blames himself and his selfish decisions for his son’s death. At least someone’s taking responsibility for their actions, even if he’s also drinking himself to death in the process. August even shares his booze with Ernestine, both bonding by how they’ve failed their children. Later, under the guise of relieving herself in the woods, Ernestine is able to get away in the fog… until Smoke catches up to her and they fight. But August saves her, and boy is he effective: He stabs a stick through Smoke’s throat and shoots him 100 percent dead. He also gives Ernestine back her opiate to help with the pain of him popping her shoulder back into place. She passes out from the pain, and when she wakes up, they’re back in the boat. Only this time, they’re going back south. So, Merry Christmas to Ernestine for no longer being bait for her daughter, but um, things will not be good back at the Roe Plantation. Just a guess.

So while Cato is seemingly selling out the entire cause, back at the Macon Plantation, James has become completely indoctrinated, even going as far as to call Miss Suzanna “mother.” He’s waited on hand and foot — he’s clearly Suzanna’s favorite — and when he sees a pregnant Rosalee being squeezed into a dress (she’s being put back to work), he’s too busy rushing to open Christmas presents to process how terrible all this is. In fact, at no point in this episode does he process how messed up things are or have a wise-beyond-his-years epiphany about how his life is an illusion that facilitates a horrible institution.

When he’s alone with Noah, he blames him for not protecting Rosalee from Bill. When he’s alone with Rosalee, he blames her for Sam dying and their mother being sent away. When Rosalee tells him that what he’s living is a “lie” that could turn on a dime (just like his friendship with T.R. did), all James does is say this is his family now. He’s a child, but based on this, he’s a child with absolutely no empathy, even after witnessing his actual family’s suffering (as well as the suffering of other slaves) and experiencing suffering of his own. It’s arguable that Suzanna took that empathy away from him, but the most he shows any type of care for his own sister is when he tells T.R. not to slap a slave in front of her (like Suzanna had done earlier to prove a point). And that was only to tell Rosalee one-on-one that she ruined everything.

Luckily Noah still cares about Rosalee, and after getting confirmation that Corra didn’t betray them, he decides it’s time for a new plan. “We take the mistress, we own the house. Walk right out the front door.” Yes, that is his plan. And to do so, they’re going to need someone “on the inside.” There’s a good group of the plantation’s “most exceptional” slaves, and as is Macon Christmas tradition, they’ll all be at dinner in the big house. So after Noah and Corra go through a Leverage-style heist film discussion of these slave candidates, who do they choose? “Who can you trust? You can’t even trust family.”

Well, first Noah has a one-on-one meeting with Bill in his quarters, promising not to leave the plantation without making sure Bill’s dead first. So they fight and he kills him with his own whip. But who is the inside man? Other than Rosalee, absolutely no one. Seriously, they were right: “We can’t trust anyone.” So Noah shows up to dinner with a gun — after Suzanna’s speech about the “series of plagues” that have struck Macon and how James’ “father’s good blood won out over the bad blood of his mother’s” — telling Rosalee and James to come with him. Unfortunately, James is only worried about Suzanna getting hurt, so Rosalee knock him out to take him with them, and they run. Outside the big house, Suzanna threatens them, saying they won’t get far (and that James is her son now), and T.R. shows up with a shotgun, telling them to let his mother go. As Rosalee tries to talk to him, he fires, and so does Noah; only Noah actually hits his target, right in the leg, while T.R. ends up shooting his mother in the shoulder. As for the threat of slave catchers bringing them back, that won’t be possible, because Rosalee torches the house (as she had previously fiddled with a light in one of the rooms, causing a gas leak).

Rosalee and company ride away from the flames as “Deck the Halls” plays on the soundtrack. Merry Christmas.

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