Rosalee teams up with Harriet Tubman to free the slaves
Underground returning on International Women’s Day just feels right, because of the past season of strong female characters battling the ultimate adversity. This second season premiere keeps up the good work. (But don’t worry, the male characters pull their weight, too.) If you didn’t watch the first season of Underground, obviously, I can’t recommend it enough; but you can still start from this season premiere and dive in with relative ease.
The season premiere actually opens with Bokeem Woodbine’s new recurring character, Daniel, a slave on the Fellow Plantation in Louisville, Kentucky. He’s working hard as a stonemason on the plantation to buy his freedom (we saw how well something like that worked last season) and teaching himself to read, picking up articles and whatever else he can around the place. As Beyoncé’s “Freedom” opens the episode and starts his day (a music choice that’s just as inspired for this season as Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” was for season 1), the word that ends his day is just as important: “soldier.” This is the last we see of Daniel in the episode, and it only serves as a pre-title card segment, but surely there’ll be more of him in the future. The rest of “Contraband” focuses on the characters we met last season and how things have changed in the five months since the Macon 7 dwindled down to the Macon 4. (They’re still called the Macon 7 though. It just sounds cooler.)
Speaking of the infamous Macon 7, where in the world is Cato? This season premiere doesn’t answer that question, but Underground isn’t in the business of giving it all away for free. We’ve just got to wait and see.
Noah, on the other hand, has been stuck in prison for those five months, on trial for the murder of a U.S. Marshal and for all the chaos he and the rest of the Macon 7 ended up causing in the 600 or so miles from Georgia to Ohio. John Hawkes is, naturally, his attorney, though in a brush of irony, his legal argument to free Noah is the Fugitive Slave Act — that Noah is the property of Macon Plantation, more specifically, John’s widowed sister-in-law Suzanna Macon. Seriously, even the opposing counsel calls Hawkes’ argument on the basis of him being a staunch abolitionist. Just like season 1 proved, there’s no one who doesn’t know what John Hawkes is about. For better or for worse.
With her freedom, Rosalee has made good on her promise to help other slaves claim their own freedom. If you remember the Underground season 1 finale, one of the coolest moments — on a show with plenty of cool moments, let’s be honest — was the image of Elizabeth and Rosalee standing up to slave catchers and winning. The thing about Underground having scenes like this is that those are simply the moments of levity necessary in telling what is still ultimately a very, very tragic story. So when the Underground title card immediately cuts to more “Freedom” blasting and Rosalee teaming up with the Harriet Tubman (Aisha Hinds), sure it’s cool. It’s badass, even. But that’s certainly not all Underground is.
Take Ernestine, for example, who was certainly never one of the Macon 7 but now has the life she worked so hard to avoid thanks to Suzanna Macon pettily selling her at the end of season 1. Ernestine’s now at the Roe Plantation on the South Carolina coast, a plantation with huge slave quarters and near nonstop field hoeing. While the Macon Plantation and season 1 spent a lot of time attempting to find the light in the darkness of this situation (even when the light was really nowhere to be found), that light is much, much dimmer here on the Roe Plantation. What may look like a silver lining — Ernestine finding companionship with an enslaved foreman (a slave with something akin to a position of power), even with so much else wrong — is instantly proven to be just an illusion. Her man is powerless, so he takes that powerlessness out on her. And the huffing addiction she’s developed is both shared and encouraged by him. She’s also haunted by the ghost of Pearly Mae, who tells her to just kill herself. After all, she’s empty and a shell of the seemingly powerful woman she once was in the first season.
“Death been following you all around. And you thought you could beat it. Sacrifice your dignity, me, even your children at the altar of your privilege… Tried to forget, and look what forgetting got you. Little girl ran away. Little boy don’t belong to you no more. And Sam. Well, he swung from the porch of that big house you thought you owned… Just ‘cause you survived don’t make you strong.”
Say what you might about Ernestine, but as much as any character deserves punishment or retribution or comeuppance or whatever you want to call it, slavery isn’t a deserved punishment. It’s slavery. It’s the institutional removal of humanity. So the combination of that and her own self-punishment is just absolutely upsetting. There’s no sign that Rosalee actually even knows her mother has been sold into this worse life, either, so that emptiness just fills these Ernestine scenes.
Even the Rosalee/Tubman scene against the slave catchers, which is obviously considered a win, makes a very clear, upsetting point: For the most part, all of this is about money. That’s how they’re able to get a slave with a broken ankle back in their custody without more bloodshed and trouble than needed: They simply make a trade — though it happens with the “cool” image of Harriet Tubman wielding both an ax and shotgun, while Rosalee has a gun of her own. Happy International Women’s Day, everyone. As Rosalee later tells John about the encounter with the slave catchers, “They just want the money, not the trouble.” But as John and this premiere remind us: “Some of them want the trouble too. Remember that.”
It would be so much simpler if this was all just about money too. But “simple” is not the story Underground’s telling; it’s not even in the series’ vocabulary.