Underground premiere recap: 'Contraband'
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.
If you’ve watched any television in the past, let’s say, 15 years, chances are you’ve encountered Aisha Hinds at least once. Underground getting her is a big deal, but Underground getting her to play Harriet Tubman is an even bigger deal. She only has a couple of scenes in this episode, but from the moment she appears onscreen, she oozes that larger-than-life image. Even though she’s just a woman. A great woman, but “just a woman” still. Even if she sleeps with an ax in her lap. Who doesn’t? Five months passing allows for us to get past what must have been Rosalee’s initial stage of awe to be working with the one they call “Moses” — in fact, Rosalee really has no problem verbally sparring with her or anyone at this point in time, as her mind is just so focused on saving Noah, then her own family — and she has no problem butting heads with Harriet about what will happen with Noah. Harriet argues that “there’s a world of difference” between the kind of danger they face every day and the kind of danger Rosalee is inviting in with her and the Hawkes’ plan to rescue Noah. “The lord sent you to me to get your family back. You ain’t gonna be able to do that you dead or in chains,” she tells her. Rosalee argues that Noah is also her family, but to Harriet, that’s inconsequential. “He ain’t blood. And hearts change.” That right there tells you all you need to know about this Harriet Tubman.
As for the ally side of things, while John is working to get Noah transported to the Macon Plantation (in order to enact part two of the plan: the great escape), Elizabeth finds herself joining a “sewing circle” lead by a woman named Georgia (Jasika Nicole). Elizabeth’s character has consistently searched for purpose, and the sewing circle offers that. Because while she and John are obviously doing a job of work providing safe refuge for runaway slaves, the end goal is still abolition. And these women are very much about how to get that abolition. They don’t have the luxury of being abolitionist lawyers like John, but they’re well-read black and white women who know that real change happens with genuine empathy and concern for those who are being oppressed. Because while the North may allow for free slaves, the actual conversation of what’s happening in the South is out of sight and out of mind for a good portion of these people.
And sometimes they actually do sew! But target practice and intellectual planning for “all forms of disruption” are the predominant tasks. It’s slightly radical, which draws Elizabeth in but really isn’t John’s vibe, even when he’s at his most upset. Even truly frustrated, John’s response to the “miscarriage” of justice is to become a judge to affect change, which Elizabeth tells him is a “brilliant” idea. But come on, you can tell it’s not exactly the type of forward momentum she was hoping for.
Meanwhile, Noah is well aware they’re trying to save him, which is keeping him going and making sure other inmates don’t ruin his escape with their own eagerness. It’s all a good plan to prison break (well, transport vehicle break — not as catchy, as Dominic Purcell and Wentworth Miller would probably agree) Noah out, and John plays his entire court case perfectly. Stalling, motions, and the law are all on his side. But as much of an ally and as good an ally as John is, there’s one thing he didn’t expect: the judge throwing out the law and simply going with his own personal opinion. In fact, the judge even acknowledges that the federal law says Noah goes back to Georgia, but in his own words, “this is my courtroom and I can’t abide it,” because of the death of a Marshal in his jurisdiction and how he and the Macon 7 “ran up the Eastern Seaboard terrorizing law-abiding citizens.”
Then, in one of those scenes that scarily shows the parallels between America in the 2010s and America in the 1800s, Rosalee tells John how they should have expected this verdict in the first place, even though he argued perfectly for Noah. Because according to Rosalee, this happens all the time — in the South and in the North — because the “rules don’t apply to black folk.”
Aldis Hodge fans who watched Leverage should at least enjoy Rosalee and the Hawkes’ plan to save Noah from the gallows — they certainly go through it like any good heist movie would. Underground’s subject matter leads to a naturally good heist movie premise every so often. Rosalee works undercover as a woman named “Mary” to steal supplies from the local hospital! Elizabeth can get the sewing circle to cause a distraction! John knows people who helped built the gallows! It’s all part of a necessary course correction as Noah is unfortunately sentenced to death by hanging, and unfortunately, it ends up failing. They’re chased by some men who Noah and John are certain aren’t U.S. Marshals. It’s possible they’re slave catchers, but seeing as Noah was sentenced to death until that very moment, that’s unlikely as well. So Noah and Rosalee are still separate by the end of this episode, the only thing they have left being their memories of each other. Though Noah also has the engagement ring he made for Rosalee in prison. Hopefully he gets to give it to her.
Sadly, there’s no chance to see if John’s judicial approach to the fight would even work, because almost immediately after he files the form to become a judicial nominee, he’s shot in public, right in the head. On the logical side of things, the fact that Marc Blucas has always been a guest star instead of a series regular somewhat implied an expiration date. But it’s hard to see another good man fall, especially as things are presumably about to turn the corner because of his choices. But you supposedly reap what you sow, and after his confrontation with those mysterious men who grabbed Noah, the countdown started on his life.
Yet, in all of these scenes, there’s still no discussion about how all these slaves are just immigrants. How odd. But Elizabeth’s time with Georgia and the sewing circle does provide this gem of a line: “Well, the best literature has a way of forcing yourself into a stranger’s skin. It demands empathy.” That counts for all forms of media, and while it’s still early in the season, Underground certainly continues to succeed on that front.