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Underground is irresistible even when it’s almost unwatchable

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Photo: WGN America
Photo: WGN America
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Underground

"28"

Season 2 , Episode 7

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I’m just going to say it: Tonight’s episode was brutal. It’s not that the violence was not gratuitous or exploitative, or the scheming contrived—in fact, the dismal turn of events feels wholly earned, even if you weren’t aware of just how steeped in reality they are. But “28” was still the hardest episode of this season for me to watch. Seeing Rosalee tortured and Ernestine imperiled once more was anxiety inducing enough. But it turned my stomach to watch Patty dehumanize Cato, who was forced to commit violence to further her plans, and later, let go of the only person who mattered to him. Cato’s been thrown from a great height—though that was kind of to be expected—and the truth is, he might never recover. At least, it’s hard to see how he can come back from something like letting Patty sell Devi into slavery.

And that will be how many people—primarily those who aren’t black—will process the episode’s conclusion. At first, anyway. But, even if we’re positive that we’d make a decision as selfless as Devi’s, let’s make sure our aversion is aimed at the right source. That would be Patty, who’s living up to her real-life counterpart’s deplorable reputation and is now colluding with local judges to sell freedmen and women back into slavery. The slave hunter has taken over Cato’s stronghold, turning it into a prison for him and Devi. Patty and her goons torture Cato in an extended scene that is almost unbearably awful: Not only do they pummel and waterboard him, but Patty removes ALL of his facial hair. It’s part of her plan to use Cato to help her lure freedmen; she assumes they would be suspicious of someone who was immaculately groomed and tailored.

Now, these actions are similar to the ones she took with August, whom she also shaved and gave a fresh set of clothes. But she’s not simply getting her men into uniform—consider August and Cato’s very different circumstances, both before and after their “makeovers.” Patty sprang August from jail to do her bidding, and she keeps him in line with promises of money and alcohol. But when she changed Cato’s appearance against his will, she was doing so to strip him of his identity and progress. Patty might have walked into his Underground fundraiser looking for the Black Rose, but it also seems she’d been planning to abduct freedmen and force them into slavery for a while. That plan didn’t come together from one day to another. When she and her gang overran Cato and his guys, she began to think of how she could use him.

Photo: WGN America

By forcing him into this position, Patty is making Cato complicit in enslaving others. Is he being incentivized with his—and briefly, Devi’s—own freedom? Absolutely. But this is really just the plantation dynamic transported to a northern setting. Cato “working” with Patty is just the illusion of choice, or, as Noah put it last week, of freedom. He has no way of knowing she’ll live up to their deal, but for a pragmatist like Cato, there really isn’t anything else he can do. And even though he’s great at compartmentalizing, this new gig is clearly hard on Cato—his first catch is a cobbler, a self-made man who, it turns out, speaks poetically of withholding his trust in order to maintain his freedom and safety. Once again, Cato is made complicit: By helping to abduct a man of similar disposition and standing, he’s really doing away with himself.

Director Anthony Hemingway’s deft hand takes us through Cato’s awful journey, which we see is a reflection of or maybe just a precursor to the institutional and systemic racism that exists today. I’m going to stay in my lane here, but I do want to acknowledge how morality can be dictated by our environment. When all you’ve known is this pain and drudgery, it’s tempting to shut down the way Ernestine has this season, or try to find a bit of relief, if not happiness, which is what we’ve seen Noah and Rosalee vie for. Again, we’d like to think we would rise above our own needs, but Cato has already been through so much. And let’s not forget that even someone like Noah has struggled with the notion of giving up his own hard-won freedom for the sake of others. So while Cato initially acts to keep Devi “free,” he isn’t about to let anyone talk him into putting himself in an even more dire situation.

Patty’s behaved abominably, but her actions are grounded in reality. She hasn’t been conjured from the darkest corners of co-creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski minds, though you couldn’t be judged for thinking so. She’s a natural adversary for Harriet and the Macon 7, and though a few narrative strings have been pulled to get them all to cross paths, the character is a great antagonist. Patty embodies the contradictory national identity: Everything she has is both totally earned and owed to her. As a white woman, her sense of entitlement might not be quite on par with her male counterparts, but it is obvious. But because her pedigree wouldn’t hold up in more discriminating social circles, she also feels she’s fought to get what she does have.

Alano Miller gives a full-hearted performance, showing us how torn up inside Cato is in the lead up to his decision. Then he shutters his expression, essentially getting back to the business of self-preservation, and he suddenly seems adrift. “Nok Aaut” gave us a better understanding of Cato’s motivations, as well as some sympathy for him. “28” throws things in reverse even as he inches from the frying pan into the fire—Cato might be bent right now, but he’s not quite broken, and there’s no telling how long he’ll be able to put up with Patty and her fellow racists.

Photo: WGN America

Cato’s back where he started, in a sense, but Rosalee and Noah find themselves literally back where it all began—the Macon plantation. This has been in the works for most of the season, and even though Underground gave us plenty of reasons to think the lovers could pull it off, their plan quickly unravels. The most fraught part turns out not to be the train ride that required Rosalee to play a white man, with Noah acting as her “property,” but the time spent trying to get to little James. The tension is thick as we wait for Cora to return and Noah to track down the ledger that has ’Stine’s location. What we all took for the easiest part of the plan—that is, bringing James into the fold—ends up being their undoing. Suzanna Macon has successfully turned James against his sister, who ends up branded by the overseer while an armed but still helpless Noah looks on. Like, I said, hard to watch.

“28” cuts the bleakness with a healthy dose of Ernestine, though she also appears to be facing an uncertain future by episode’s end. First of all, this episode made me eat my words about Ernestine just enduring. If anyone could be forgiven for taking a shortcut to freedom, it’s ’Stine, right? And if anyone deserved to have their life cut short, it was Hicks, the man who used to beat her, right? And it might as well be Clara, the young woman he forced to have an abortion, no? But true to her statements in “Whiteface,” ’Stine wants to break the cycle of violence. It’s not a question of forgiveness—she believes that killing Hicks, who is also a slave, would really only serve their oppressors. ’Stine is right to think she’d gain no satisfaction from Hicks’ death, but sadly, she seriously misjudges Clara’s hurt and anger. The younger woman lashes out at her most viciously when she learns that ’Stine didn’t actually provide her with a poisoned concoction. But even though she successfully leaves Gullah, watching ’Stine end up in August’s grip at the end of the episode is hardly comforting.

With only three episodes left, the storylines are converging once more. It’ll be interesting to see what Patty makes of the situation, because while she and August now have the right bait (Ernestine), Rosalee and Noah are already back on the Macon plantation, so... does that nullify the bounty? I’m also a bit concerned about pacing at this point, because with Patty’s hunt technically already wrapped up, there doesn’t seem to be much of that story left to play out over the next three episodes.

Stray observations

  • “28” was written by Misha Green and Joe Pokaski.
  • After watching them fight, I thought Clara might deviate from her plan and serve the poisoned drink to her father. No such luck.
  • I also briefly thought she’d poisoned ’Stine during their encounter in the house. Clara has me thoroughly scared.
  • Matthew Roe is soooo bland. I know that’s by choice, but when he’s inevitably cut down as cannon fodder when the war starts, no one will mourn him.
  • I do not think for one second that this show has to consider or spare my feelings. And again, I found nothing herein to be gratuitous. But, as my colleague Ashley Ray-Harris pointed out in her review of the Dear White People TV series, this episode really wasn’t trying to hold viewers’ hands. And I appreciate that as much as the lesson.
  • What a way for Noah to find out Rosalee is pregnant. [sad face]
  • Patty’s comment about how Devi’s East Indian skin wouldn’t deter any overseers reminded me of that exchange from Mississippi Masala, in which Denzel Washington’s character tells Roshan Seth’s character that their shades of brown are just that, shades.