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Underground season two makes its explosive debut

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Photo: WGN America
Photo: WGN America
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Underground

"Contraband"

Season 2 , Episode 1

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Season two of Underground kicks off with a premiere so rousing and so fraught that the months between installments are quickly forgotten. The inaugural season followed the formation and flight of the Macon 7, as well as the growing abolitionist movement in Georgia. But the finale saw everyone scattered to the winds, with Noah (Aldis Hodge) in custody; Ernestine (Amirah Vann) on the auction block; and Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) teamed up with Harriet Tubman (Aisha Hinds). “Contraband” throws us right back into the action, with Rosalee once again on the run. But first, we spend some quiet moments with Daniel (new addition Bokeem Woodbine), an initially stoic stonemason. In a montage, we watch as Daniel leaves quietly at first light, and slips into bed after a long day.

It’s easy to miss that, in between the beginning and end of his day, Daniel collects scraps of printed paper from the sides of wagons and scoops up abandoned newspapers. He’s teaching himself to read, amassing clippings of Harriet Tubman’s exploits and John Brown’s constitutional challenges. It’s a reminder of what a huge risk slaves took in learning to read; Daniel’s literacy could cost him and his family their lives. This quiet act of resistance is underscored by his only piece of dialogue this episode: the word “soldier.” It’s part of Underground’s larger themes this season—the show asks “Are you a citizen or a soldier?” of all its characters, whether or not they have their freedom.

Photo: WGN America

This multiple choice question is actually made up of several queries. It asks are you going to play nice, or are you going to disrupt? Do you have the courage of your convictions? And what are you willing to do to combat injustice? Underground creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski confirmed at the Television Critics Association press tour that, in part, the show is asking people to put their money where their mouths are, or rather, to follow up their words with actions. (They also acknowledged that, in the past as well as the present, such protests aren’t always possible.) Those questions are everywhere this episode, in scenes involving a bounty hunter asking Rosalee (who’s posing as Mary at an Ohio hospital) for her papers, and in exchanges between her relatives John and Elizabeth Hawkes (Marc Blucas and Jessica De Gouw, respectively).

The latter are both abolitionists, but John, who’s a lawyer, thinks there’s a way to fight slavery within the system. Rosalee and even Elizabeth know better, but they remain supportive of his attempts to help Noah, who would be on trial for murder if he weren’t a slave. John’s stomach-turning legal maneuvering involves arguing that Noah can’t be tried because he’s not a man, he’s property. Even after everything he’s seen, John believes that the law can be color blind—he believes slavery is a perversion of the Constitution—so much so that he decides to run for office so he can dismantle oppression from the inside. Although she’s hopeful, Rosalee thinks John is fighting a losing battle, which is made all the more difficult by a fundamental lack of understanding—that is, the same legal document that afforded many men certain freedoms also established the bondage of others. “Rules don’t apply to black folk,” she bitterly tells him at one point, but that doesn’t seem to sink in.

Although there are several storylines—we also catch up with ’Stine, who’s self-medicating with ether just to get through the day—“Contraband” keeps returning to John’s attempts to help Noah. So much careful planning takes place that it looks like they have a real shot. It’s all rather ingenious and heartening, from the use of eggs and red cloths to signal solidarity to the coded language that lets Noah know Rosalee is in town. Green and Pokaski, who wrote the premiere, continue Underground’s tradition of offsetting the tension with humor: Elizabeth pulling out a needle and thread as the other members of the sewing circle she’s just joined start loading pistols is absurd. But it also drives home the point of how unprepared she’s been up until this point—Elizabeth’s always had a more passive role in the Underground Railroad, but it’s clear that that’s no longer enough, for her or for the struggle. She’s a citizen in the process of becoming a soldier.

Photo: WGN America

But the fact that she seems to have a choice in the matter reminds us that not all women are oppressed equally. As ever, Underground promotes a timely discussion: it questions the motives and efficacy of demonstrations like the real-life Women’s March from January of this year. That kitchen scene and the firing practice bit, along with the arrival of Harriet Tubman, speak to intersectional feminism; we’re reminded that black women have been on the frontlines of every battle for equality, and that they’ve always born a greater risk than their white counterparts. “Contraband” deftly unites these two fronts, though, with a scene that manages to afford the white abolitionists an opportunity to back their claims, while never centering the action on them. The sewing circle literally puts itself on the line to aid in Noah’s escape. It’s a lovely moment, and yet it’s far from a victory—Noah is quickly recaptured after narrowly escaping the gallows.

There are several heart-stopping moments throughout, including Aisha Hinds’ debut as Harriet Tubman. She’s not introduced that way—she’s referred to by her code name Moses in this episode—but there’s no mistaking who she is. She fells a tree to trip up some bounty hunters, and then holds them at gun- and ax-point. I’ll confess to getting the same giddy thrill I did when seeing Gal Gadot show up in Batman V Superman—with the driving music and the impossible odds, you just knew something big was going to happen. It’s technically not the first time we’re seeing the character—that happened in the season one finale, though only in silhouette—and Hinds doesn’t have the same unenviable task of perking up a whole dreary film, but her entrance is undeniably exciting. But Tubman didn’t avoid capture through shows of force, so here she bargains with the bounty hunters to just forget about Valentine, who’s broken his ankle anyway.

Photo: WGN America

As galvanizing as “Contraband” often is, it leaves room for those who don’t have the ability to fight back. And for that, we return to Ernestine, who’s isolated and obviously depressed. In a montage that mirrors the episode’s open, we witness ’Stine’s new routine. She toils all day, but she doesn’t come home to her children. She huffs ether to forget where she is, and endures abuse at the hands of her lover, who is himself brutalized by the overseer. She’s also haunted by visions of Pearly Mae, who can’t believe this is what ’Stine has come to.

There’s no judgment against ’Stine for not taking up with the other soldiers in this episode (in spirit, obviously, not by heading back to Georgia or Ohio). She’s not opposed to them either; she’s just trying to get by. And after all she’s been through, the fact that she gets up every day is an act of defiance. Somehow, though, I think her visions of Pearly Mae mean there’s some fight still left in her.

And yet, if that moment never comes, I’ll understand why. We see that Ernestine has zero support, so to rise up is a life-threatening proposition. It’s a decision that several other characters have made, of course, including Elizabeth and John, though the Hawkeses probably never really felt that was a possibility. Before the big jail—er, gallows—break, they really only consider imprisonment as the consequence for their actions. “Contraband” utterly destroys that illusion, and at the very last minute.

John’s death raises the stakes for everyone, even as it returns us to the season opening question: are you a citizen or a soldier? And what does it mean to be either? Neither John’s maleness nor his whiteness or even his law degree could save him. As sad as it is to say goodbye to Marc Blucas—say what you will about Riley, but he acquitted himself nicely here—”Contraband’s” ending warns of greater peril for the other freedom fighters, who are mostly black men and women.

Stray observations

  • Welcome to Underground coverage! This season is shaping up to be a real rollercoaster. I know there’s a very active online community for this show, so maybe we can all link up to live tweet at some point?
  • That’s John Legend, who will eventually show up as Frederick Douglass, performing “In America” over that final sequence.
  • Jurnee Smollett-Bell talked with us about all the spy-level stuff that the Underground Railroad engaged in, if you’d like to hear more.
  • I thought Noah might be making something to pick a lock, but it turns out it was just a ring. *sniffle*
  • Though the reference isn’t quite as fresh, it was interesting to see an activist judge in the courtroom.
  • And the talk of states rights over federal law, though not applied in the same manner here, was a nod to the bullshit defense of the Confederacy that so many bigots espouse to this day.
  • The Underground cast is already stacked, but I am also pretty geeked about the addition of Bokeem Woodbine.