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Underground’s second season draws to a quietly devastating close

B+
Aisha Hinds stars in Underground (Photo: WGN America)
Aisha Hinds stars in Underground (Photo: WGN America)
B+

Underground

"Soldier"

Season 2 , Episode 10

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After getting off to such an explosive start, Underground wraps season two with not a bang, but a whisper. Let me be clear: The final moments of “Soldier” are absolutely heartbreaking. The scene with Noah holding the son he only recently learned about aloft while tearfully declaring him born “free” is one of the most affecting in the entire series so far. It’s both optimistic and incredibly sad—his son’s birth outside of bondage is a reward for Noah and Rosalee’s bravery, but the fact that he’s celebrating alone (or at least, without Rosalee) is a reminder of what’s been at risk. That first encounter with his son is a bridge between a tragic past and the start of much more hopeful. It also serves as a payoff to viewers who have been following along on the daring dips in and out of enemy territory, watching as what’s left of the Macon 7 struggled to stay free while deciding for themselves whether they’re citizens or soldiers.

That scene had another effect, though—it reminded me of how little we’ve seen of Noah since his tête-à-tête with Cato in “Nok Aaut.” It made sense to feature Rosalee so prominently throughout this season, as she had even more to lose than Noah: Her mother’s fate remained unknown and uncertain, and, until recently, so was James’. There was also the small matter of evading detection while moving cargo along the Underground Railroad, and oh, right, eluding the dogged Patty Cannon. And Noah’s initial circumstances in season two left him stationary and then contained, but once he was free, the series glossed over how he made his way safely to Ohio to reunite with Rosalee. Just as Rosalee kept Noah in the dark about her pregnancy, Underground kept him on the sidelines to focus on Cato and Elizabeth, a gambit whose payoff remains to be seen.

It’s a decision that was probably motivated more out of a need for economical storytelling—10 episodes really isn’t that many, especially not when you’re dealing with this subject matter—but it’s more frustrating than usual in this context because it makes Noah’s anger and concern over Rosalee’s dissembling seem unfounded. This is the same man who was so intent on getting back to his love that he couldn’t bring himself to trade his liberty for that of several others after being propositioned by Cato. Maybe he had a change of heart once the adrenaline had receded, but his anger over Rosalee’s withholding of information, while somewhat earned, also seemed excessive. Noah went through a lot this season, including pretending to be Rosalee’s slave so they could take the train south. That’s bound to have had some damning psychological effect on them both, but mostly on Noah, who worked in the fields while Rosalee was relatively sheltered in the Macon house. These are things that could certainly have shaped his state of mind when he realized she’s been risking their future to rescue her past. But by not actually showing these events unfold, Underground simply tells us how they’ve weighed on him after the fact.

Photo: WGN America

Noah’s revelation that freedom is a series of decisions or actions, and not the result of a single act (however intrepid it might be), is a significant one. He even shares it with his young brother-in-law. So I’d have liked to have seen the finale or some previous episode tie that in with all the decisions he felt Rosalee made without his informed consent, but aside from a brief outburst, the show switches gears and focus to characters like Cato and Elizabeth. There are lots of loose ends to tie up, of course, but these are storylines that have already received a considerable amount of attention, even within the aforementioned time constraints. Aldis Hodge has never been anything but affecting in his performance, but I can’t help but feel he got the short shrift.

That’s more of a grievance with the overall season, though—to get back to this particular episode, it was a welcome sight to see Noah alongside Daniel, Rosalee, and the remnants of the ”sewing circle.” And “Soldier” does effectively put a pin in Noah’s story even as it hints at a truly frightening future for Rosalee. After surviving the wilderness, Patty Cannon, and lesser slave catchers, she temporarily concedes defeat to Cato, who was very much playing a long con on his “boss.” She does score a major victory, though, managing to hide James and her newborn away in a cupboard before giving herself up to save the lives of Georgia and other runaway slaves. But it’s undeniably frustrating to see her possibly back at square one for the second time this season. Even as I type that, though, I know it’s far more likely that she’s gone from the frying pan into the fire, because Cato only kills Patty to take her place.

It was a bit much to have Rosalee give birth in the middle of the shoot-out, but since stress can definitely induce labor, it wasn’t exactly far fetched. But when combined with the “three-plantation attack” that Noah planned with Elizabeth and the other abolitionists, the kitchen-labor scenes made kind of a mess of the second half of “Soldier.” It was actually a good thing that Harriet disappeared after getting word of John Brown’s plans to overrun Harper’s Ferry, because that was one less character we had to worry about in the middle of all that gunfire and betrayal. The sneak attacks are too scattered to be deliver much tension, despite there being so many lives at stake, including those of Daniel’s children and wife. Where director Anthony Hemingway fares better is in the boarding house standoff, which sees Georgia protecting her home and her compatriots.

Photo: WGN America

I’ve noted Jasika Nicole’s exquisite composure in the face of so much strife, but it’s also downright cathartic to watch her put some firepower behind her words. Georgia’s fate here—she’s captured by Cato, who’s now the leader of Patty’s gang—suggests that she should have become more militant much sooner. After all, Elizabeth was burning down stables only days ago, and she lives to spy another day, some ten months after the standoff. We can’t forget that Elizabeth is white and that Georgia’s cover has been blown, which obviously affects their predicaments. But there’s been talk of war since the second episode of season two, and since Georgia wasn’t prepared for that level of civil unrest, she might have missed her chance. I certainly hope not, but hasn’t that been the question all along—citizen or soldier? That could always be a false dichotomy, since many characters don’t even have that choice. As Harriet notes (before she vanishes), slaves are already soldiers in a war that’s been waged against them since they were first taken from their native lands.

But regardless of where they started off, all of the characters have had to make that choice, including Daniel, who stuns everyone by successfully making contact with the Underground Railroad despite being at a serious disadvantage now. I don’t know what kind of role Daniel will play in any future outings, but if this is the resolution of his story, it was as heartening as it was well earned. Bokeem Woodbine turned in another memorable performance in such short bursts, and while removed from the rest of the action. If Daniel doesn’t return, let’s get Woodbine his own show, please?

Also off on their own lark are August and Ernestine, who come to the end of their road only to find the Macon plantation in smoldering ruins. Their future is similarly unknown, but I really hope ’Stine gets away from him once and for all. Underground has plenty of nuance, and has always been aware of class. August isn’t in the same position as say, Tom Macon or Matthew Roe. But, to tie this in with more contemporary events, poor whites can be racist and do a lot of harm, so I’d rather not see August win over ‘Stine. Like her daughter, she’s survived too damn much to end up at August’s side.

Photo: WGN America

Which brings us to Cato, who has now gone full villain. He has a figurehead, a gang, and the rapt attention of a biographer. And he’s realized that it’s smarter to hide in plain sight as part of Patty’s gang than to flaunt his among Philadelphia’s high society. But even though Cato’s motives weren’t completely altruistic back then, at least he wasn’t actively working against the Underground Railroad. With the battle lines about to be drawn, he could be a wild card, but for now, he’s just focused on himself. I admit, the setup has potential, but I also can’t deny that the series could have reached that conclusion a while back. We spent a lot of time with Cato this season, so much so that some of you called this his “supervillain origin story.” He remains difficult to pin down, but he’s really venturing into Snidely Whiplash territory now. And at this point, he’s too far-gone for redemption, but still, I’m eager to see how creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, who wrote all but one of season two’s episodes, deal with this arc in a prospective third season. “Citizen or soldier” proved to be a powerful framework for this season, which surpassed the first in storytelling and performance.

Underground’s season two finale lays track for a third season, which I hope includes multiple detours for Noah and Rosalee, the latter of whom I am so worried about after watching “Soldier.” But it’s Elizabeth who we see last, and in enemy territory—she appears to have worked her way into some pre-Confederate soldier’s life, and he happens to be stationed at Harper’s Ferry. It’s 10 months later, and it looks like the powder keg is about to be lit. Here’s hoping we get to see Green and Pokaski spark the fuse.

Stray observations

  • Aldis Hodge got so many great lines this episode, from “You go get your moment” to “We don’t have to keep feeding the darkest parts of ourselves,” and, perhaps most poignantly, “He [his son] deserves a world that sees him as I will: special... and free.”
  • I know there were lots of white abolitionists involved, but I still think Elizabeth got just a little too much consideration. And I’m still convinced that she’s interested in vengeance and not vindication. That could very well be what Green and Pokaski intend, so again, let’s hope we get a third season to watch that play out.
  • I don’t mean to frighten anyone with talk of another season, because there’s been no news one way or the other. And Green told me they’ve planned for about five seasons, with the next foray focusing on the spy network that grew out of the abolitionist movement. So, if you’re reading this, WGN America, go ahead and announce that renewal, okay?
  • Episode grade: B+. Season grade: A-.