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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Good Lord Bird ends quietly, but John Brown goes marching on

Illustration for article titled The Good Lord Bird ends quietly, but John Brown goes marching on
Photo: William Gray/SHOWTIME

It doesn’t feel like much happens in “Last Words,” even though it’s the end of The Good Lord Bird. Instead, the episode is a slow, deliberate march toward John Brown’s execution. The episode, and the series, ends with Onion riding off into a gray morning, into an uncertain future. Did John Brown fail?


Frederick Douglass doesn’t seem to think so. “Last Words” opens with a brief moment of narration from Daveed Diggs’ Douglass, explicitly framed in the style of a documentary talking head, explaining that the Harpers Ferry raid helped ignite the Civil War. It’s a payoff for a few different similar stylistic moments, largely focused on Douglass as a media-ready figure who can tell his own story, and Brown’s. Onion plays a similar role in the episode, framing Brown’s life for us as viewers. The man who brings him to Brown’s prison cell (played by Killer Mike) notes that the old man has “raised a lot more hell with letter-writing than he ever did with that gun.”

Indeed, throughout the episode, John Brown’s life is framed as more of a media event than anything else. At one point, Onion overhears a literal barbershop conversation about whether or not the old man was foolish, comparing him to Jesus. (For what it’s worth, I’m pretty sure both John Brown and Jesus were pretty sure they were going to die.) He notes the acceleration of public support for abolition, culminating in the Civil War. And, early in the episode, he notes that Brown looks “exactly like the way white folks picture God.” Even Brown himself seems to think that he’ll be more of an asset to the cause by dying than he ever was by living.

There’s a whiff of dismissiveness here, a sense that maybe Brown should have just put pen to paper and made these arguments instead of getting his hands dirty. But instead, The Good Lord Bird indicts the broader “polite” society, and suggests that Brown needed the gun, too: Many, many people will only be driven to care about injustice when it involves someone who looks like them, a truth that is occasionally reflected in the ensuing history of civil disobedience. As Onion puts it, “Folks was listening now that a white man was gonna hang. And not just any white man. The old man was a Christian who could write.” Though The Good Lord Bird has dabbled in using modern ideas about racism and history, particularly in the description of Brown as a “white savior,” I don’t think the show quite commits to following through on its ideas about narrative and justice beyond “this is complicated.”

Instead, the primary tension of “Last Words” comes from Onion’s quest to be one of the only people to make it out of Harpers Ferry unscathed. Onion is, of necessity, the center of the show, but I’m not sure The Good Lord Bird has done enough to get me to care about him as a character, rather than as a vehicle to engage with John Brown. Even when Jeb Stuart lets Onion go, and when a federal soldier escorts him back to his “master” (actually Owen), it doesn’t feel like we’ve moved past the sense that everyone around Onion doesn’t know how to treat him. In the end, it doesn’t matter. Instead, the best scenes for Onion are early in the episode, when he confers with the assembled black men at Harpers Ferry, and his final meeting with Brown, which is a series highlight for both Ethan Hawke and Joshua Caleb Johnson.

This scene is the version of John Brown Hawke has been teasing the whole show, a the righteous zealot, unshaken in his faith. (They don’t even lock the door to the cell, because Brown is intent on dying for the cause.) He blames himself—not for getting himself caught, but for not giving the others an opportunity to escape. When he describes his life on Earth as a brief moment, a spark in between an eternity on either side, it’s the closest the show comes to making his faith clear and compelling—in particular, the moment when he snaps his fingers and the show cuts to the wizened, wet Brown on his way to the gallows. It’s a painful, cold moment, but it’s also important.


“Last Words” is written by Mark Richard and Ethan Hawke, who worked on the entirety of the series, but I want to close by focusing on the episode’s director, Michael Nankin. Nankin worked on several episodes of the 2004 Battlestar Galactica, which makes a lot of sense: both series are grim, ultimately hopeful explorations of some of the same topics, including human nature, political violence, and grey color palettes. Battlestar Galactica, which often dealt in not particularly subtle ways with events like the occupation of Iraq, feels present in the episode’s closing juxtaposition of the gallows and the flag.

The best moments of Battlestar Galactica communicate the potential of hope and cooperation in the midst of mass violence. But rather than focus on the struggle itself (both at Harpers Ferry and in the Civil War more broadly), The Good Lord Bird uses Onion as a stand-in for the people actually effected by Brown’s life and work, leading into the series-ending montage showing all of the black people Brown died for. For all that The Good Lord Bird has used Brown’s commitment as a source of comedy, Onion, and the series as a whole, conclude firmly that he was not crazy, because no matter what happened, those people were worth fighting for. John Brown did the right thing.


Stray observations:

  • Brown explains the plan to the group—perhaps an unintentional, but clear contrast to the first few episodes in which he refused to outline the details of the raid.
  • In their final conversation, Onion reveals his true gender identity to Brown and, while I understand the impulse to have Brown be totally accepting in keeping with the way he acts for the rest of the scene, it feels a bit out of place. I don’t think this show had much interesting to say about Onion’s gender presentation, and I’m glad it didn’t really try.
  • Would it have maybe been a bit too on the nose for this episode to end with the show finally using “John Brown’s Body,” the folk song that became the basis for “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic” and “Solidarity Forever”? Maybe. But this is a show that has decidedly leaned into some of the most on-the-nose aspects of its subject matter. It doesn’t matter—his soul goes marching on.