UNDERGROUND’s season two has already strongly focused on the physical and emotional journeys of mother daughter pair Ernestine and Rosalee. Though they’re separated by many miles, Underground’s “Ache” expertly parallels the two stories, at some points, even making it seem like Ernestine and Rosalee are at an arm’s length. Rosalee, beaten and nearly broken, kneels by a shore. Ernestine, beside a body of water, fully submerges herself. Luckily for Stine, though, fellow slaves notice and thwart her attempted suicide.
This week, Ernestine’s hallucinogenic drugs bring her to the spirit of Sam, whom she molded into the ideal slave who was in the total good graces of the white power structure for quite some time. And yet Sam still met a terrible fate, leaving Ernestine to again question whether the strategies she’s employed to keep her and her family alive and safe were righteous. Luckily, some of the other flashbacks start to modulate our view of Ernestine and even begin, for lack of a better word, to vindicate her.
This show has been particularly smart in showing how both black and white youth were ensnared in the system of slavery and last night’s episode was no exception. A young Rosalee and younger Ernestine hop up and down on a bed in the Macon residence, stealing a brief moment away from everything else. Ernestine tells Rosalee that life is hard and cruel but that “every once in a while, we can steal moments like these.” This is a memory that Ernestine ought to take heart in.
In an interesting mirror to this scene, a young Sam watches as Ernestine tends to her husband French’s whipped and tattered body and asks if she’ll do the same for him one day. It was just a heartbreaking scene, but also one of several that shows Ernestine has done the best she could in trying to raise her kids within this system.
Ernestine seemingly starts to come out of her stupor when she’s forced to sing in the big house. What first starts off as a warm and seductive performance morphs into something far darker, and as far as the white folk watching are concerned, insidious and threatening. Ernestine, though, is finally able to take off her mask and express her pain. In some small way she gets to speak truth to power. Later, though, her lover Hicks starts to beat her again, upset that Ernestine didn’t just sing the simple song. He stops, feeling guilt for what he did.
Rosalee, meanwhile, spends most of this episode alone, pregnant and with a bullet wound. She has to deal with human roadblocks and enemies in nature as well. Patty Cannon and her band is still hot on her trail, hoping to get her so that they can get to the real “prize” Harriet Tubman. In a standout scene, that writer character I mentioned last time happens upon a parched and nearly exhausted Rosalee. For the first time, she’s really in no position to run and is truly at his mercy. Will he call for help? He reaches into his coat, and takes out some water to give to her. But as I said in last episode, this writer’s primary objective is to tell the best story. So is he being charitable to Rosalee because he’s actually a decent man or because he doesn’t want the tale of the hunt to be over just yet?
Just brilliant storytelling.
It’s also worth noting that these warmer flashbacks we’re seeing are Rosalee’s memories, and these, combined with Harriet Tubman’s training, are what get her through her ordeal. So in reality, Ernestine did build a strong and resilient family and she would do well to remember that.
The episode ends with a pretty big surprise. Patty Cannon leads her team to August, the relentless slave catcher from last season. From Cannon and team’s vantage, they look down into a quarry and see August toiling in some kind of chain gang with other whites and blacks. August presumably will be enlisted by Cannon because he has much history with Rosalee, not the least of which is that Rosalee gunned down his son. Great reveal!
Another surprise was a cameo by Angela Bassett, who plays an early mentor figure for Ernestine.
Season 2, Episode 3 (S03E03)
Underground airs Wednesdays at 10PM on WGN America
Ade Adeniji | Contributor