It was Christmas on this week’s UNDERGROUND episode “Auld Acquaintance.” And as far as Christmas cheer, there’s a solid moment with Tubman, Elizabeth, Georgia, and other abolitionists breaking bread during the important holiday. Seeing Tubman in these multiple contexts — first as a somewhat mysterious mentor figure for Rosalee in the woods, later front and center in “Minty”, and now as part of the whole doing normal things like eating and laughing — really brings life to the famous abolitionist. In fact, I can’t recall a better treatment of a historical figure on television in recent years.
The meal (and episode) are punctuated by Cato’s arrival, who seems happy to stumble upon familiar and friendly faces. This is how Tubman, Elizabeth and the rest seem to take it, though we know that Cato is still very much working for Patty Cannon, who’s becoming increasingly impatient with her band’s inability to locate and capture Tubman. Cato seems totally back to being the Cato of old, appeasing the powers that be if it means saving his own hide.
Away from Christmas with the abolitionists, there’s also Christmas with the Macons, and we finally get a better sense of the Macon architecture in the months since Tom’s death. Things have definitely changed and here Underground reveals some of the more bizarre sociology of the antebellum. Remember how young James cried out for “help” when his sister Rosalee came to rescue her? Well, we finally start to understand why.
Young James has pretty much been given the keys to the kingdom. In some ways, Suzanna Macon treats James better than she does her own (white) son. The son gets clothes while James gets a horse, for instance. Suzanna now sees James as carrying the “good blood” of her late husband. Of course Ernestine is still out there (Rosalee too), and so Suzanna also feels like it’s her job to keep that “bad blood” away. She plans a huge Christmas meal, where now a much different set of family members dines. Is it what Suzanna would have imagined? Probably not. But this is her new blood and that’s all that matters.
In this way Underground makes this a family affair, with the new blended Macon family on one side, and Ernestine’s family on the other. Rosalee spends much of the episode trying to remind James who his real family is, and Noah, who’s still waiting for the right time to make his rescue, tries too. When Suzanna’s holiday meal finally happens, Noah has already killed overseer Bill (who maybe this time is finally dead), and catches the matriarch totally off-guard.
Guns are drawn with Suzanna’s son pointing a gun at Noah. Suzanna’s son is shot, James is knocked out, and Rosalee, Noah, and the rest flee on a cart as the Macon house explodes into pieces. I really have to give Underground props for being so daring with James in the last two weeks. Many will find his new state of being unpleasant and uncomfortable and look for easy answers and explanations. It’s not easy to see a young boy making destructive decisions that hurt his own blood. But this episode actually addresses why that might happen and makes sure James is given a chance to speak his truth. Of course, now that James is back in the hands of people who do truly care for him, now he has a chance to grow even more.
Last we left Ernestine, she fled the Roe planation only to fall into August’s clutches. This week takes a more contemplative look at arguably the two most headstrong characters on the show. In a way that’s slightly uncomfortable, Ernestine and August bond over their shared guilt as parents. I really don’t think there’s an equivalence here, but in Underground’s defense, I don’t think it’s suggesting there is. In addition, it’s not too long after this bonding moment that Ernestine tries to escape so maybe it was just another one of her clever moves. Overall, though, August does seem a bit too self-aware, and if he is having some misgivings about, well, his entire life and livelihood, it doesn’t seem totally earned.
I should also mention that Elizabeth’s storyline with a white (seemingly) progressive woman was strong. Elizabeth tries to get the woman to donate to the cause, while the woman harangues slavery on the one hand, but totally ostracizes Georgia on the other. Georgia’s true heritage reveal was definitely a way to elevate Elizabeth’s plotline. Makes sense, given Elizabeth’s role on the show and her arc in the wake of her husband’s killing. But just when I was worried that Georgia had become too passive and disempowered now that she’s out as a person of color, she helps unleash a “plague” of snakes at church service, and holds a preacher and gunpoint.Fun! Elizabeth and Georgia plan on using the money to buy tickets for Rosalee and her family.
With only two episodes left in the season, Underground is marching toward an explosive conclusion.
Ade Adeniji | Contributor