There’s a character on UNDERGROUND named Daniel whom I haven’t much mentioned in my reviews. He’s an artisan we’ve tracked for a bit now, but whose story has felt pretty elliptical. I don’t even necessarily mean that in a bad way either. Over the course of the season in snippets we’ve seen an immensely curious and brave man taste literacy and then be punished for it. Only, the punishment happens in an elliptical fashion, too. One day, Daniel uses all his faculties to craft. The next, he’s stripped of his eyesight, scarification around his eyes. And yet he still creates.
Daniel’s story has opened Underground on more than one occasion, leaving me wondering what the show was trying to say thematically and how his plight was tied to that of the remaining Macon 7, Tubman, or anyone else for that matter. Well, we finally get that answer in an episode where a side player joins the main event in delicious fashion. But before we get to Daniel, let’s talk about some of the other players.
Last night’s Underground, “Citizen,” opens with Cato who’s been brought into Georgia’s boarding house and is gathering intel for Patty Cannon. He has a brief run in with Tubman, who’s the first to ring the alarm bells about Cato’s true motives. (To be safe, Tubman goes by “Minty” with Cato and sweeps floors unassumingly). The interesting thing about Cato is that he’s both a master manipulator and someone who arguably has been manipulated the most. Such is the fate of someone who we first met as a black overseer, I suppose.
Cato capitalizes on Elizabeth’s grief, and even cuts his wrists one night to garner more sympathy. As he’s being tended to, Cato tells Elizabeth that rage can be good, and so when someone who terrorized Elizabeth shows up on Georgia’s doorstep, it’s not long before Elizabeth retaliates, burning the man’s property with him inside. The man’s son is also inside, and though Elizabeth saves him, Georgia is furious about Elizabeth’s radical turn. It seems she’s going to be banished from their enterprise.
Cato seems to be slowly destabilizing the house, which can only help when Cannon and her men strike.
In the south, meanwhile, Rosalee, Noah, and James make their way toward Ohio, with a few road bumps along the way. Mostly, the conflict comes from within, including Noah confronting Rosalee about the fact that she didn’t tell him she was pregnant. Noah is even more angry about those tense moments on the Macon plantation because he feels he didn’t have a full scope of what was going on. Would he have consented to putting his life (and plan) on the line for James if he knew about this?
We also follow Tubman in another context, as she makes her way down south and eventually connects with Rosalee and the rest. Away from people and civilization, Tubman feels vulnerable and once again I have to credit the show for finding so many layers in this historical figure. At one point she prays alone in a church and expresses some of the same fear and misgivings we heard in that standalone story “Minty.”
This episode really shines in its vignette-like structure, appropriately saving Daniel, whose story has thus far been shown in snippets, for last. Though he’s been blinded, his daughter ensures that he can still read the world. And what his daughter sees isn’t good. Much like Nat Turner struck fear and paranoia into the white planter class, a similar thing seems to be happening with John Brown’s raids. Their master is frantically selling off slaves and Daniel decides it’s finally time to fight back.
He uses just another routine in town assignment as an opportunity to flee northward and find the underground. As he moves through these hostile places, people often underestimate him. He talks about the things he’s read as if he’s just read them, when we know that cannot be the case. But while the outside world might call that a delusion, maybe it’s clinging to that knowledge that gets him through.
I have to say, it’s not easy to gracefully give voice to a character who for so long has not been central but Daniel’s treatment here is pretty brilliant. In fact, this is the best payoff of the season. And I didn’t even have an expectation that anything would! Ultimately, Daniel finds Elizabeth and the underground, setting the table for next week’s season finale.
One final note on Daniel’s story, which finally was centered this week. At the risk of opening up a can of worms, I’ll say that Underground has proven that there are still plenty more stories about slavery to be told, yes even those that include the brutalities of whipping and so much more. Maybe it’s not necessary to outright show all this brutality like it was, say, in Roots. But Daniel’s understated treatment had the same impact on me, and when the man who was robbed of so much finally found refuge, I was just as inspired.
Ade Adeniji | Contributor