On the one hand, racism has always threatened to put a cap on what people under its heel could achieve. On the other hand, UNDERGROUND’s namesake is one of many examples of how that ceiling was blown open. As a history nerd, though, I still feel like we’re still coming to grips with the many ways in which people broke through a seemingly impenetrable ceiling, and even managed to rise above the fray, at least for a time. Instead of saying “wow” and feeling pride, our first response is actually tinged with skepticism — “did that really happen?” Racism imposes a limit on our own imagination — past, present, and future.
This all came to mind when last night’s Underground episode, “Whiteface” opens with a seemingly impossible moment. We’re treated to a minstrel performance in the City of Brotherly Love, bankrolled by none other than nouveau riche Cato. Only, this is no Amos n Andy. Rather, these black thespians are adorned in whiteface. And while they kind of dance and entertain in a familiar manner for a while, it isn’t long before they’re giving an all out harangue of American society. The all-white crowd makes a beeline for the exit as Cato cackles from above.
Was “whiteface” a thing? As it turns out, yes– dating back to the 19th century. Cato’s journey was the most captivating story last week and that continues this week. Besides knocking “polite society” down a peg as an arts patron, Cato takes his money as the great equalizer platform to the next level as he hobnobs with Philly’s black elite and progressive white allies to fundraise for abolition. Cato’s British friend, though, starts to have misgivings about Cato’s bombastic and ostentatious lifestyle and warns that it could all start to come crashing down. His friend also sends for his love Devi, but Cato’s fate is sealed before they can have a reunion.
Besides abolitionist William Sill who’s been alongside Cato before, Cato also meets Frederick Douglass, played by none other than Underground executive producer John Legend. One issue I had with these scenes is that no one amongst this black elite really starts to reign Cato in. They just let him continue to draw attention to himself, potentially threatening the cause, when in truth they of all people would be intimately aware of the dangers involved in having some degree of status and privilege in the antebellum. The fact that they don’t at the very least address this feels historically false.
Eventually, Patty Cannon and a partially rejuvenated August Pullman (fueled by alcohol and news of his son’s survival) crash one of Cato’s shindigs demanding to know the whereabouts of Rosalee. Cato continues to overestimate his station, and soon is left trembling behind cover as he sees all his hired muscle taken out by Patty and August. Cato’s exact fate is unclear but Patty makes it clear that she plans on sticking around near Cato’s residence for a bit.
On some level, last night’s Underground was about reunions and besides the unpleasant one between Cato and August, there’s also the much anticipated reunion of Rosalee and Noah. But before the touching moment goes on too long, an on the mend Rosalee already starts talking about plans to head south to find her mother. Noah is a bit worried but eventually agrees that they’re in this together and that he’ll help.
Away from this drama, Elizabeth discovers that Sewing Circle leader Georgia has actually been passing for white (I had a funny feeling). The local authorities begin to frequent their haven, threatening to blow their entire operation. Elizabeth is later terrorized in the woods by a group of hooded men (no doubt said local peacekeepers). Called a race traitor in less polite words, Elizabeth surprisingly doubles down on her commitment rather than acquiesce.
Stine’s reputation, meanwhile, starts to catch up to her with the Gullah, who are none too pleased about her less than respectable past and present drug abuse for that matter. A slave named Clara though calls upon Ernestine’s expertise so that she too can access power via her master. Ernestine teaches her the way and it’s not too long before their master bends.
Given the limited screentime, I felt that these scenes covered a lot of ground and even took some smart jabs at colorism. When Clara, a very attractive dark skinned slave, seems worried that lighter-skinned Ernestine’s tricks won’t work on their master, Ernestine tersely asks how Clara thinks she came about. Enough said.
Of course like always Stine has more than one thing in mind when it comes to her benevolence. With Clara in the good graces of their master, she can now use Clara to get to him, without having to put her own body and soul on the line like before.
And at the end of the episode, it seems that everyone is headed back south again. But before we find out about that next chapter, we’ll be treated to an all Harriet Tubman episode next week with an earlier start.
Season 2, Episode 5 (S02E05)
Underground airs Wednesdays at 10PM on WGN America
Ade Adeniji | Contributor