Every week, I write about Underground under the guise of “TV Critic,” but a critic is, oftentimes, just a person trying to figure out how they could love (or hate) a single thing so much. Every week I think I’ve discovered the answer to my passion for Underground—Oh, it’s the focus on black flesh and blood as a means of freedom! No, it’s the attention paid to sensuality Wait, it must be the themes and critiques of religion. No, it’s Ernestine. Definitely Ernestine. And I’m never satisfied with the answer I give, because it seems there’s always something I forgot to talk about—some point I forgot to stress.
This week I realize I haven’t talked about how absolutely weird this show is—and how much I enjoy that. There have been hints of its weirdness all along. Herman using his own blood to mix the red paint. August getting cut during the Native American ritual. And that terrifying scene in the forest when we finally met his wife—all very weird. The creators of this show have been continuously taking risks in plot, character development and presentation. But it wasn’t until I watched last night’s “Black and Blue” that I saw a certain cinematic style of the series as a nod to those strange elements that make up some of my favorite films—especially those in French cinema.
It happened during Rosalee’s speech to Ben. He tells her that he already knows her name, because it’s on the slave bill. And she makes it a point to explain to him that knowing her name and how much she’s worth to her slaveowner does not equate to knowing anything about her. It reduces her.
I hate when my mama would hold my shoulder in the cook house. I like the sound of the leaves rustlin’ through the trees in the plantation. It’s like hearin’ a song on a windy day. I like the smell of these tin cookies Ms. Suzannah used to buy. But I never did try one.Yellow my favorite color! But the real shiny kind, like on this ribbon I used to like to wear. I ain’t just a name on a slave bill. I ain’t just a runaway. And I ain’t just five thousand dollars.
It’s a lovely and powerful speech that accomplishes so much. First, it carries on the oh-so-important thread of the yellow ribbon, which I wrote about after episode two, “War Chest,” and episode seven, “Cradle.” Of course, the other purpose of the speech is to allow Ben to see Rosalee as human. And the writers of this episode know that one way to humanize someone over the course of just a few lines, is to offer up their specificities, and their quirks.
As soon as Rosalee got to the part about the sound of the leaves, I was reminded me of the unforgettable opening to the film Amélie. We are introduced to Audrey Tautou’s Amélie Poulain, along with her parents (and then later, other characters), by way of their personal likes and dislikes. Not their favorite movies, or where they went to school—these things don’t tell us enough about a person. You have to get down to the quirks—those sounds and scents that they live for—to understand a whole being. This is how you humanize a person, and a character.
In other words, the speech isn’t just for Ben. It’s for those of us who still believe we have Rosalee pegged as one thing or another. “Black & Blue” is another reminder that this character is full of surprises. Her brilliant move with the devil’s snare was more proof that she cannot be underestimated—that the housegirl we met in episode one was holding back a lot. Jurnee Smollett-Bell recently spoke with Paste about the making of this complex character, and the impression I got was that Rosalee has always been a fighter; so it’s not that the housegirl has disappeared, it’s that her warrior self is finally getting to be revealed in new ways.
I meant to kill him. It was the first free thing I ever done. But it ain’t gonna be my last.
There’s another interesting parallel between Rosalee and Amélie Poulain. One of the big things that defines them is a certain coldness they both received from their fathers, though under obviously different contexts. Rosalee talks about being ignored by her father—not despised or treated badly—but never given any consideration whatsoever, which felt more painful. Amélie has similar beginnings, cared for by a father who never embraces her, or shows her any affection. It’s this—along with her many quirks—that inspires a deep desire for human connection, not just for herself, but for those around. And it sends her on the adventure of a lifetime.
Amélie and her father eventually come to some resolution (with the help of a world-traveling lawn gnome); I don’t think such a resolution is in the cards for Rosalee and Tom Macon—perhaps, that confrontation during the hallucination is the only resolution they’ll get. But I think Rosalee’s character has so much room to continue to blossom in strange and surprising ways. We’ve seen hints of so many unexpected sides of her, and in future episodes/seasons of the show, I hope we get to be continuously surprised. We still don’t know about all of her quirks, and all of her favorite things—and I suspect she doesn’t either. And if Misha Green, Joe Pokaski and director Anthony Hemingway need some more inspiration, French films (the majority of which are far darker than Amélie, and might, therefore, work in an even more interesting way with the series) might be one place to to look.
The violent and poetic hallucinations made this episode a great precursor to next week’s finale, as proof that you just don’t know what to expect with this show. “Black & Blue” might have even been a bit too odd for some. Ernestine chopping meat, playing seductress (bloody hands and all) and singing sweetly to August was probably the most bizarre thing we’ve seen on the show so far. Noah drenched in pig’s blood, and Rosalee shanking poor Ben—it might have been a bit too much. But I’d rather see the series take more risks, and occasionally go over the top, “Black & Blue”-style, than play it safe.
It should also be said that, in the midst of so much strangeness, the episode still maintained its other storylines and produced some of this big, bold statements that I’ve come to look for each week. For example, I love that this installment put an emphasis on the one thing that saved the lives of the runaways and got Rosalee to safety—straight cash. Cato and Noah discover that there is literally one distraction big enough to keep the slave catchers off of them. Cue up Wu Tang’s C.R.E.A.M., and remember the words of the slaveowner John had it out with:
I hold a very high value on black lives. The sum total of which made me a very wealthy man.
See? Black lives [of value to white men] do matter.
And while I know we can trust Underground to continue to draw such stark and compelling parallels to today’s America, I’m really hoping we can look forward to more risk-taking in form and storytelling style in the coming seasons. And yes, I am predicting that the recently-announced Season Two is just the beginning for this show.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.