“Brownsville, home of the brave/put in work in the street like a slave…” —M.O.P., “Ante Up”
Mark last night down in history as the first time a TV critic paused a show to pull up the YouTube video for M.O.P.’s 2000 stick-up kid anthem “Ante Up.”
When those literal snakes hit the sanctuary floor, just as the offering baskets were making their way to the pulpit, and Elizabeth was rising from her seat in the pew, it occurred to me that Underground had reached peak gangsta. They robbed a motha— church!!! And during the Christmas episode, no less! Last night we learned that, in the fight for freedom (which often costs more money than a mere bake sale can raise) anyone can get it: religious hypocrites can get it, white feminists can get it, Bottleneck Bills can get it; hell, if you think he might get in the way of his own freedom and yours, even your little brother can get it! Entire plantation homes can, and should always, get it. Whew. What an incredible hour of TV.
And, as is often the case with Underground, what a devastating hour as well. We’re all eager to see exactly where Daniel’s story is headed, but now we know that it is at least, partly, going to end in tragedy. We’ve come to know him as a brilliant thinker—someone who taught himself how to read and write. We’ve also known him to be an incredible artist, creating beautiful sculptures and working on buildings, the likes of which are still standing in the South and throughout America (including the White House itself). And we’ve come to know him as someone with a clear fire burning behind his eyes—that same fire Noah spoke about in Season One; that thing inside you that knows that no matter what you’ve been told, you are meant to live a full and free life—or at least catch a glimpse of it. To see him open “Auld Acquaintance,” having been brutally blinded after getting caught teaching others how to read, was horrifying. I hope he somehow rises up by the end of the season, although for many of the real enslaved people by whom his story is surely inspired, this was likely the end of such grand, rebellious acts.
Two other moments—all packed within the first five minutes of the episode—stung just as hard as Daniel’s visage. Cato, singing the show’s theme song to Patty and revealing the lyrics from the “map” to freedom felt like an infuriating betrayal (and yet was beautifully presented by Underground), and seeing Rosalee back in that wretched maroon and white dress (her protruding belly being practically suffocated by that corset) was equally disturbing. It physically pained me watching little James put on his outfit—especially because it brought back memories of last season’s most devastating episode, “Cradle,” when he was first put out in the fields, and opened the episode getting dressed in field work attire (and being schooled by his true mother on the two masks black people must wear).
Thankfully, all my rage was partly quelled by some of the best scenes this show has delivered. Elizabeth’s “friend,” who showed up at Georgia’s bake sale, was the perfect representative of white feminism. She really wants to help, and she really abhors the institution of slavery—but she’s clearly disgusted by the actual presence of black people in her midst. She even dares compare her plight to those of enslaved blacks, all but declaring that “woman is the nigger of the world.” Oh, and she’ll have to ask her husband before she donates to the cause. But Elizabeth didn’t come to play.
“I catch you backstage, give me the keys to the Escalade/You think you cute hoe? Take off them Gucci shades…” —Remy Ma, “Ante Up Remix”
When Elizabeth yapped that fool at the end of the episode, I was filled with as much happiness as I felt at the sight of the burning Macon house, the blood on Ms. Suzanna, that last breath coming out of Bill’s mouth (although I am a big fan of the actor who plays him—hi PJ Marshall). I felt like I felt the other night at the Ruff Ryders reunion concert, when M.O.P. showed up during The LOX’s set to perform “Ante Up.” I felt like screaming at that ridiculous white woman, in my best Remy Ma voice, “Bitch, run that!” But I didn’t have to. Elizabeth is taking her cues from the real activists on the show. Harriet tells her, “Ain’t nothin’ wrong with a little sin for the greater good.” And Georgia had one of the best lines of the episode:
“Be quiet. Turn around. Or I will show you a real sinner.”
This is Underground. And anybody—preacher, friend, family member—can get it. Like I said last week, this is the Underground that I fell in love with. Like many others, I may not be interested in watching another “slave” show or movie, but I will watch the hell out of a show about superheroes (or in the case of “Auld Acquaintance,” straight up gangstas) setting fire to the institution of slavery in every way that they can. Watching Rosalee clock her own brother, and seeing Noah make the very smart decision to trust no one in their new escape plan, made for a gripping final scene—not to be outdone by the appearance of none other than Cato, as Georgia and Elizabeth’s newest cargo. Meanwhile, ‘Stine, who swore she wasn’t the running type last season, is doing her best to put these catchers through hell, and I pray she’s not finished yet. She knows her daughter is alive, and I suspect she intends to come face to face with her again.
Now excuse me while I go commit a few crimes before my kids get home from school. I’m ante’d up.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer on Hulu’s upcoming series The Looming Tower. She is the former TV Editor of Paste Magazine, and her work has appeared in Salon, Indiewire’s Shadow and Act, and Heart&Soul. She currently has more babies than you. You can follow her on Twitter.