Last night while watching Underground “Cradle,” my good friend from Cleveland Face Timed me to tell me she wasn’t having any more kids. Her 14-month-old had done her in, and I paused the show to laugh hysterically as she told me about the horrors of a day spent with a stubborn child. She’d always wanted a big family, but she was just over it at the moment. Every parent has been there. I gave her the It gets better” speech, shared a few horror stories of my own and told her she was going to make it. Hang in there girl. It’s worth it… I think.
For me, there are two types of scenarios where I’ve felt like I couldn’t have another kid, ever ever again. The first kind is the most common among parents, I think—when a child is being so difficult, and is so set on having things his way, that I can’t get anything done. I’m beholden to a small tyrant, and it seems my life is over. But the other scenario is more painful. It’s when I’ve had to see one of my children suffer. If you’ve ever watched a nurse put an IV in your child, or had a small baby with pneumonia, you know it can be painful. If a doctor has ever told you that your child’s life is in danger, for whatever reason, you know about the panic, and the knot in your throat and the places your mind goes, as you try to make sense of the concept before you—the idea that something, actually, very bad could happen to your child.
So when last night’s Underground began with the unthinkable—Ms. Ernestine’s beautiful little boy, James, out in the fields—I felt a very familiar sense of panic. A knot in my throat. A very definitive NO escaped from my mouth because, for some reason, I thought this one character was safe. This is a brilliant narrative device for any good TV series to employ. The Americans comes to mind as another series where, deep down, the viewer knows that no one is safe, given the circumstances. But what makes it one of the most acclaimed shows on TV is that the writing is so good, and the characters so compelling, you come to believe certain people will survive, and that the show wouldn’t betray you—and then it does. Underground pulled a bait-and-switch, first by giving us those powerful scenes from episode two, “War Chest,” and that unforgettable exchange between Ernestine and Tom:
We felt safe. Like parents who never really believe anything bad will happen to their children, we as an audience had grown to believe that Ernestine had so much control over the Big House, her little James would never see the fields. Even after all the brutality we’ve seen on Underground, we’d come to believe that the children, at least, were safe. “Cradle” is where reality sets in, and it’s the most difficult episode of the series yet.
After the lovely (but eerie) Necco candy opener, the episode begins with Ernestine teaching her child how to perform as a slave— she tells him to always keep a song, don’t make eye contact with the overseers. These seemingly things are quite literally the difference between life and death.
It’s a scene that requires you to think about how black people have evolved in this country. Ernestine’s conversation reminds me of the sort that so many parents have with their sons and daughters today—about what to do if you get pulled over by the police. Smile, be polite, don’t make smart comments. A bit of attitude can mean the difference between life and death; between getting a ticket, and getting dragged out of your car—later found dead in a jail cell. Or, getting your head blown off on sight. Again, Ernestine is doing everything she can to protect her son, even though the truth is that there is nothing she can do, because it’s not up to her whether her lives, dies, picks cotton or builds desks.
Really, sit and think for a moment about what such a lack of control could do to you. And then, consider how many black Americans still live with a similar mindset—one that comes from living in an environment that predetermines the outcome of your life. One of Jay Z’s greatest songs comes to mind:
Sam learns a similar lesson when he approaches Master Macon, $100 in savings, collected in a jar. He tries to buy his little brother’s freedom, because he can already see what those fields are doing to him. Of course, Macon goes back on his word (a word that meant as much as his promise to Ernestine, that James would remain in the house), and refuses to free James. As a result, Sam becomes further convinced that the only way to freedom is to steal away, like the Macon 7 already did.
As is the case with every Underground episode, there is a glimmer of hope. Boo and the return of the yellow ribbon (which I’ve been tracking since that second episode) tells us that she is a survivor. Now, an orphan, she has a fierce protector in the way of Elizabeth. The physical and emotional sacrifice Elizabeth makes is a great complication in the narrative that follows her and her husband, John. Surely, he wouldn’t have wanted her to go this far—so far as to sleep with her ex—but it was so clear that there was no other way to protect her precious cargo. Liz gets the slow clap this week.
And the fact that one of our least favorite characters, Chris Meloni’s August, has a son with some sort of conscience also gives us hope. He asks his mother which of the two wolves from the proverb is his father. Unlike TR, he doesn’t just accept the world that his father has presented to him.
Young Henry [Hampton] may have also made an incredible sacrifice—but I can’t imagine how it will effect his brother in arms, Noah.
And then there’s our beloved James. He is doing what no 7 year-old should have to do, and becoming a man. Early on in the episode, he makes weight, or appears to (to the tune of that amazing children’s choir singing, “Move, Daniel”) and most importantly, he’s recognizing the divide between himself and his white half-brother. When James refused the Necco candy that served as a lovely thread throughout the episode, I couldn’t help but rejoice. On the one hand, he’s being a stubborn kid. He wants things to go back to the way they were, and he’s mad at a boy who used to be his friend. But there’s always something to be learned from the stubbornness of children. Though they can be amazing, small tyrants, they certainly know what they want—and knowing what you truly want can be difficult, especially when you’re not in control.
In other words, when a person is oppressed, the easiest thing to do is to take bits from the oppressor. Tiny morsels that won’t last, won’t satisfy in the end and—most of all—will not lead to liberation. There’s a difference between James drinking the water he must drink to survive in the fields, and accepting a trifle meant to assuage his pain.
But when a persona or a community is oppressed, that’s exactly what they do, sometimes. It’s easy—and comforting, in a way—to dance on the days when those in power say you can dance; to celebrate those small acknowledgements of your humanity; to accept the promises of a future freedom. Rejecting those morsels usually means that life, in the immediate present, will likely be more difficult. James no longer has the future master on his side; he won’t be offered more candy, and his older brother is now in danger. But rejecting those morsels also means that the oppressed has made it clear to the oppressor that he won’t be pacified. No candy, no opiate will do. James already knows what he wants and, like Noah and many of our other heroes, he’s got a fire burning in his eyes. I just hope that flame doesn’t get put out anytime soon. After all, the very difficult truth that Underground stresses in “Cradle,” is that our children are not safe.
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.