The creators and writers of Underground have proven, in just two episodes, that they know compelling characters—more than anything else—need to be at the center of this story. Of course, there are many of us who would tune in to Underground every week, if only out of a certain sense of duty. We know that the show is going to be educational and important, but Misha Green and Joe Pokaski are also—as we saw in the premiere —trying to make a must-watch TV drama. Noah, Rosalee, Ernestine and the rest of the characters are not presented as slaves primarily. They are complicated people who happen to also be living under American slavery. And this is how great TV is made. Don Draper and Peggy Olsen happened to work for an ad agency, and happened to be white, but that’s not why we fell in love with those characters. Maura Pfefferman happens to be trans, but we’re drawn to her and her family because they are flawed and compelling (and frustrating) people to spend time with. Walter White, Olivia Pope, John Luther, Tony Soprano, Annalise Keating—what these characters do is simply a backdrop for the real story—who and how they are. And there’s no better way to show us how a character is, than to give the audience a sense of their flaws, and a sense of their desires. Last night’s second episode of Underground, “War Chest,” was all about how desire is often at the center of this Georgia plantation and those who inhabit it.
If I had time to brush up on Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, I like to think I’d figure out a way to align the hair ribbons in “War Chest” with Mrs. Ramsay’s brown stocking. Everything you need to know about Underground’s messages of desire and sensuality, in all their complications, depend upon these ribbons. At the start of the episode, Rosalee overhears some of the other women giggling about the upcoming dance, which all of those enslaved on the plantation—those in the field and the house—can attend. “Solomon loves blue,” one of them says coquettishly, holding up the ribbon of her choice. It’s one of those deceptively small moments that captures the truth about these women. They are young people, they have desire—they have crushes—and they also happen to be slaves. But the reality of their horrifyingly inhumane circumstances cannot completely strip them of their own humanity. So the frivolity of the hunt for the perfect ribbon works to further highlight the fact that slaves were never meant to be slaves. They were always human, and that seems like an obvious statement to make, but the fact that we still refer to black Americans who were enslaved as “slaves,” (even if it’s reflexive) signifies a certain detachment. It’s not always easy to remember that they, too, were flawed, complex, sexual beings, but Underground is invested in presenting their characters as such.
The ribbon scene also works to highlight a certain distance between Rosalee and the other women. White slaveowners purposely implemented a hierarchy among the blacks they legally owned, which is how you have characters like Alano Miller’s Cato—blacks in a position to exact power over the other enslaved blacks (though they remained in bondage as well). Most of us know that house slaves were considered to be in a better position than field slaves, but in the ribbon scene, it’s the other women who also work in the house who snicker at Rosalee, and suggest that she thinks she’s too good for the dance they’re going to attend. Though they all work in the house, Rosalee’s lighter skin has set her apart from the others.
Perhaps the most terrifying thing about these hierarchies is how much they still function, to some degree, in black America. “War Chest” aired one day after Ta-Nehisi Coates published an essay titled Nina Simone’s Face in The Atlantic. Many have already said what he argues here—that the casting of Zoe Saldana in the upcoming Nina Simone biopic is problematic and offensive to the legacy of Nina Simone precisely because her dark skin color and facial features were of both personal and political import to the singer and activist. Coates uses a classic Notorious B.I.G. line (“Heartthrob never, black and ugly as ever/However…) to show how these issues of skin color and features deemed ugly (anything looking more “African” is deemed as such) are not applicable to all members of the black community—only the women. The light skin/dark skin issue exists across the board, but it plays itself out in a very different way for black women. Thus, slaveowners like Underground’s Tom Macon were ultimately successful in breeding animosity among the members of a group of people who suffered the same plight (and who only varied so much in skin tone because the women were raped, and often forced to bear the children of their rapists). That legacy, like others created by American slavery, remains in tact.
So the dance represents the duality of the experiences of American slaves. On the one hand, we can’t help but look forward to the evening, for a couple of reasons. The women seem to be giddy about it, and then we have Noah planning the next phase of the great escape—they’re going to steal a pistol from the big house. But it’s all so much more complicated than that. Yes, the women are looking forward to an evening where they get to dance and sing and, perhaps, gain the attention of a guy they like. But even the occasional dances and “days off” enslaved blacks received were a part of a strategy slaveowners used to pacify the men and women they sought to control. And on Underground, it goes even further, because these dances are partly sponsored by the notorious Bare Back Shaw, the elder white woman of the home, who chooses an unlucky man to entertain her for the evening.
And that’s putting it far too nicely, because it’s really, actually, rape. Even though the men know it’s coming, and even though the episode presents it somewhat humorously (with Noah tripping up Cato, who eventually has to take one for the team and spend the night with this woman—distracting her while they steal the pistol), it has to be understood as rape; another situation on this plantation where the sexual desires of a white person take precedence over the human rights of a black person.
But let’s get back to those hair ribbons for a moment, because they return later in “War Chest,” but the significance shifts quite a bit. Important white men who Macon needs to become a Senator are gathered in a room, and Rosalee must come in and serve them. They immediately begin to fondle her, with one in particular referencing the irresistible hips of the “nigra women” he owns. Were it not for the timely appearance of Ernestine (again, Amirah Vann is incredible in every scene), it’s clear that Rosalee wouldn’t have had a choice but to succumb to the physical desires of one or more of these men. She manages to leave the room, but she’s shaking, and shaken. Jurnee Smollett-Bell proves that she’s as formidable an actor as her co-star here because, without saying a word, we see she is completely wrecked by the ordeal. Something in her shifts and she tears out the lovely yellow ribbon she’d put in her hair. It turns out the women at the beginning of the episode were wrong. Rosalee was looking forward to the dance, and those long gazes throughout the day told us that the ribbon was for Noah. She tears it out because she realizes she, perhaps like the other women, forgot herself for a moment. Of course, we know that she would have likely received the same attention, with or without the adornment. But in that moment, it seems that she feels ridiculous for thinking herself even free enough for a hair ribbon.
All of this leads up to one of the most shocking, uncomfortable, and—yes, I’ll say it—sexy TV scenes I’ve seen in my life. Ernestine leads Tom Macon to the wine cellar and everything seems to turn on a dime. She strips to the nude and pours wine over her body. If you squinted it would have looked like another steamy sex scene between Olivia and Fitz on Scandal, but it’s the 1800s and Ernestine will do anything to keep her children close to her. She slaps Tom in the face when he first approaches her (to his great enjoyment) and snaps, “I didn’t say you could touch me.” She takes hold of him (and I mean, she lit’rally has him by the balls), and makes it very clear that, in this moment, she is the one in control.
Ernestine: I don’t want James out in the field. Ms. Suzanna keep pressin’. You tell her he been showin’ some skills with woodwork. He can go work with Sam.
Tom: He’ll be wherever you want him.
Ernestine: He ain’t. Goin’ out. In the fields. Say it.
Tom: He will not be out in the fields.
Let the church say, “Amen.”
Rosalee’s not like her mother, which is precisely the reason why she needs her mother to protect her. But it’s also the reason we know she’s going to run with Noah. As she says early on in “War Chest,” she imagines other lives for herself outside of the plantation. Ernestine can only imagine the horrors of the field, or the auction block, or the catastrophes on other plantations. Ernestine has that survivor mentality that kept so many black Americans alive during this time—and, indeed, it’s what’s keeping her children safe. But Rosalee has hope (maybe that’s why she put the ribbon back in for the dance), and perhaps also love. Like Noah, she’s willing to put “pain on top of pain” if it means there’s a chance she’ll be able to define herself, outside of and away from the whites who seek to own and destroy her. I suspect that Underground is going to explore the ways in which such feelings will be both dangerous and useful to the Macon 7, as they plan their escape.
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Salon and Heart&Soul. 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.