It’s impossible to pick a favorite Season One episode, but “Firefly” is definitely one of Underground’s most unforgettable hours. Jussie Smollett guest starred as Josey, a runaway enslaved man who’d gone mad with rage—and watching him unleash that rage made for powerful viewing. When I wrote about the episode, I opened with a quotation that pops into my head probably once a week, and certainly anytime I hear someone going on about how violent protest is wrong:
“Police & policies have been rioting on our bodies; destroying people & property every single day of your lives. So Exactly What Kind Of Violence Don’t You Like?” — Jesse Williams
Tonight’s Underground, once again, poses similar questions about the usefulness of violence—can it be a means to a revolutionary end? Is it a language that must be employed, depending on the people you’re dealing with? Is it cathartic? Is it beautiful? I say, under the right context, yes. And so does Cato (and Cato’s right hook).
The return of Cato (played by the great Alano Miller) offers up plenty of answers to our burning questions concerning his whereabouts, but it also inspires lots of new questions. What does it mean to be free? For Cato, it apparently means traveling the world (as one Mr. C. Powell), and—not unlike Josey—enjoying the fact that he can finally dine like white folks. As his London lover Devi (Rana Roy—who was on the receiving end of perhaps the greatest character intro song in television history) points out, Cato only wants to move in circles that are rich and white. He wants to be noticed, he wants to throw his money around and he seems to exist solely for the white gaze. He dares them to say he doesn’t belong, but he’s far from peace. It’s clear that he’s escaped slavery, but he still isn’t free.
Still, there is one place where I think Cato gets to truly be himself and taste freedom, and that’s in the ring—or fighting pit. Between you and me, one of my favorite films of all time is Rust and Bone, a French drama that gets away with mixing romance with street fighting in a way that only a French film by Jacques Audiard could. If you’ve ever wanted to see Marion Cotillard cheer on a beaten and bloody Matthias Schoenaerts (and get it on with him later), then this is the film for you. Watching Devi throw her man back into the fight every time he thought he’d had enough brought me many welcome flashbacks to that cinematic treasure. And Devi also spoke directly to the themes of the hour.
Cato is such an important character on Underground, because he’s not a hero. In fact, he’s really one of the villains of the show, which is a huge part of the thrill of Underground: a show set during slavery that dares allow its black characters to play villains is a show that resists predictability on multiple levels. Now that Cato is back, the show can continue to bring up those difficult questions about morality in the time of oppression. Is Cato really wrong for throwing around money, and flaunting a newfound wealth and power? How can we blame him, knowing how far he’s come? He’s no Noah. If, for instance, you asked Cato to give up his own freedom for the sake of a group of strangers, heading down South, there’d be no question of his choice. Noah struggles with being put in this position—even though he does what most people would do, and refuses to sacrifice himself to save the others. Cato’s struggles are very different, but make no mistake—there is struggle. His response to many of his issues is destruction—shedding the blood of his opponent, and allowing the violence to work as some kind of catharsis. But isn’t that what violence does, sometimes?
Noah is our hero (despite not feeling heroic at the end of the episode), but even he can’t wait to lay into Cato. And we want him to, because Cato damn near got Noah and Rosalee killed last season (not to mention Zeke, who he did actually get killed). We’ve been waiting for these two to come face to face, and, if we’re being honest, we’ve been waiting to see Noah punch Cato square in the face. Cato deserves it, and Noah—who still has yet to make contact with his Rosalee, who has no idea that she is carrying their child (but who has made it to freedom!)—deserves that release. There is such a thing as righteous violence, and Noah has every right to use violence where words simply will not do. He’s speaking Cato’s language, and you have to believe that Cato respects him for it in the end.
This message of righteous violence is one that Elizabeth and Georgia are faced with when they meet Lucas, one of John Brown’s supporters. Lucas does not believe there are white women and children who can be “innocent” and simultaneously benefit from slavery, which is why he has no problem with killing them in the name of abolishing slavery. As far as he’s concerned, there is nothing innocent about any group of people who ultimately support violence against black men, women and children, and he insists that those fighting for freedom will have to speak the language of white southerners. But Georgia and Elizabeth believe that theirs can be an activism of peaceful protest and speeches. Georgia has said before that she believes people who are good, deep down, can be swayed. This assumes, of course, that most people who support slavery do so out of ignorance, rather than malice—and that’s quite an assumption to make.
In her speech to the townspeople, Elizabeth shouts that “slavery is violence,” and the scene cuts back and forth between the rising anger of her audience and the fight between Cato and Noah. We see in this moment that Lucas was right about one thing—in some cases, talk is not enough to sway the masses. We also see that, for a moment, Elizabeth wants to fight back. Georgia holds her back from throwing a rock at her attackers, but it’s clear that she wants to do something with that anger boiling inside of her. And isn’t that fair? Isn’t it fair that Noah fight back against Cato, who has, in certain ways, oppressed him? If Cato, with his freedom and wealth and power, had thrown the first punch at Noah, it would have been cruel. But Noah swinging at Cato is catharsis and righteousness. The difference between the two is power, agency, influence. Like Cato says, he has a whole team behind him—a team of white men and even police officers. White slaveowners who exact violence against the enslaved also have the law on their sides, and everything that comes with it. Abolitionists like Lucas do not; violence is weighted according to the political power of its carrier. In other words, the violence of slavery and oppression (wielded by those in power) is not the same thing as the violence of activists, abolitionists, or those rebelling against their enslavement.
But what’s exciting about Cato is that it’s impossible to place him on either side. Even as I call what he’s done a form of “oppression,” I can’t help but consider how complicated his violence is. Cato isn’t like white slaveowners, doesn’t believe he’s necessarily better than Noah, or more deserving of wealth and power. Cato—and this is something I’ve admired about him since he set that cotton field on fire in “Firefly”—wants to see America burn. No speeches, no reform, no amendments (see Ava DuVernay’s 13th for an understanding of just how dangerous amendments can be). And more than that, he wants to be the flame that starts it all. Cato’s eyes have been opened. I’d argue that at one point, he may have felt like Daniel does at the beginning of the episode—crushed under the weight of the knowledge that he should be free, that something as “simple” as words on paper keep him oppressed. Underground is a mosaic of what different individuals do once they decide they won’t be crushed. Cato has been activated, and after everything we’ve seen him do, I can only imagine what comes next. But I know I’ll find some strange catharsis in watching him deliver a few more blows in this fighting pit called America.
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.