This second half of Underground Season Two has been almost everything I could have hoped for. Some of the season’s early episodes played like a rough start, setting up new storylines and introducing a new format that was a necessary departure from the first season. As a result, there were times when I felt myself longing for the energy and excitement of the Macon 7. And as I said in my review of what might be the season’s most memorable episode, “Minty,” I still wish we could have spent more time with Harriet Tubman—not just as a symbol, but as a character—and for these reasons and more, I’m sending out a special prayer to the god of TV series renewals for Underground’s future.
It’s difficult to think about tonight’s finale as a thing unto itself, especially with news of changes at its home network, WGN America. The story of our heroes, Ernestine, Rosalee, Noah, Harriet, Elizabeth and Cato (yes, Cato counts!), is so incomplete at the end of the hour. As I consider the many epic moments that make up “Soldier,” I can’t help but also think about how unfair it will be if we don’t get to see what happens next. Because what happens in this last hour, well, it changes everything.
First, the good news. Rosalee is a mommy. Noah is a pappy, ‘Stine is a grandma and James is an uncle. We have a healthy baby on Underground, and he was born free because his parents put their very lives on the line to ensure it. Welcome to the world, little guy. Let’s hope we get to see your parents and their friends light this shit on fire next season, so you can grow up in a better place than they did.
Of course, before his arrival, Rosalee is forced to do the unthinkable, to bring this baby into the world practically on her own and with very limited resources. When she started to go into labor, just as Patty Cannon and her gang had them cornered, my initial reaction was that it was a bit clichéd—the decision to intertwine the drama of their being discovered with the drama of the childbirth. But something about the way the scenes were cut against the riot on the Kentucky plantations made so much sense for the series. This season has been especially concerned with womanhood and motherhood as distinctive forms of strength, so watching Rosalee prepare for the birth, guide James along the way (all while barricading herself and her brother in the kitchen), and then actually deliver the baby herself—as Noah, Elizabeth and the rest of their team fight back against the militia—is incredibly moving. Once again, Jurnee-Smollett-Bell proves herself to be a powerful performer. Rosalee was never going to have a quiet and comforting labor; that just isn’t the nature of this show. Still, it’s exciting to think that the “housegirl” we met early in Season One is but a memory. Rosalee is a soldier now, and so, even during an event like the miracle of childbirth, it’s still a time to kill.
And the knife twist is, after all that physical, mental and emotional labor, Rosalee is forced to do the unthinkable again, and leave her newborn child behind. She turns herself over to Cato, and at episode’s end, Noah discovers James and the baby hiding together, with Rosalee gone out of his grasp once again. Noah’s last words to her are pretty harsh and unforgiving. Now we’ll have to wait until the as-yet-unconfirmed Season Three before we see Rosalee and Noah have make-up/new parent sex. And that is a real tragedy.
But the other good news is that Noah proves himself to be an amazing leader. I loved seeing him tossing those rifles at the enslaved men and women from Daniel’s plantation. Instead of running and, basically, waiting for the militia to gun them down, they decide to bring the war to them.
Earlier this week, Paste published a massive list of the greatest war films of all time. Shortly after, those of us who contributed to it began joking on Twitter about how traumatic the experience was—re-watching old war movies and writing about them for the sake of the piece. And it’s true. It’s one thing to talk about the significance of violence on Underground—and how inspiring certain acts of rebellion are—but it’s another thing to really consider how things will look when our characters take up arms and go to war. In “Soldier,” we see Elizabeth and Georgia butt heads again, over the best course of action to help Daniel. Not only does Elizabeth want to go back to his plantation and free his family, she also wants to take the opportunity to liberate others and make a statement for the sake of their cause. Like Noah, she wants to stop running from the slave owners, catchers, the militia and their supporters—she’s ready for the fight, or at least she thinks she is (she certainly didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger on old massa). But we’re very rarely, exactly, who we think we are—nor are we always ready for the life we think we’ve been preparing for.
Another lesson from this season is that self-perception (or misperception) is a hell of a drug. Is Elizabeth really ready to join John Brown and his crew? The final scene shows her sleeping with the enemy—is she fully prepared to put herself in such a position? Even if she succeeds, what parts of herself does she lose in the process? And after all, she is still a widow in mourning. But I can’t pretend I don’t admire her full-body commitment to the cause.
Cato, once again, surprises us all and proves that he doesn’t quite know how or where to start over. Earlier this season, it seemed that he wanted to behave like a rich, white man. Now he wants to take on the legacy of a slave-stealing white woman. For Cato, it’s not selling out, because he doesn’t want to see himself as akin to Rosalee, or Noah, or Zeke (I didn’t forget about what you did to Zeke, Cato!)—he’s not a nigga, not like most people who, as he tells Patty’s biographer, “need masters.” Cato’s free, or at least he thinks he is. And I’ll never get tired of watching him trip and fall and fail at discovering what that truly means. Also, watching him kill Patty brought back all sorts of The Walking Dead/The Governor vibes. Some characters just gotta go, and I know it sounds crass, but I’m thrilled Patty took one to the dome.
And just as a I celebrate and welcome her death, I have to celebrate those who survived Season Two. One other thing I really missed this season was the special attention paid to the children. James inspired some of the best moments in Season One, and I’d love to see a proper storyline for him in the future. (My only real critique of the finale is that we don’t get to see him riding the train—that would have made for such a wonderful moment, especially since he’s still coming to understand what it will mean to live up North and be free.) There are countless other characters we need to catch up with, including Boo, Harriet and Ernestine, who still hasn’t reconnected with her babies. And I fear those of us who fell in love with Clara will have to wait until the premiere of Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It series to get more of the incredible DeWanda Wise. Still, we owe it to Underground for using this season to help introduce her work, along with Aisha Hinds and the many others who’ve made the show so watchable.
I’m not ready to say goodbye to these soldiers and their stories, but if we lose Underground, I’ll take some comfort in the fact that I know countless fans (myself included) have been inspired to go on and create things that will, hopefully, remind us that our black American past isn’t dead—it’s not even past, nor has it been fully written. This particular superhero tale of runaways, and underground networks, and wildfires, and mothers, and children, and love and war—even if it ends tonight, it’s still only the beginning.
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.