The best writers know that creating strong female characters for TV means granting these characters high highs and low lows, and allowing them to have experiences that reflect their strengths and weaknesses, making them fully human. So whether they are rifle-wielding, formerly enslaved runaways or lost and dejected, opiate-sniffing victims of domestic violence, their characters and their stories still feel powerful. But there’s another aspect of womanhood that often goes ignored in the TV landscape: solidarity. And so, there’s no time like the present political landscape for Underground to return, and remind us that womanism is one powerful form of resistance.
The Season Two premiere is not unlike the Season One finale, in that it becomes clear that, while this is of course a show about enslaved Americans, this is also a show about women and the distinctive power they wield, especially when they maintain their differences and still come together to fight a common enemy. How loud did you scream when Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Harriet (Aisha Hinds) both pulled their guns on those slave catchers? From the moment we saw Harriet reach out her arm and pull Rosalee out of that wagon in last year’s finale, I knew this dynamic was going to be thrilling to watch. And if “thrilling” was all it was, I’d be pleased.
In other words, the entirety of this season could consist of us just watching Harriet Tubman and Rosalee killing, threatening and/or bargaining with slave catchers, and I’d likely crown this the greatest show on television. But Underground is better than this, and better than my baser desires. One of the most telling moments of “Contraband” is the conversation between Rosalee and Harriet, when Harriet admonishes her for a dangerous plan to rescue Noah. In this scene, we see a general and her soldier. Rosalee is strong, but comes off as more of a romantic, where Harriet is all about strategy. Again and again, Underground sends the message that, under different circumstances—like freedom—these so-called “slaves” would have been leaders and innovators. We’ve all been taught to think of Harriet Tubman as brave, but I’d argue that even calling her the “Moses” of her people doesn’t give enough credit to the brilliance of her work. Leading hundreds upon hundreds of people out of slavery and into freedom, over and over again, took more than courage, and more than the blessing of a God—it took a woman’s intellect, and a woman’s strength. (And I expect this season of the show to engage with this idea, to make Tubman as human and as fascinating as she surely was in real life.) Rosalee has a lot to learn from her, but I suspect that Harriet has a thing or two to learn from our Rosalee, too.
As if we needed more proof that there are countless ways to resist a regime, Underground gives us the sewing circle. It’s so good to see Elizabeth (Jessica DeGouw) step out on her own and become part of a group of women working to abolish slavery. And, considering the final shot of the episode, she’s going to need them. John (Marc Blucas) and Elizabeth worked side by side throughout the first season, but I was always interested in Elizabeth’s character because she seemed even more willing to break the rules, going so far as to risk her marriage to protect Boo. Now we’re going to find out what she’s made of without her husband there at all, and who she is alongside a group of women (led by Jasika Nicole’s Georgia) who made me seriously consider running out and getting a gun license. One of the best scenes of the episode features “the sewing circle” in the woods, practicing their aim. As Elizabeth learns to shoot from the hips, we’re privy to a conversation that feels completely relevant today. How does one best take down a massive, systemic injustice? Can journalists solve the problem? Literature? “Catalogues” of violence? What happens when “most people don’t read”? (And when, in our case, those that do happily subscribe to fake news)? The sewing circle, using metal spoons for target practice, doesn’t come up with a single answer, but before the episode is over, they’ll put their very bodies on the line in an attempt to help Noah (Aldis Hodge) escape a hanging. I’m excited to see how they support Elizabeth, and rise up with the rest of the cast throughout the season.
Before I dive into the great Ernestine (Amirah Vann), I should first say that I found myself thrilled, odd as it sounds, to be on a South Carolina plantation. Too often we think of slavery as a single experience across the board, and the truth is that every plantation was different, and those differences were greater depending on the location and the nature of the work. Rice plantations in South Carolina, for example, resulted in a completely different experience from cotton plantations in Georgia. Of course, enslaved people were still very much enslaved, wherever they were. But Underground is doing something incredible (visually and dramatically) by setting Ernestine among the Gullah people, who have an incredible history that I’m excited to learn a bit more about.
But it wouldn’t be an episode of Underground without some profound heartbreak. If I’d asked you last season to name the strongest character—male or female—on Underground, there’s a good chance Miss Ernestine would have come to mind. She’s certainly my personal favorite character on the show, and after the way things ended for her, I knew Season Two was going to be difficult for everyone who fell in love with her storyline. When someone is stripped of everything—their children, their agency (however complicated that agency), their home (even a home that isn’t really theirs) and some of their illusions, what will they turn to? Who will they become? The answer isn’t always what we want it to be.
Ernestine is in a new “home,” in a new “relationship” and drowning her very real sorrows in an addiction to opiates (smuggled in by the overseer). Ernestine has fallen, but as the ghost of Pearly Mae points out (and isn’t it great to see Vann and Adina Porter on screen together again?), one of the reasons it feels like such a fall is because we (the audience, and Ernestine herself) were always under the impression that Ernestine wielded a certain amount of control in the big house. One of the most exciting and devastating parts of Season One was realizing that Ernestine, much as we wanted her to be, was never in complete control, as an enslaved woman. But we also know that ‘Stine doesn’t stay down for long, so I have to believe that what we’ve seen of her in this premiere is a precursor to her rise from the ashes.
Now that I’ve done my job, here’s what I really wanted to write about, when I first saw this episode. I’d been reading Ann Petry since I was a child, but when I was in college I discovered a short story she’d published in 1945 called “Like a Winding Sheet.” As soon as I saw Ernestine’s lover hit her across the face, after being hit himself by the overseer, for the second time in her presence, I began looking for the story online. If you’ve ever wanted to understand the links between various forms of oppression, or how people in the “same position” can work to bring each other down—and by “people” I especially mean black men, bringing down black women—the story of a day in the life of Johnson and Mae will change your life.
“There was the smacking sound of soft flesh being struck by a hard object and it wasn’t until she screamed that he realized he had hit her in the mouth—so hard that the dark red lipstick had blurred and spread over her full lips, reaching up toward the tip of her nose, down toward her chin, out toward her cheeks. The knowledge that he had struck her seeped through him slowly and he was appalled but he couldn’t drag his hands away from her face…” — “Like a Winding Sheet”
What first drew me to this show was the decision on the part of writers/showrunners Misha Green and Joe Pokaski to present black characters, living under slavery, who are not always innocent. A villain like Cato (where is Cato?!) and an abusive lover are proof that this is a series interested in presenting black, enslaved people as humans—flaws and all. Thinking of ’Stine’s new lover, and where this storyline may go, I know that creating such a character—someone who is both oppressed and oppressive—takes a lot of courage. It’s the same kind that Petry had, and that Alice Walker and Toni Morrison had when they wrote stories where black women were victims of black men, who were also victims of white supremacy, power and oppression.
As we impatiently wait for next week’s follow-up to this jaw-dropping premiere, there’s plenty to wonder about. Will anyone pay for John’s murder? (Unlikely.) When is the Noahlee reunion happening? Because that look they shared when Noah had the rope around his neck just about did me in. Sigh. What will become of the man who opens the episode (with the help of Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar’s “Freedom”), played by one of my personal favorite actors of all time, the Bokeem Woodbine? We have such a brief interaction with him (brief, but powerful—a call for reparations, if there ever was one), and I loved seeing his seemingly small acts of rebellion throughout his day. Now that he’s started teaching himself to read, where will it take him, and where will his character take us? I’ve been waiting 10 months for this moment. And like the end of a full-term pregnancy, suffice it to say, my body is ready.
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.