Freedom was a community labor for something lovely and rare. — Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad
Underground’s second season scatters its characters to the four winds. Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) joins forces with Harriet Tubman (the incandescent, slyly funny Aisha Hinds), outgunning white patrollers as their charges flee for freedom; her paramour, Noah (Aldis Hodge), awaits trial in an Ohio prison; her mother, Ernestine (Amirah Vann), sold away by a bitter mistress, sinks into opium addiction on one of South Carolina’s sea islands. In this, WGN America’s humane, engrossing melodrama—one with a fair helping of historical depth—charts much the same course as Whitehead’s novel, tracing the faint, far-flung connections from which freedom was haltingly, painfully, born. Though the season premiere, “Contraband,” is punctuated by urgent action, including Tubman’s memorable introduction (“My arms are mighty tired,” she says, a weapon in each hand, as the camera captures a confrontation with her pursuers. “And I aim to end this quick.”), Underground’s changing shape is no desperate attempt to attract our attention. In fact, for series co-creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, seeing the Underground Railroad as an intricate network, one that shaped the course of the nation, was part of the plan all along.
“We first talked about a five-season series,” Pokaski says of his initial conversations with Green. “The whole idea was that Season One was going to be about this journey North. Season Two was about blowing up the world.”
And piecing it back together, too: Where Underground’s freshman season focuses on “the Macon 7” as they plan and enact their escape from bondage, the series’ sophomore outing surveys the entire landscape, bringing in historical figures such as Tubman and Frederick Douglass (John Legend) to suggest the Underground Railroad’s place within the broader abolitionist movement. As Hinds explains, the goal was to move beyond mythic history, situating such iconic figures within the intimate lives of the series’ fictional protagonists.
“I sat down and wrote out all of the things that I knew about her and saw that the list was rather short,” Hinds says of her preparations to play Tubman. “I knew that she was a famed conductor of the Underground Railroad, but what it meant in terms of her humanity, that was the entry point I wanted to take on—understanding who she was as a human being.”
As Green points out, it’s not often noted that Tubman, Douglass, John Brown, and other activists of the antebellum era were correspondents and collaborators, building a movement brick by brick as surely as the organizers of the present. By intertwining multiple narrative threads, Underground Season Two dramatizes—and, with its modern music and fleet-footed camerawork, updates—the grassroots nature of this action, reclaiming the abolitionist mantle from the white, northern evangelicals with which it’s often associated. One of the most joyous moments in “Contraband,” for instance, comes as the members of a multiracial women’s “sewing circle,” led by a free black woman named Georgia (Jasika Nicole), set aside knitting needles for target practice. Underground is not, as Nicole says, “the same old slave narrative”: As with Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, or Ben Winters’ novel Underground Airlines, both of which literalize the metaphorical stations and routes, it’s a necessary—if at times exaggerated—intervention in our collective ignorance.
“I grew up in Alabama, and I remember my textbook, reading literally a few sentences about slavery,” Nicole says. “In Alabama. That is so unreal to me… All the education that I got [about slavery] has been as an adult, on my own.”
”[Underground’s] reinterpretation [of the Railroad] is more or less the re-education of it,” Hodge adds. “This is vastly different than people expect, or what they anticipated knowing the myth of Harriet Tubman. Now, it’s a real person. Now, we have all these other figures around her. We get to see how this spy network worked.”
In fact, despite the narrative fireworks, the season’s grace notes might be its most alluring aspect: “Contraband,” directed by Anthony Hemingway, features a stunning, brightly colored montage of the enslaved hoeing rice paddies to the rhythm of a spiritual (“You can’t hide sinner / You can’t hide”); later, a wicker basket, a tuft of red fabric, and two hard-boiled eggs comprise an abolitionist code. For Smollett-Bell, whose Rosalee is an heir to Tubman—much as Whitehead’s Cora is an heir to Harriet Jacobs, author of the essential 1861 narrative Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl—such “minutia” is instrumental to the task of bringing the series’ grand narrative back down to Earth.
“It’s so fascinating, the ingenuity—the way they would transfer cargo, the way stations were set up, markings on trees, this whole language that they had,” she says. “We’re on the brink of civil war. The country’s divided. John Brown, William Still, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, they’re right on the front lines. And so were the Rosalees and the Noahs of the world.”
For Vann, too, finding the intimate and the familiar amid unimaginable horror allows Underground—the political relevance of which is all too apparent—to reach viewers on a personal level.
“There are scenes in Season One where I was chasing my son around the kitchen and I was like, ‘Why wouldn’t she?’” Vann says. “That’s just the truth. Even though [Ernestine] is the icon of a mother, my mother is like her. When we went through moments in time that were not the best moments, she sheltered me so that I could be a child and be joyful as long as possible. These natural, everyday moments are captured so beautifully in the script.”
Still, at a moment in which freedom remains, as Whitehead writes, “something lovely and rare,” demanding communal labor of a new kind, it’s impossible to ignore the connection between the politics of the present and Underground’s treatment of the past—one of the central reasons why, one might argue, the Underground Railroad has (re-) established its place in the pop-cultural consciousness. Though it isn’t “the same old slave narrative,” the series comes out of a tradition of black political action that long predates Black Lives Matter, or even the Civil Rights Movement. To hear Green tell it, Underground’s lively reimagining of the Railroad’s mechanics contains more than an echo of a well-known call to action.
“Nina Simone said, ‘As an artist, you are a reflection of the times,’ and I think this was in the air, this idea,” Green says. “How do you resist?”
Season Two of Underground premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on WGN America.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.