This is the Underground I fell in love with.
Now, there’s really no poetic way to express this thought, so I’ll just dive in: I will always be impressed by any TV show that depicts a black woman pleasuring herself. Being Mary Jane, Underground... alas, this list is devastatingly short, but I have high hopes for a future of TV that celebrates black female pleasure. Because the truth is, it’s not about the mere act of masturbation. It’s about sexuality that’s female-centered, and one of the easiest ways to accomplish such a sexuality—one of the most obvious (you’d think) ways of presenting a character who centers her own pleasure—is to show a character masturbating.
So, you might have missed it, but when Clara rolled over in bed while the master passed out, looked in the mirror on the nightstand next to her, and proceeded to touch herself (because she didn’t need nobody else), I rejoiced. I rejoiced because of that slightly uncomfortable, familiar feeling I got watching her. It was the exact same feeling I had watching Ernestine in the wine cellar in Season One’s “War Chest.” As a critic, or as a viewer, what exactly do you do when a black, female character seems to be embracing her own sexuality, but does so in the presence of another character—a white slaveowner? I’m still not quite sure what to make of these kinds of scenes, but the strangeness and boldness of these depictions are a reminder that Underground is here to break the rules of the “slave” narrative.
Clara’s storyline in “28” is not only an odd and engaging presentation of Clara as a sexual and powerful being (and I don’t mean to take away from the very real fact that sex between an enslaved person and her master can never be deemed consensual—see Amirah Vann’s powerful statement on the reality of rape and her character’s “relationship” with Tom Macon last season for more). The hour is also exciting because Clara really does transform before our eyes, and it’s a transformation that’s been unfolding since early on in the season. She’s gone from being powerless against Hicks, and voiceless in the face of her own father and her own people, to having access to what sure feels like power—a power she hopes to wield even over Ernestine.
“You want off this island, you gon’ make me that poison.”
New clothes, a new “lover” and the luxury of sitting up in the big house and being served: she’s gotta have it, and she’s determined to hold on to it. But like Minty told us last week (and like Ernestine knows all too well) true agency cannot exist under slavery. What little bit of power Clara has, she only has because of her new “relationship” with the Master; and de buckra can take it away anytime he likes. Still, it makes sense that Clara believes she’s achieved something, and it makes sense that she seeks revenge—first against the man responsible for the loss of her child, and then against the woman she believes is standing in the way of her achieving this vengeance. Of course, it’s infuriating that she snitches on Ernestine to Master Matthew, but I, for one, am thrilled that we now have a villainous female character on the show. After all, Cato can’t have all the fun.
Noah and Rosalee’s trip back down to Macon also contributes to the strength of this episode. From the moment we learned that James had become Mistress Suzanna’s “favorite,” I suspected that the family reunion was going to be complicated. Not only do we get the pleasure of watching Noah and Rosalee steal onto Macon land (Underground is at its best when it feels like a heist movie), we feel the devastation of James’ betrayal. And who could really blame him? He’s a child, who literally just received a pony. His mother hasn’t been there (nor his older brother and sister), and the mistress of the house has clearly been poisoning his mind—so much so that I suspect he feels like Macon is his home.
The end of the episode left me feeling terrified for Rosalee (now branded with the runaway “r”), Noah (who I suspect will try to take on Bill and whoever else is in that shed, especially since he now knows Rosalee is pregnant), Ernestine (now a runaway herself) and Cato, who’s entered into a horrifying “business” relationship with Patty “No such thing as the wrong nigger” Cannon. This is the Underground I fell in love with, and I can’t wait to see how the rest of the season unfolds.
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.