There are things I love about America. Anyway, what is a country? When people say, “Tell me about India,” I say, “Which India?.... The land of poetry and mad rebellion? The one that produces haunting music and exquisite textiles? The one that invented the caste system and celebrates the genocide of Muslims and Sikhs and the lynching of Dalits? The country of dollar billionaires? Or the one in which 800 million live on less than half-a-dollar a day? Which India?” When people say “America,” which one? Bob Dylan’s or Barack Obama’s? New Orleans or New York? Just a few years ago India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were one country. Actually, we were many countries if you count the princely states…. Then the British drew a line, and now we’re three countries, two of them pointing nukes at each other—the radical Hindu bomb and the radical Muslim bomb.—Arundhati Roy
The phrase “freedom isn’t free” felt palpable all throughout last night’s third episode of Underground. It’s an important phrase, especially during an election year, when we’ll continue to hear presidential candidates and politicians talk about how this was a country founded on beliefs in freedom and equality. Senator Elizabeth Warren recently suggested that this country—the same country that’s the subject of a new TV show about slavery— “was built on values like decency, community, and concern for our neighbors.” We know which America Warren is speaking of. It’s the same one my kids are learning about at their elementary school, where they all gather in the auditorium first thing in the morning and sing “This Land is Your Land.” It’s, actually, not entirely unlike the one Donald Drumpf wants to make “great” again. It’s an America where justice prevails, because people like Sandra Bland and Rekia Boyd and Mya Hall do not exist. Because they exist in a different America. “Which America” might as well be the alternate title for Underground, as last night’s episode worked to further complicate our definition of American freedom.
The plan is unfolding on the Macon plantation, and I couldn’t help but wonder at how much material is going into this quest for freedom. Noah and Sam are trying to figure out how they will create harnesses to help them cross the beams on the bridge. Sam was one of the men responsible for building the new bridge, and he used the same material to build his work area, so he knows that the beams in his shack will make the perfect testing site for their escape. (The wood also has an interesting significance for the enslaved—it’s going to get them to freedom, but it’s also a weight they must literally carry later in the episode during a torturous scene when the master of the house realizes his seal has gone missing.)
Underground tells us, again, that these people are not slaves. They are architects, engineers, inventors (whose unpaid physical and mental labor is what America was, in fact, built on). They are creatives and creators (not unlike the God of Genesis being preached about at the episode’s opening). It’s odd to say it, it even sounds disrespectful to their struggles, but these are—in so many ways—free men. What I mean is, Underground continues to present characters who are intellectual and emotional beings, but who are forced to perform as if they are slaves. Noah said in the brilliant pilot they’re all pretending, because they all know they’re supposed to be free. But it seems that the argument that’s being made is not that slaves needed to turn into free men, but that they were already free beings whose physical realities did not reflect their humanity. The struggle to break free, therefore, isn’t a struggle to actually be free, but, rather, is a struggle to live under circumstances that reflect one’s nature. In the midst of bondage, every one of these characters has found a way to say, aloud or in secret, “you don’t own me.”
And while some of the men were plotting, and creating and building—all expressing their freeness on this plantation—one woman had to express her freeness with violence.
Rosalee and Bill’s scene is one of those great TV moments worthy of its own article. Thankfully, fellow Underground superfan Paul Vigna at Wall Street Journal has taken care of that for us. The question of “Which America?” is brilliantly posed once again: “Which America? The one where all white men are free? Or the one where all wealthy white men are free?” Bill (played with such perfect and heartbreaking restraint, and then with such violence by PJ Marshall) actually, miraculously earns our sympathy, as he speaks mournfully with Rosalee about the loss of his wife. But the excellent writing tells us something else is troubling this man.
That’s a nice dress. Nicer than anything my Peggy ever wore.
By the time Bill drags Rosalee into his home, it’s clear that he is going to rape her because he is 1.) a lonely, grieving widow, 2.) a poor man with power over few, save the black slaves—some of whom physically appear to be more well off than he is, and 3.) a white man who can rape any black person of his choosing. We prepare for another scene where a black woman is brutalized and powerless, but we get something entirely different. We get what is actually, my exact wish for how more TV rape scenes would play out—we get violence and justice.
There’s a reason so many people referenced Kill Bill alongside Rosalee’s name last night when Underground was trending on Twitter. We so rarely see a woman actually escape from these scenarios, and although we’re not allowed to admit it most of the time, there’s something deeply satisfying about watching a woman (especially one previously deemed powerless) fight back—to the bitter end—against her attacker. Whether that man is an attempted rapist and field overseer, or a former lover who put a bullet in your head and took a baby out of your belly (damn you, Bill), revenge remains a dish best served cold. More importantly, vengeance is directly related to freedom in these narratives. “Freedom” is a pretty word which sounds much nicer than “vengeance,” but which freedom? Harriet Tubman’s freedom, for example, might have seemed less violent than Nat Turner’s (at least the way history chooses to present it), but that doesn’t make Turner’s fight for freedom—or Rosalee’s—less important, or dare I say, less American.
Rosalee’s act of vengeance (which isn’t entirely different from her mother’s own performances of self-preservation) is going to have huge ramifications for the other characters, and the series as a whole, much in the same way that her theft of the master’s seal does in “The Lord’s Day.” But it’s also an act that disproves her theory (and the theories expressed by others, including her brother) that she’s not the running type. She spends much of this episode thinking that, perhaps, she doesn’t want freedom as badly as the others—that she isn’t strong enough for the escape. But she learns inside Bill’s home that she wants it, perhaps more than anyone else. In a way, the killing of Bill also aligns her with the other murderer we’ve come to know on Underground, Seraphina. For both of these women, there’s a relationship between their bodies, their freedom, and their willingness to take a life. It’s not pretty, and it certainly doesn’t adhere to traditional notions of femininity, but these two women have both taken lives as a personal defense mechanism and—in some way—as an expression of their freeness while in bondage.
The only thing really left for these heroes—these creators and killers—to do, I suppose, is to keep fighting for it. And run.
Shannon M. Houston is Assistant TV Editor & a film critic at Paste, and a writer for Salon and Heart&Soul. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.