Review by Justin Goodman
Two wolves are engaged at war inside us, begins an old Cherokee teaching. One is possessed by greed, hate, envy, pride, and resentment. The other is dedicated to peace, joy, love, hope, and kindness. You consider this. “Who’s gonna win,” you ask. The reply, “the one you feed.” Itself recited by one of Underground’s ‘luckier’ slaves, Misha Green and Joe Pokaski’s new series depicts a Plantation-era South immersed in an emotional ambiguity atypical of pre-Civil War period dramas. That’s not to defend slavery; it’s the difference between condemnation of an institution and of a person. One thinks. And this is what makes up for what the series lacks in historical rigor and gravity of imagery. Let’s be honest. Nothing will ever top 12 Years A Slave in graphic depictions.
By the time the fourth episode ends, what you’ve come to expect is an 1850’s Oceans Eleven. Aldis Hodge of Straight Outta Compton fame plays Noah, a slave closer to Odysseus in his ability to deceive and lead others, who plans on escaping Macon plantation. While he scouts slaves to his cause—which will ultimately include the love interest of his underdeveloped romance, Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell)—the abolitionist lawyer John Hawkes (Marc Blucas) preaches to an uninterested audience the rights of Dred Scott, only to be scouted by an infamous member of the titular Underground Railroad. Seemingly removed from this, the McCarthy-esque August Pullman (Christopher Meloni) enters into the early stages of poverty, and is forced to confront his ideals and what he wants to be in the eyes of his son.
There’s nothing greater than a glimpse of character from the slaves due to the need for the Jacob’s ladder of plot, which gives undue screen time to August and John Hawkes confronting their moral shortcomings. Even then, little is actually given to these characters to chew on besides scenery. They’re grossly underfed. The upswing to this failure of imagination is that Underground is a series entirely dedicated to the complex moral and socio-economic burden of slavery on a community, and when the cast are forced to cross paths it’s a match to alcohol. Equally thankful is the dialogue, which burns. The plantation owner, John Hawkes’ brother, invites him and his wife Elizabeth over. She is infertile and depressed, yet still up for verbal blows with the plantation’s matron. The matron says southerners do all the work for the northerners, Elizabeth mentions the slaves, and the matron mentions Elizabeth’s inability to have children.
The fetid underbelly of the South is displayed fairly, putting aside the archetypal plantation wife who is always possessed of greater evil than the husband, and when it’s shown, it also reveals how capable of individual characters they are. Over a span of two episodes, Bill Meekes (P.J. Marshall) is invited to dine with the aristocrats of the plantations where he is mocked and mercilessly whips Rosalee’s arms in a scene that screams inferiority complex. That he ends up drunkenly, desperately attacking her after admitting he’s a lonely widower solidifies the sense that Underground breaks new ground in its depiction of class relations as the central pivot in the Antebellum south. Ironically, August Pullman’s sidekick figure—who tells the story of the two wolves to Pullman’s son—is seen less with less development. It’s as mentioned before, something which makes the cynic in me laugh. Even in a story about the Underground Railroad, the white characters end up leading.
Perhaps funnier in a way that doesn’t make one want to protest institutional racism, the series draws upon Baz Luhrmann’s understanding of historicity. That is to say it’s combative with history. I’m willing to forgive Kanye West’s “New Slaves” in the first scene, a chase scene, because it matches the energy and theme of the show. They even have the runaway breathe in rhythm to it in the silences. Then we get to the Gatsby-esque Governor’s Ball whose small historical questionables (fluted wine glasses; Elizabeth’s strapless, low hanging dress; informal waltzy box steps) are made absurd by the decision to use the French Krautrock/Psych-Punk band La Femme’s song “Nous Etions Deux.” Essentially, a song about adultery and breaking up is the backdrop to the charming conspiracy of a couple to discover secrets for the abolitionist underground. It’s rare, but it only needs to happen once to get the idea in your head.
Which is what Underground focuses on. The designated group escapes but to leave behind Rosalee’s brother and mother, and the preacher Moses’ (Mykelti Williamson) wife. Likely, they will find themselves in the arms of the Hawkes before the mouths of the bloodhounds. And will the façade hold for them? What of August Pullman? Neither the show nor the runaways drag their feet. At 45 minutes an episode, Underground is well-worth watching. And consider the words of that most famous of abolitionists, Frederick Douglas, who dreamt of freedom watching the wolfish waters of, not the Ohio River, Chesapeake Bay: “one hundred miles straight north, and I am free! Try it? Yes! God helping me, I will. It cannot be that I will live and die a slave. I will take to the water. This very bay shall yet bear me into freedom.”