If you don’t know, Underground airs one WGN America, a cable network. The show is set prior to the start of the American Civil War (the second season is leading upon to Brown and Harper’s Ferry) and focuses on the Macon 7, a group of slaves trying to escape the Macon Plantation. The focus is on three of these run-ons, Rosalee, Noah, and Cato. The main cast is rounded out by Ernestine (Rosalee’s mother), Elizabeth (an abolitionist), and August (a slave catcher). Additionally, there are several supporting characters.
I started watching because of Journee Smollet-Bell. She has earned the right to my time ever since Eve’s Bayou. I kept watching because of the wonderful writing and the strong women, who are strong in so many different ways
The first season, as the name implies, was focused on the Macon 7 and their quest for freedom. Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and her mother (Amirah Van) work in the house, Cato (Alano Miller) works as an assistant to the overseer, and Noah (Aldais Hodge) has been recaptured after an escape. Part of the first season focuses on the groundwork the seven most do to escape, the other half on the escape. Breaks are taken from the on the run plot as the viewer spends time with Elizabeth (Jessica De Gouw) and her husband, John (Marc Blucas) as well as what happens to those left behind. Even slave catcher August (Christopher Meloni) is given a backstory and a family that makes him human.
The second season widens the scope – Rosalee works with Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth joins a Sewing Circle that isn’t just about sewing, and the others struggle through various hardships.
Each episode of Underground is well written, well directed, and well-acted. Everything that occurs in the series has an historical precedent or draws on a historical documented fact. The cast and crew also trust the viewer. There is a gut wrenching scene in the first episode where Rosalee steps in and takes a punishment for her younger brother James. The viewer suspects, and then knows, that Tom Macon, the owner of the plantation and the man who okays the punishment, is Rosalee’s (and James’) biological father. This is conveyed thought the excellent acting of both Amirah Vann and Reed Diamond (who guested as Tom Macon). Even a character like Elizabeth, who I first thought would be the weakest developed character, is given not only depth, but who surprisingly quickly became a second favorite. In many ways, one of the greatest pleasures of the first season is watching both Rosalee and Elizabeth discover their hidden strengths in different and surprising ways – their interior journeys mirroring the harrowing onscreen escape saga.
The first season also dealt with issues such as sex and rape in terms of slavery – not only from the enslaved woman’s point of view but from the enslaved man’s point of view, for Cato and Noah go to some lengths to gain some vital equipment for the escape.
And it isn’t just the issue of sex and rape, but also the question of morality and how slavery forces people into some tough choices. Ernestine makes questionable and possibly immoral choices all for the safety of her family, of her children. That is her driving force. Cato, oh Cato. Cato is the most complex character of are, and the area of ultimate debate -good, bad, or simply what those who abused him made him?
And it isn’t only the good guys. August is not a good guy, in fact Detective Stabler would beat him up. But the creators are smart enough to make him human, and the story of his son, Ben, is one of the best developments and plots of season one.
The stand out episode of season one was “Cradle”, an episode told entirely though the viewpoints of children – James (Maceo Smedley), Boo (Darielle Stewart), Ben (Brady Permenter), T.R. Macon (Toby Nichols), and Henry (Renwick D Scott). Standout is a relative term – there are, as with every show, a few points where the eyebrows raise, but every upset is made with heart and care. Standout here just means a little, and in most cases, inventive or bold – as is the case in using the viewpoints children. But Underground does this. It does not shy away
This season’s stand out episode, at least so far, is “Minty”. “Minty” is what good television should be and what very few networks will ever do. The whole premise is a speech given by Harriet Tubman (Aisha Hinds). That’s it. Just Hinds as Tubman speaking in front of an audience. It is a bold move.