Underground is a fascinating study of the dangerous times of slavery where the morality of both the slaves and the enslaved are studied with sympathy and, at times, curious objectivity. No character is purely evil nor good. Writers Misha Green and Joe Pokaski created characters whose are neither saints nor devils, allowing for nuanced performances from a dedicated ensemble. Season 1 is currently streaming on Hulu. A 10-episode second season has been ordered.
Misha Green, who is black, previously was a staff writer for Heroes and Sons of Anarchy. Joe Pokaski, who is white, also wrote for Heroes. Award-winning John Legend (ten Grammys, one Golden Globe and one Oscar), is the executive producer. Music is an important part of this series, blending contemporary sounds with much older spirituals.
The fictional Macon estate in Underground is situated in Georgia, between the 76-mile-long Yellow River and the Stone Mountain. Underground was filmed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The series gives us several viewpoints, from inside and outside of the Macon 7: a group of slaves who make an escape attempt during Season 1.
At the center of Underground, is a romance between light-skinned house slave, Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and a crippled darker-skinned Noah (Aldis Hodge), the mastermind behind the escape plan.
Jurnee Smollett-Bell, 29, was the lead character in the 1997 Eve’s Bayou. Then she played a ten-year-old girl who isn’t as pretty as her sister, but both love their philandering father (Samuel L. Jackson). Bell was also in the 2007 The Great Debaters.
Aldis Hodge, 29, was “Age of the Geek” hacker Alec Hardison on the TNT series Leverage. He recently played MC Ren in the 2015 biopic Straight Outta Compton.
In Underground, Rosalee is a shy house slave on the Macon plantation owned by Tom Macon (né Hawkes). Tom Macon (Reed Diamond) took on the name of his wife’s family to inherit the property. His wife Suzanna is heavily pregnant with their third child.
Rosalee and her younger brother James are Tom’s children by the head house slave Ernestine. Ernestine has an older child by another man, Sam, (Johnny Ray Gill), who works as a carpenter on the plantation.
Suzanna, Tom Macon’s pregnant wife, is played by Andrea Frankle. She has no white siblings, but she does have a half-sister, Pearly Mae (Adina Porter). Pearly Mae once was a house slave and played with Suzanna. Pearly Mae learned to read and write. Her husband, Moses (Mykelti Williamson), is the preacher to the field slaves, reciting passages of the Bible.
Outside of the plantation high society is the poor farmer, August Pullman (Christopher Meloni). His wife is institutionalized at the best facility in Washington, but the financial burden of her bills weighs heavily upon Pullman. Pullman’s son, Ben (Brady Permenter), is often left in the care of another man, Jay (Clarke Peters) who comments, “Boy’s of an age onto becoming a man. Now would be a good time for his father to be here, teach him a few things.” During the first episode, August Pullman
helps an escaped female slave evade bounty hunters. As the series progresses, Ben becomes more involved in Pullman’s efforts to raise money.
Plantation owner Tom Macon has a brother, John Hawkes, who is an abolitionist lawyer. Hawkes is played by Marc Blucas, who was Rily Finn on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Matthew Donnelly on Necessary Roughness. His wife Elizabeth is played by 28-year-old Australian actress Jessica De Gouw, who appeared on Arrow as Helena Bertinelli/The Huntress and on the TV series, Dracula, as Mina Murray,
John is first seen speaking in defense of Dred Scott,
“Dred Scott, by law, is not allowed a legal defense. He’s not even allowed to defend himself. So someone should speak for him. This nation was founded by those fleeing religious oppression from across the Atlantic. Escaping those who would deny them their freedom. I ask you, is not the plight of every runaway slave but a noble extension of that same manifest destiny?”
Historically, the case of Dred Scott v. John Sandford was argued before the Supreme Court in 1856. Dred Scott was owned by Dr. John Emerson, who died and left his property to his wife, Irene—including the slaves. Irene Emerson then sold Dred Scott to her brother, John F. A. Sandford. While owned by Emerson, Dred Scott had lived for years in territories where slavery was illegal. His lawyers argued that he should be a citizen and free because of that, but lost his case.
Underground begins in 1857. Because of his speech, John Hawkes meets abolitionist black activist, William Still (Chris Chalk). Still recruits John Hawkes to the Underground Railroad because Hawkes’ house is located along the Ohio River. That river flowed through the free states of Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania. It also flowed through Kentucky and Virginia (as well as Maryland), which were slave states.
Still was a real person who recorded the stories of slaves escaping in his 1872 book, The Underground Railroad Records.
In the TV series Underground, John Hawkes and his wife visit Still for an unpleasant surprise. A shipment of escaping slaves is delivered to Still’s flophouse office, but one of the hidden slaves died during the shipment.
People did get shipped to freedom, most famously Henry Brown in 1849. Brown, a slave, was literally shipped in a 3-foot-long box. By publicizing his story, Brown became a minor celebrity, but he also made subsequent attempts to use the same method harder.
Will shipping be a possibility for the Macon 7? Seven boxes being shipped seems unlikely. On the Macon plantation, Noah approaches other slaves with his escape plan, including Mr. Cato (Alano Miller), a slave who exists in the twilight zone between black and white, as a black man who whips other slaves, and has no friends amongst the slaves.
Tom Macon tells other white men that for 20 years while he’s run the estate, not a single slave has escaped, saying. “On foot, there is not a man on earth who could make that, especially not being hunted by those whose sole aim is to drag him back alive.”
When you think you might die any day, that’s not a enough of a deterrent, but it’s the reason Noah believes a successful escape must be made by a group working together. Noah learns a song that promises to guide him to freedom, if only he can decipher all its clues. (Songs were used this way.)
I've seen death, but the moss stays the same.
The sun is shinin' through the blue haze.
The drinking gourd, the wolf yells its name.
The devil grins when he shows you the grave.
The River Jordan rises on high;
Pulls you closer to the angel's light.
And if you fall get back up again
’Cause freedom's fruit heals all your sin
Waiting to see Heaven's door.
Y'all wait here.
At the start of the series, the only clearly identifiable phrase is the River Jordan. As the series progresses, Noah deciphers the riddle and Rosalee finds inner strength. Seven slaves will escape but many things go wrong. Each of the characters will make a decision that requires them to betray someone or something; that is the deep moral morass of slavery where both the slaves and the slave owners and even those around them become entangled in a web of ethical dilemmas. For this reason, I prefer Underground to Roots.