Slavery-themed escapism may sound like a contradiction in terms, but that’s exactly what the new series Underground (WGN America) aims to provide. In this case, the escape is literal: Gun action, a hip-hop soundtrack, and a “map” in verse guide a group of Georgia slaves in their 600-mile flight to freedom. Historically implausible on a number of fronts, it’s a modern fantasy of how we might imagine ourselves fleeing America’s most dehumanizing institution: with uncompromised morals, relatively clean clothes, and a soupçon of romantic tension.
That’s not to dismiss Underground as a frivolity. Though patchy and overly familiar in parts, especially in its first two installments, the 10-episode drama (its third episode airs Wednesday night) offers enough insights into plantation existence to make the journey worth it. Landing somewhere between the harrowing realism of 12 Years a Slave and the preening hyperstylization of Django Unchained (and clearly influenced by and reacting against both), the 1850s-set miniseries makes up for its largely archetypal characters with novel provocations, genuine surprises, visually striking moments, and tension bordering on torment.
The series’s terrific opening scene finds fugitive slave Noah (Aldis Hodge) pursued by dogs in the woods at night, his heavy, patterned breaths an urgent percussion to Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead.” Soon captured and thrown into a holding cell, he receives inspiration to flee once more from a fellow prisoner who’s carved out a “map to freedom” — the lyrics to the spiritual “Follow the Drinking Gourd” — on the jailhouse wall. Noah can’t read, but he’s a quick thinker. His coup of copying the map sans pen or paper is the first of the character’s improvisatory joys.
Django concluded with Jamie Foxx’s agent of revenge riding into the glowing night with his rescued wife, all but shrugging at the millions of slaves still in bondage. When Noah returns to his master Tom Macon’s (Reed Diamond) estate, he’s convinced that strength in numbers and solidarity will make a difference in his next escape attempt. His first rescuee is Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a sheltered house slave and the daughter of the master’s slave mistress Ernestine (Amirah Vann).
Noah and Rosalee make for naive heroes, their gradually expanded group caught up in a series of generic action sequences and pursued by a rare non-racist (but financially desperate) slave catcher (Christopher Meloni). Three of the four men who eventually join Noah and Rosalee aren’t distinctive enough from one another, even as general types, to make for more than interchangeable musket fodder. Noah, on the other hand, sticks out as a contemporary avatar even in a show full of anachronisms, defiantly declaring, “I knew I was supposed to be free.”
Unsurprisingly, it’s the slaves already used to enjoying a degree of privilege — and thus willing to do anything to cling to their status — who become the most compelling. With his half-burned face and iron-pressed finery, black overseer Cato (Alano Miller) is the villainous ally who blackmails his way into the fugitive group, then continually subverts Noah’s plans — sometimes for the better, sometimes for the far worse. Rosalee admires the agency involved in Noah’s tattoo — the slave’s willingness to embrace “pain on top of pain” as long as he has a choice in the matter — but the origin story behind Cato’s fire-scarred face, revealed halfway through the season, exposes the overseer as being terrifyingly indomitable.
Despite his elevated position at the plantation, Cato flees in part because he knows that there will be hell to pay after the fugitives’ departures are discovered. The show stays with Ernestine after the great escape, focusing on how her daughter’s getaway affects the older woman’s seemingly long-term relationship with her master. Theirs is an affair that evokes the strangeness of plantation passions. “I say where, I say when, always,” she demands of their trysts, even when it’s obvious (to us, at least) that Ernestine will seduce Tom only when she needs something from him. When she pours a costly bottle of red wine over her body to entice Tom in the second episode, it’s as decadent as it is repellent, the rivulets of red reminding us of the unforgettable legal might he ultimately has over her body. Ernestine is well aware that her fate could be much, much worse, but she later expresses her envy toward the field hands, sighing of her house-slave plight, “We don’t never get to let go.”
Noah, Rosalee, and the rest will presumably run toward John and Elizabeth Hawkes (Marc Blucas and Jessica De Gouw), a white abolitionist couple whose political ideals and childlessness precipitate their fall from the upper class. Their role until then is to serve as wide-eyed witnesses to the evils of the peculiar institution, as when Elizabeth locks eyes with a little black boy fanning her at a party at the Masons, his tiny frame locked in a box suspended from the ceiling. Later, the Hawkes are taken hostage by a vengeful fugitive (Empire’s Jussie Smollett) convinced that John is responsible for the sale of his wife. The escaped slave then forces Elizabeth to whip her lawyer husband in retaliation for his supposed transgressions in a scene that suggests, among many other things, how perilous the cycle of extreme violence can be when it spins out of control.
Underground is part of a recent wave of slavery-related films and TV shows, including last year’s The Book of Negroes miniseries, the upcoming Roots reboot, Viola Davis’s announced Harriet Tubman biopic for HBO, Stevie Wonder’s planned Underground Railroad musical, and Nate Parker’s Sundance phenomenon The Birth of a Nation, which will open in October. The diversity of these projects indicates the many stories we have yet to tell about this chapter of our history. And it makes Underground — which may be a lighter and more improbable treatment of slavery than some viewers might want — a lot easier to accept and enjoy, since it won’t have to serve as pop culture’s be-all, end-all statement on slavery. Watch the fantasy for now; we can get the whole truth later.