Being black, it takes me an extra leap of imagination to become invested in the lives of servants and their masters — but damn, did I love Downton Abbey. Maybe because the upstairs-downstairs nature of the series is common in American soaps. I saw Drucilla Barber Winters change from an illiterate runaway to a business mogul on The Young and the Restless and believed that was how the world worked. There was a caste system in the U.S. as much as anywhere else, but determination could award you keys to the kingdom. So when Downton Abbey debuted stateside, I became enthralled with the lives of the servants and how they loved recklessly and hoped eternally to climb to the top of society's pecking order. But it was a period piece. To see a character like Drucilla, I'd have to watch a modern series. In the present, it's possible for Barack Obama to become president. In a period piece, not a chance in hell.
People are fond of asking the question of which time period you’d love to travel back to. Ancient Greece? The roaring ’20s? The swinging ’60s? When you're black, you usually stick with the present. The past has nothing to offer but a low rung on society's ladder that you'll never have any hope of climbing. I enjoyed Downton Abbey, but I never once dreamt of a series I could watch with characters that remind me of myself. In the 20th century, when black people were servants, they weren't paid a wage. They were slaves.
And when it comes to slavery in pop culture, I'd seen enough. I'd watched Roots, the series that inspired a nation to cry about black people's ancestors in the ’70s before they got over it and ravaged our communities in the ’80s. I'd seen Django Unchained, a white fantasy about the one slave who could slaughter all of his enemies to retrieve his true love, then leave his chained brothers and sisters to fend for themselves. I'd seen 12 Years a Slave, an unnervingly realistic and visceral rendering of what it was like to be a slave, with an uplifting denouement of Solomon Northup being awarded his freedom. But those all follow the same story: A slave is tortured until they aren't, then a white person grants them salvation. There's none of the cunning, none of the grandiose chess games you witness on your favorite dramas, when the downstairs clan dreams of upstairs, of the master bedroom.
That is, until WGN America's Underground. A series that feels familiar yet rewarding, it upends the dynamic of Downton Abbey and turns it into a hellish rendition of Sartre's No Exit. The upstairs-downstairs tropes are all there: Tom Macon is the ambitious, yet emotionally absent, master of the house; Suzanna is his practical, yet at times cruel, pregnant wife. Together they're the Crawleys of this world. In place of bold, rebellious children, you have Tom's brother John Hawkes, as an abolitionist lawyer, and his wife, Elizabeth, who becomes complicit in his mission to support the Underground Railroad. Representing the downstairs, you have Ernestine, the head house slave who operates much like Downton Abbey's Mr. Carson. She rules the roost, but she's also protective of her children, one of whom is Rosalee, our series's heroine. Played by Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosalee is quite possibly the first soap opera heroine of the slavery genre. She rebels against her mother and her brother to join Noah (Aldis Hodge) on his run for freedom. She falls in love with him, and it's their journey and schemes to escape the Macon plantation that drive the series.
In the world of Underground, backstabbing becomes about more than besting a romantic rival or stealing the shares of a company — it is the means to survival. Ernestine poisons a slave, Pearly Mae (also the half-sister of the plantation owner's wife), and slits her wrists to keep her from giving up the whereabouts of the runaway slaves. Cato, much like the Uncle Tom character Samuel L. Jackson portrayed in Django, is cruel to his fellow slaves, but the advantage of a serialized drama allows him to be more three-dimensional than a caricatured villain. By turning the upstairs-downstairs dynamic on its head, Underground takes a genre that black people have been shut out of for lack of imagination — you might not know this, but black people did exist in London when Downton Abbey took place — and tells it through the familiar tropes of a soap opera. And why shouldn't it? Soap operas are often full of darkness: secrets, murder, lies, betrayal. But they're also about perseverance, love, and chasing your dreams. When I look at Underground, I'm reminded of the harsh cruelties that black people had to live under in the past. But in the eyes of our heroine Rosalee, I can see that the freedom she's running toward gives way to the Drucilla Winters that future generations would grow up with.