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I do not know if Harriet Tubman ever held two slave traders at bay with a rifle in each hand.
I also do not know that she didn’t.
Air date: Mar 08, 2017
In that spirit of uncertainty and knowing what I know about Tubman, I’m happy to accept Rifle-Toting Moses, because who wouldn’t?
That’s the spirit that infuses WGN America’s Underground, which returns for its second season on Wednesday night and, through its first three episodes, remains one of the hardest shows on TV to properly describe — while also being a show that could surely be adored by a bigger audience (and by more critics) than it currently is.
“You can’t make a legend out of the truth,” notorious slave catcher Patty Cannon (Sadie Stratton) tells the presumptive biographer tagging along on her quest to capture Tubman (Aisha Hinds). This is Underground creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski’s take on the famous line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” and it’s also the ethos of their show. Harriet Tubman may not have ever wielded two rifles at once, and Cannon certainly died 30 years before the events of the series, but if pitting the conductor of the Underground Railroad against the wicked operator of the so-called Reverse Underground Railroad spurs an audience to clamor to know more, then Green and Pokaski’s blend of mythologizing and historicizing has done its secondary job. The show’s first job continues to be entertaining viewers with an occasionally uncomfortable blend of escapist thrills and character-driven torment.
Picking up the second season, still some years ahead of the start of the Civil War, Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) is working under Tubman’s tutelage to deliver escaped slaves to freedom, while also strategizing with abolitionists John (Marc Blucas) and Elizabeth (Jessica de Gouw) Hawkes to figure out how to free Noah (Aldis Hodge) from a prison stint that could lead either back into bondage or hanging.
Rosalee’s mother Ernestine (Amirah Vann, now a cast regular) has gone from the big house at the Macon plantation to a more tenuous position at a coastal South Carolina farm. The rest of the surviving members of the Macon 7, plus at least one memorable bounty hunter, are spread out in disparate locations and they get brought into the main narrative only gradually.
The second season premiere — directed by executive producer Anthony Hemingway and, like the rest of the season, written by Green and Pokaski — emulates the show’s original hook with the strategizing and attempted execution of a prison break, both from inside with Noah, but also on the outside as Elizabeth makes some scheming new friends with the ladies of the Sewing Circle, fronted by Jasika Nicole’s Georgia. The high-adrenaline excitement of the escape attempt, set in vintage Underground anachronistic style to K Bishop’s “Shackles and Chains,” makes for a propulsive season opener, but its aftermath sets the show up for what looks to be a darker run of episodes.
A number of surprising casualties shaped Underground into a strikingly female-driven show by the first season finale, and that’s a trend that continues. Yes, the male stars remain and probably will play a major role in the second half of this season, along with new addition Bokeem Woodbine, but I’d say that the early episodes belong to the women.
Smollett-Bell’s Rosalee made a believable first-season transition from pampered to resourceful, and that continues here as she balances the selfish desire to liberate her man with her newfound calling on the Underground Railroad. She only benefits from getting to share scenes with Hinds, whose Tubman is such a righteous badass she’d draw multiple spontaneous rounds of applause were Underground showing in a crowded movie theater.
Also continuing an organic path is de Gouw’s Elizabeth, becoming more and more involved in the resistance. As Elizabeth puts it in a line that’s also a contemporarily resonant battle cry, “The system isn’t going anywhere. We have to figure out a way to disrupt it.”
Both Smollett-Bell and de Gouw gave strong performances last season and are pushed to even more searing intensity in season two.
Making the biggest step into centrality is Vann’s Ernestine, whose life-and-death decisions last year have her haunted both figuratively and literally. I’m not sure if Vann’s recurring status last year was about the actress’ other commitments or the writers not knowing for sure how much need they had for Ernestine, but the character has gone from a vivid supporting role to one of the show’s key pivots. The third episode in particular is an intense and harrowing showcase for Vann and Smollett-Bell, as well as an in-depth introduction for Stratton’s Patty Cannon.
The show is so thematically rich as an exploration of extreme steps women had to take to find power 50 years before they would receive the franchise that I mostly didn’t miss the male stars in their protracted absences. I did miss some of the dynamics that came from the interplay with some of those characters, and in a 10-episode season, I sometimes wondered if these early episodes were being a little too diffuse, straying too far from the Antebellum Dirty Dozen trappings of the first season. Those concerns came around only rarely and only briefly.
Underground remains most notable for its great versatility. With Hemingway directing half of this season’s episodes, it’s a show of explosive action beats, with a modern soundtrack and more attitude than just about anything on TV. It’s a series of fun and harrowing historical tidbits, from abolitionist-society passwords to distressing strategies to induce miscarriages. It’s a fiercely political show with intentional echoes in modern feminism and Black Lives Matter advocacy and an ensemble of multi-dimensional roles almost all for women and people of color. With this season’s Patty Cannon storyline, it’s an even more direct commentary on both the myth-making of the period and the myth-making of the show itself. And it’s a show in which Harriet Tubman taking on armed outlaws with a pair of rifles feels like the most natural thing in the world.
Who wouldn’t want to watch that?
Cast: Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Aldis Hodge, Jessica de Gouw, Alano Miller, Christopher Meloni, Amirah Vann, Bokeem Woodbine, Jasika Nicole, Marc Blucas
Creators-showrunners: Misha Green and Joe Pokaski
Premieres: Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (WGN America)
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