I haven’t written a full review of Underground because I’m still two weeks behind the series. It feels a little odd to write about it with an incomplete picture, but after watching the third episode, “The Lord’s Day,” last night, I was struck by what a great historical and dramatic character the show has in its co-protagonist, Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell). Her arc in this episode is especially encouraging because it not only breaks with some bad habits in fictional portrayals of enslaved women, it also reflects the show’s overall success in avoiding cliches that often plague these kinds of stories.
When the episode begins, Rosalee has just committed to joining a conspiracy among some of the slaves to escape their Georgia plantation, led by field slave and potential love interest, Noah (Aldis Hodge). The group is just beginning to form a plan and Noah enlists Rosalee to steal their master, Tom Macon’s (Reed Diamond), seal so they can fake travel papers. This leads to an excellent, tense scene in which Rosalee breaks into Macon’s office while he’s out of the house and his wife, Suzanna (Andrea Frankle), is playing on the parlor piano (creating a wonderful inversion by making the sound of something typically associated with passive domesticity—parlor piano music—a harbinger of doom, since any stoppage in the music could signal Suzanna’s imminent arrival in the office, with likely fatal results).
Already, the writers are skillfully using Rosalee by making her an active participant in this rebellious and high-risk effort, but the episode shifts midway and makes her a potential victim. Although Macon did not witness the theft, he does discover the seal’s absence and starts physically punishing all his slaves collectively until someone produces it—threatening to further escalate the violence if no one comes forth. Rosalee is obviously torn by the scenario, as she doesn’t want to expose the conspiracy or place herself in danger, and eventually confesses to her mother, head house slave Ernestine (Amirah Vann), who diffuses the situation by having Macon’s son pretend to be the culprit.
This makes for tense drama but also deprives Rosalee of much of the agency she’d previously demonstrated, most notably when she pretended to be guilty of an offense to save a nephew from punishment. Thus, I started to pair her with TV’s other prominent enslaved woman from this year, Mercy Street‘s Aurelia. I thought Aurelia was an interesting presence on that show, especially because of Shalita Grant’s strong portrayal, but the character also bothered me because her circumstances were so relentlessly dire. Glenn Brasher has noted on his blog and elsewhere that the recent group of realistic and harsh depictions of American slavery in popular culture too often portray slaves as merely passive victims. While I think Glenn overstates this, Aurelia is a good example of what he’s talking about. She’s consistently victimized, both sexually and physically, and even when she does attempt to become an active player in her own life, such as when she gives herself an abortion, the situation goes tragically awry. The character starkly demonstrates many of the difficulties enslaved women faced, but she’s largely helpless or inept when she tries to resist her situation.
This is where I thought things were headed with Rosalee as “The Lord’s Day” headed into its final act. Having surrendered the seal back to Macon through her mother, Rosalee had narrowly escaped harsh punishment and had, like Aurelia, botched her one major attempt to better her life. The film’s final scene seemed to confirm this interpretation, as Rosalee encounters the overseer at night. He’s drunk and starts to make advances on her, making the audience expect a rape scenario—a realistic but now oft-repeated trope in slave fiction. The scene temporarily inverts our expectations by having him start crying and confessing he’s mourning his wife’s passing, but when Rosalee shows sympathy, he hardens and predictably grabs her, drags her into his home, and tries to rape her.
The camera mercifully doesn’t follow them into the house, but we hear a struggle as a fellow female slave walks by, pauses, and decides not to intervene. Silence falls, giving the impression Rosalee has been overcome, so when Noah passes by, he doesn’t try to rescue her. Again, this is tragic and not historically inaccurate, but it’s also seemingly another display of an enslaved woman unable to transcend her horrifying situation.
Then Rosalee bounds out of the house and tells Noah they have to run away immediately because she killed the overseer. Noah complies and the episode quickly cuts to them stowed away on a carriage leaving the plantation before an abrupt cut to credits.
I couldn’t have been happier with this ending. Not only does Rosalee rise above her status as victim, she goes from being a largely passive character in an unfolding escape narrative to its primary agent. She’s the first slave in the series to kill one of her oppressors (something Aurelia only did passively by refusing to rescue Bullen after he’d been stabbed) and sparks the conspiracy—up to that point led by Noah—into action. She was already a stand-out character because of Smollett-Bell’s able performance, but I was far more interested in some of the series’ less traditional characters, like Cato (Alano Miller) and August Pullman (Christopher Meloni). Now, Rosalee has joined them as a slave woman fully in line with the series’s rebellious tone (brilliantly emphasized by its modern music selections) and who we largely haven’t seen before. I’m sure some of you are two episodes ahead of me and maybe my reading of her would change if I was up to date, but right now, Rosalee is one of the chief reasons I’m sticking with Underground.