Entry 32: The Best Civil War Era Show on TV

Underground. Season 1. Directed by Anthony Hemingway, Romeo Tirone, and Kate Woods. Written by Misha Green, Joe Pokaski, Jason Wilborn, and Jennifer Yale.

Release Date: March 9 to May 11, 2016.

Underground opens with its protagonist, Noah, fleeing his Georgia plantation to the sound of Kanye West’s excellent “Black Skinhead.” It’s an announcement up front that the African Americans who inhabit this show are not passive victims. They are active participants in the fight against slavery and their struggle has echoes in their time and our own. The show may be called Underground, but it should be called Resistance. This opening scene also reveals the show’s style will be as bold as its themes. The seemingly anachronistic use of modern music to score the action is a choice that’s made again and again, and it usually works. With “Black Skinhead,” the show doubles down by isolating West’s rhythmic breathing to substitute for Noah’s, before reintroducing the song’s hellish baseline to create a sense of foreboding as the slavecatchers and their hounds close in. Even before the credits rolled, I was hooked.

Comparisons to 12 Years a Slave are inevitable and have already been made. Steve McQueen’s masterpiece is the best film ever made about slavery and I’m reluctant to rank Underground against it because each wants to tell a different story about the same subject. 12 Years is a rejoinder to decades of Hollywood soft-selling the horrors of slavery and the wounds it inflicted on America’s black community. It is both furious and exhausted—screaming at us, “Slavery is Hell and you cannot refine it!” This is a necessary, albeit crushing, story and one that was particularly suited to film, with its limited running time and strong production values.

Underground spends little time repeating this message. Instead, it uses the time and episodic structure TV affords to more deeply explore how its characters react to the system 250 years into its history and only 8 years before its demise. Many—mostly black but some white—work to destroy slavery or at least ameliorate its worst aspects. A few embrace slavery whole, but others recognize this is amoral and do so out of self-interest or loyalty to the status quo. What’s more, Underground fleshes out the story we only caught glimpses of in Mercy Street‘s “The Uniform,” by showing the various ways African Americans resisted and accommodated themselves to the institution. Underground‘s black characters sometimes make horrible choices, even when their motivations are good—murdering fellow slaves, cooperating with slave patrols, and sacrificing their bodies to their masters. Most band together in some way to resist slavery from within or escape it altogether. Either way, these are complex characters with real historical motivations and it’s great to see this kind of storytelling deployed so well on television. Underground is a vital partner to 12 Years, rather than a counterpoint.

And yet, while the show clearly values resistance and casts its opponents and proponents of slavery as heroes and villains, it also complicates this conflict by showing the moral and physical costs of resistance. Slavery is inherently violent but resistance is too, and parts of Underground‘s last few episodes seem designed to make us reevaluate aspects of what we saw weeks before. Everyone compromises their moral code as they resist or support the system that infects every aspect of American life. I praised Rosalee in a previous post for being an enslaved character who breaks her personal cycle of oppression by killing her overseer and running away. The show’s penultimate episode, “Black and Blue,” reminds us of this by having her hallucinate an encounter with him and her master, Tom Macon. She tells the overseer killing him “was the first free thing I ever did.” It’s a triumphant statement, but also an admission that, for her, violence and freedom are intertwined. That violence is getting out of control, as Rosalee accidentally stabs one of the show’s most innocent characters, slavecatcher August Pullman’s young son Ben (Brady Permenter), believing he’s Macon.

The show’s two white abolitionists, John Hawkes (Marc Blucas) and his wife Elizabeth (Jessica De Gouw), similarly find themselves drawn into violent and morally ambiguous situations despite their good intentions. As operatives on the Underground Railroad, their motives are altruistic, but they repeatedly discover it’s impossible to undermine slavery without also imbibing some of its immorality, often in their home. The first slaves they harbor immediately turn on the couple because one recognizes John as the lawyer who arranged for the sale of his wife. More recently, their marriage begins to collapse under the weight of their obligation, as Elizabeth chooses to use her body to protect a young runaway girl from a local marshal. Elizabeth later clubs the Marshal when he tries to force her into sex again. John himself can barely resist hitting her when he learns of this infidelity and recalls how, during his absence, he almost beat a slaver to death.

These explorations of how slavery’s moral depravity infects everything it touches isn’t subtle or new—it was one of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s main themes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Indeed, the show expressly signals both its shift to a more violent tone and that violence’s place in the entire slave system by ending its 8th episode, “Grave,” with Macon announcing his Congressional campaign standing over runaway slave (and probably his son), Sam, hanging from a rope. This lynching’s meaning and implications for the future are made explicit as Macon inverts Abraham Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech, arguing that the nation must accept slavery and the southern way of life or there will be a bloody confrontation. This obviously foreshadows the Civil War, but the series suggests a bloody reckoning was already upon the nation in 1858—the war just streamlined it.

This is all pretty heavy and may give the impression that Underground is an oppressive and depressing slog. There is certainly plenty of darkness and it grows as the show progresses, but Underground‘s greatest feat is getting these ideas across while remaining consistently entertaining and sometimes even fun. It makes room for humor and moves along briskly. The writers rarely break the screenwriting maxim of “show, don’t tell” and their characters don’t fall into the trap of being completely irredeemable or impossibly good. It’s a strong show and I’m delighted it will return for a second season. I know I’m praising it late in the game but, if you haven’t already been watching, find a way to catch up. We’ve never seen a show this good about the Civil War Era, so Underground is really something special.

Additional Dispatches:

  • Due to my hectic schedule, I really wasn’t able to give Underground it’s due. Maybe next year I’ll have a little more time and can take a deep dive into it like I did for Mercy Street.
  • Of all the aspects I wish I’d had more time to cover, analyzing Underground‘s wide repertoire of interesting characters tops the list. Cato was an early favorite and remained so, but there’s so much going on historically and artistically with Ernestine, August, Macon, Elizabeth, and others that I could do a whole post on each.
  • Not doing regular posts also prevented me from comparing different episodes. For the record, the best one was episode 7, “Cradle,” which explores how slavery affects the show’s various children. Fortunately, there’s a great review of it at the AV Club.
  • When we debate films about slavery, the argument seems to always boil down to “they should have spent more time addressing X but film just can’t handle that much complexity due to time restraints.” Kudos to Underground for realizing television was the answer to this problem and for pulling it off.
  • Does it mention slavery? Often and well. Curious to see what it does with a second season. Will we get an all new story about slave resistance or will we follow the same characters into a new situation?

Next Entry: Roots (1977)

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5 comments

  1. hhalimacandy · June 23, 2016

    I am very disappointed, in how marginal/thinly, the Black people are portrayed. The African population in the largest slave holding state next to Carolina, the state of Virginia was enormous given the 200+ years of African bondage /enslavement there.
    During the Civil conflict, the VA., economy dependence on: enslaved and paid African labor grew+++. Black people status and liberties grew and very much impacted by the absence of white males. The influx of abolitionist in the city was visible and very much vocal in their solicitation of freedom and their support of litigation in defense of contraband African. The social and political legacy of Va., as shown too cursory /quickly: the corners/ store front that announce /advertise ‘slave auctions, these land marks were innumerous!!! The black churches and African family members that were looking for families or serving in the union army!!

    The pre reconstructionist and educators that came to assist the Africans in education and welfare as well as to push the cause for reconstruction
    But most of all the Africans that RESISTED /Rebelled /sabotaged and escaped, where are they, following the Union Army~!

    Oh yes, the theme of how north/ south people can cooperate or just families are once again a tv trope, I have had enough of!! How do these good southern families sell, buy, enslave have to say about their complicity in the horror of the AFRICAN/MAAFA [holocaust of the TRANS ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE? The brother that joined the Golden Circle. Just a group to ensure the ‘southern way of life] WHITE DOMINATION / SUPREMACY]and to kill Lincoln.

    AI will continue to watch, but the psychological liberation of the Africans as well as their physical liberation has not really been addressed. What were the social structures that help the African maintain her humanity that is African centered?? And how did the African children get prepare for reconstruction??Reparations now!!! Where’s my 40 acres and mule??!!

    • Christian McWhirter · June 23, 2016

      Thanks for the comment, although I must admit to being somewhat confused by it. Underground (the subject of this post) does the opposite of many of the things you criticize here. Not Least, its depiction of enslaved African Americans is anything but thin and marginal. Given your references to Virginia (where this show doesn’t take place) and the Civil War (which the action of this show pre-dates), are you getting Underground confused with Mercy Street? If so, I’m much closer to agreeing with you, as you’ll see in my reviews of that show. indeed, I’m hoping Underground continues its narrative into the 1860s and eventually provides the sort of robust exploration of the African American experience during the Civil War that you’re seeking.

  2. Pingback: More praise for WGN’s Underground; Smithsonian to delve into craft brew history; Oliver Stone on US History & Hillary; latest on Tut | History Headlines
  3. gdbrasher · May 9, 2016

    Right on, Christian. You know I agree with you. There have been some situations and events in the show that didn’t ring true for me, but overall it is a tremendous show, and what makes it even more special is that it just kind of snuck up on us. I like how you point out that a theme seems to be that slavery taints everything it touches, and as you know, this is an abolitionist trope that permeates almost all their literature and speeches–from Uncle Tom to Frederick Douglass’s autobiography (speaking of which, Rosalee’s line about her fight with the overseer immediately made me think of Douglass’s comments about his fight with Covey). These writers clearly did their homework. It is strange to me that we have not yet seen a lot of historians getting behind and commenting on this show.

    • Christian McWhirter · May 9, 2016

      Thanks for the kind words, Glenn. It is surprising there’s been less commentary on this show from historians and cultural critics. Mercy Street got a lot more attention. I suspect Roots will also get more coverage. Maybe it’s just that WGN is more obscure than PBS or History. Hopefully, we’ll see more people jump on board with season 2.

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