Photo: WGN America

If “Things Unsaid” dwelled on the significant emotional fortitude of characters like Ernestine and Rosalee, then “Ache” doubles down by pushing the limits of their physical strength as well. And it is an arduous trek, though still far from being a slog. Focusing on ’Stine is never a bad choice; and the way her trials and tribulations were juxtaposed against her daughter’s out in the wilderness was an inspired bit of direction and storytelling. But overall, the episode just doesn’t strike quite the same balance between its oft-punishing drama and the more thrilling elements as previous chapters. Most of the levity comes from the interactions between Patty Cannon and her biographer, which makes for an interesting switch. Ernestine isn’t the only one saved at the last moment—the story is, too.

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Before we get to discussing our very special guest—I knew about the stunt casting weeks ago, and had a devil of a time biting my tongue—let’s take a moment to recognize Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s singular performance. She turned Rosalee’s scenes in “Ache” into a one-woman Revenant. Rosalee dragged her wounded, pregnant body in and out of leech-infested waters, dug a slug out of her shoulder, cauterized the wound by firing a pistol, dosed herself with adrenaline to keep running, bit a man’s ear off then stabbed him in the eye. Forget DiCpario hiding out in a bear carcass or whatever: this woman dug her own grave and then lay in it. Basically, Rosalee was resurrected. And she did all of this while unable to hear. Then, after all of that, she can barely stomach the slug she’s eating out of desperation, and sits defeated on the river bank when the biographer stumbles upon her. Oh, and Emmy voters, in case you need another reason to consider Smollett-Bell come nomination time: she was actually pregnant when filming this scenes. I hope you all will permit a “Holy shit” here.

These are all wordless sequences with such a breathless quality, and not just because of the “soundtrack” provided by Rosalee’s panting while in flight. Anthony Hemingway’s direction is assured as ever, switching from a bird’s-eye view to eye level to show us just how far (and lost) she gets. The tinnitus sound effect ratchets up the tension nicely, but it also becomes almost unbearable.

Thankfully, the tension’s cut by several flashbacks. Despite Rosalee and ’Stine’s respective dire circumstances, there are multiple tender moments throughout, beginning with Daniel telling his daughter just what she’s made of. He reads Sojourner Truth’s famous “Ain’t I A Woman?” speech that was delivered at the Ohio Convention in 1851. “You’re strong not just in your body, but in your mind,” Daniel tells his daughter, which stands in contrast to Patty’s biographer’s gross misunderstanding of black women’s resilience. But his waxing on about their “supernatural ability” to deal with pain is significant for the way it recalls the medical industry’s ugly history of treating their bodies as something not quite human. When Patty scoffs and explains that Rosalee is alive because she [Patty] wasn’t shooting to kill, she snaps him out of that spell, though. Could this fascination be the reason why he doesn’t give her up to the hunters later?

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We know Rosalee’s not superhuman, of course, though she has endured an awful lot. But she’s spurred on in her perilous dash through the woods as much by the knowledge that Patty Cannon’s gang is on her trail as Harriet’s advice and words of encouragement. When the legendary abolitionist assures Rosalee she possesses too the strength needed to lead others, it’s clear the younger woman doubts her. But she more than proves her mettle in what’s almost a bottle episode. Rosalee finds the horse and wagon by episode’s end, but she also seemed to be caught in a version of what her mom was going through.

Because hundreds of miles away in Gullah, Ernestine is having the same doubts about her ability to go on. She’s repeatedly been dealt the toughest hand—she’s been sold off into harder labor than she’s ever done before, separated from her only surviving child not long after burying her other. ’Stine hasn’t been afforded many opportunities to catch her breath since her world ended, which is beginning to wear on viewers. When it puts her through the wringer so consistently, Underground runs the risk of reducing ’Stine to just her suffering. I’ll cop to occasionally wishing that she could just retreat into some fantasy, just so we could see Ernestine doing something other than enduring. And we have seen her remembering Sam and his father in recent episodes, but her memories have also turned against her. Her hallucinations or visions are having a damning effect on her, and she’s reached the dregs of her fortitude.

Ernestine finds no solace in religion, Christian or otherwise. The Gullah preacher tells her that “Pain ain’t new; it thrives in isolation,” trying to get her to at least consider asking the trapped spirits for help. But she just tells him his spirit world isn’t for her, nor is the white man’s Bible. What little comfort she’s found in the ether and a new lover, Hicks, is only temporary. The ether wears off, and Hicks is abusive. It’s been an arduous journey for ’Stine and viewers. Underground has accounted for Ernestine’s lack of hope with a host of horrors in her present and recent past. Her despair is completely understandable after what she’s been through. The episode then underscores what’s already been underlined by flashing back to Ernestine’s girlhood, where she encounters the bewitching Angela Bassett.

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’Stine has come to her for birth control, essentially, and the strange woman promptly dismisses her as being nothing but a “sad, pretty, little thing.” She’s not entirely accurate, though; ’Stine is obviously desperate to avoid pregnancy, but she’s also smart enough to recognize that having reproductive control gives her some control over her life. This Lady of the Georgian Lake (or Woods) mocks Ernestine’s attempts to find some semblance of control: “Your body ain’t never been yours, and never will be.” But she’s also at least a little sympathetic when she bitterly tells her “Your kin done sold you an old and terrible lie. That you can survive this.” Simply put, she’s doomed.

There are many other events that have informed Ernestine’s outlook, but to hear that from someone who could very well be in your position would have had a devastating effect on anyone. It’s obvious Ernestine’s never forgotten about the admonition or the advice, which might have helped her make it this far. But she also has considerable regret over following some of that advice, which is why the visions of her first husband accused her of not wanting children (though, since they were conjured by Ernestine, I suppose it was really just her telling herself that).

Underground wisely takes some of its own advice and breaks up the gauntlets both women are running by reuniting them in the past. Ernestine and Rosalee both take heart as they remember the time they hopped up and down on the bed in the Macon master bedroom. At first, it seems she’s just going to pass down the spirit of the words of the woman in the woods when she tells Rosalee that “Life is hard and unfair. There’s nothing I can do about that.” But then Ernestine encourages her daughter to seize the day, and enjoy herself in that moment because “every once in a while, we can steal moments like these” to get through tough times. It’s a small gesture, but Ernestine was definitely fighting back in that moment, which makes her near-fatal walk into the ocean so heartbreaking. Just as they both drew strength from that shared memory, mother and daughter end the episode clinging to life. They’re both snatched from death’s grasp at the last minute, thankfully. Rosalee’s fate was never really in danger, but watching Ernestine get this respite or second chance was as heartening as it was surprising. We’ve wondered just what it is that’s kept Ernestine going, and whether she would keep on, and we have our answer. It took a couple of near-death experiences to get there, but I think it’s safe to say Ernestine’s back in it—and not a moment too soon.

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Stray observations

  • “Ache” was written by Miska Green and Joe Pokaski.
  • Apropos of the “supernatural” theme, this NYT review of a book on “medical apartheid” is a fascinating read.
  • Rosalee was also bitten by a damn rattlesnake. Forgot about that one.
  • I know I already brought up Legion last week, but that FX show also took away the characters’ and viewers’ hearing for a spell with similarly breathtaking results.
  • August Pullman’s return is imminent, for better or worse.

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