Aisha Hinds as Harriet Tubman (Photo: WGN America)

Underground has never been afraid to gamble—its premise is based on a perilous proposition, after all. And it must have been something of a tough sell for co-creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski: A TV series about slavery in America—depicting its victims and perpetrators—necessitated even more nuance than a film, as it would unfold over dozens of hours (ideally). The show couldn’t be quite grueling, but neither could it do what so many other harmful projects have done and gloss over the atrocities or center the story around white people.

But it’s a gamble that’s paid off, as this drama has not only taken Manhattan’s place as the show that could put WGN America on the map—as a place for content, no disrespect intended—but it’s quickly becoming one of TV’s most compelling dramas. The renewal didn’t cost Green and Pokaski any of their nerve, either. They’ve taken more risks than ever in their second season, from killing off a main character in the closing moments of the premiere, to setting Rosalee off on an excruciating tear through the wilderness that would make Alejandro G. Iñárritu wince. The chances the show is taking aren’t limited to the plot; that same Revenant-like episode, “Ache,” deprived Rosalee of both her speech and hearing, which ratcheted up the suspense so much it was nearly untenable.

The mid-season mark, “Whiteface,” courted some of its thorniest material to date, while keeping the framework fairly conventional. Green and Pokaski helped viewers play a bit of catch-up by reuniting our star-crossed lovers, dealing Cato another reversal of fortune, and setting Ernestine on a possible path back home. At times, the converging storylines bordered on a kitchen-sink approach; Elizabeth’s further radicalization seemed to reach a significant turning point, but it got lost in the fray—though whether that was such a big loss is debatable. I am still baffled by why she appeared so betrayed by the realization that Georgia has been passing for white. When she screamed at the Klan members—they were early Klan members, right? With burlap sacks in place of white hoods?—that she was sick of secrets, it was hard to imagine she could be talking about anything but Georgia’s revelation. Because everyone else’s racism has been plenty overt. And even if it over was something more innocuous, like envy over Rosalee’s pregnancy, it’s still a dubious response from Elizabeth. She is still in mourning, but she picked the wrong moment to get preachy.

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(Ahem.) To offset the recent flurry of action, Underground slows down for “Minty,” ceding the floor to a great historical figure—or rather, the breakout actress portraying her over the course of the hour. We already know the story, but this isn’t a simple retread. Aisha Hinds, whose made excellent use of her screen time to date, brings Harriet Tubman to life. Harriet’s been shown her due deference by the writers; she’s been kept apart from the rest of the characters, even Rosalee. But thanks to Hinds, we have a sense of who this Harriet is, and what she wants at any given moment. Her steely reserve is impressive, but she’s also shown flickers of doubt, usually after having some kind of vision.

“Moses” has played a supporting role throughout, providing back-up and advice for Rosalee and the other conductors. But because she’s still far from retired, Harriet takes on one of her most daunting tasks ever in this episode—speaking to a room full of people, mostly white, about her experience with slavery and escape. Though there’s some audience participation and an interjection/objection or two, “Minty” is a one-woman show. Hinds is essentially monologuing for over an hour (my screener has a 55-minute mark, which I believe is 68 minutes in broadcast time), which could wear thin even if she didn’t have a sonorous voice. It’s another risk, especially in light of the introduction of Frederick Douglass last week. His exchange with Cato felt too contrived; he and other revolutionaries knew they were among friends, but spontaneously offering up his story of rebirth in Kensington, London—where he stayed with fellow abolitionist George Thompson—came across as Underground telling us of his importance rather than showing us.

Luckily, Harriet’s been part of the show since the season-one finale, so such formalities have long been dispensed with. (But it was still a clunky transition, and here’s hoping that future John Legend appearances will feel a little more natural). With the distance and knowledge afforded to us, viewers already know how important it is for her listeners to heed her words. Even though she’ll face a sympathetic crowd, she’s still nervous. The opening scene sees her getting ready for the day, tightening a corset that looks like armor, under a dress that looks like a military uniform. It lends her a commanding presence, but she also gives off a real vulnerability as she pins her hair before putting on her head wrap. It was like that amazing scene from How To Get Away With Murder, only in reverse.

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Hinds works the room, which, because it’s an auction site, includes a podium. But aside from one brief moment behind it, she prefers to sit or stroll, or stand in the center of the stage, ultimately refusing to hide from those who are there to evaluate her. They’re not doing so under the nefarious circumstances that an overseer or slave owner would, but everyone, including Elizabeth, is assessing Harriet. They’re already sympathetic to the cause, but Harriet isn’t there to shore up their support for Underground Railroad. She has a much greater goal in mind, one that would, for once, require as much sacrifice from those in privilege as those in bondage.

But this is no mere forum or lecture, and Harriet shows off her canny nature by taking her listeners through their paces, beginning with watching her family be torn apart by callous slave owners. Hinds is a gifted orator, pushing the dialogue/monologue into an outright performance that’s still heartbreakingly earnest. She owns up to vanity and jealousy, details her most painful moments, stokes the fires inside of those before her—and it’s all riveting. Harriet intentionally lulls the crowd into a false sense of security, flushing out those who have only come to hear her say “We shall overcome” or “I have overcome.” A hush falls over the room when she says “Death or liberty… one or the other, I mean to have.” At that point, she’s only referring to what she’s been willing and is still willing to do. She then raises the specter of “Minty of Dorchester” (Harriet’s birth name was Araminta Ross), the young girl who simply could not bring herself to let the dust settle, and suffered for it.

And as the heads continue to nod, an occasional shout of dissent rings out from the crowd, to express concerns that John Brown is a dangerous war monger. They don’t see a place for him in this movement, because Brown is prepared to see the blood within any color of skin spilled for something greater than freedom—equality. That’s what many of these ladies and gentlemen cannot stomach, and what too few people these days are willing to cosign. But it’s what Harriet wants, and is part of the ask she’s been building to this whole time. The people who came to hear her speak wanted affirmation of their own noble considerations, and while she doesn’t outright challenge their conviction, she makes her own intentions clear: Like John Brown, she believes war is necessary to shake off the shackles. “Slavery is a state of war,” she tells her audience, one in which a decided few pillage while so many suffer. The violence—sexual and physical—being perpetrated on slaves is “brutality,” she tells them, but fighting back against those acts of aggression is “hope.”

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Though they remain rapt, it’s hard to gauge just how many converts Harriet’s won over. But then she and Underground push beyond the past, jumping to the present to address the viewer directly. Again, a dicey proposition, especially if this is your entry point into the show (but why would it be? Go watch the rest of the episodes and catch up with the rest of us). It also runs the risk of being plain hokey. But just before Harriet tears down that fourth wall, director Anthony Hemingway does it for her, bringing the viewer in from across the room. The camera makes its way down from the rafters to the back of the room, zooming in until it rests on Harriet’s face, where it frames her plea. No, not a plea—a mission statement.

“If you don’t have it in you to take up arms against the injustice, then you gotta pray another prayer. And you gotta walk in it with conviction. He will provide, but you gotta do your part. You gotta find what it means for you to be a soldier, beat back against those that are trying to kill everything good and right in the world, and talk about making it great again. We can’t afford to be just citizens in a time of war. That’ll be surrender, that’ll be giving up our future, and our souls. Ain’t nobody get to sit this one out, you hear me?”

Stray observations

  • Misha Green and Joe Pokaski wrote “Minty,” which was directed by the Emmy-nominated Anthony Hemingway. Hemingway, by the way, will soon be featured on The A.V. Club Show on Fusion—I’ll keep you posted on the episode date.
  • I could quote all of this episode to you here, but I’ll leave you with one of the parts that gave me goosebumps: “A country that’s built on bodies will always need more for the slaughter. As long as slavery stands, ain’t none of us—no matter hue, man, or woman—be free. If you refuse to see the chains we’re all wearing, then you’re living in a dream and the rest of us are suffering in the real world because of it.”
  • Okay, one more, but not from the episode: Harriet’s last words were “I go to prepare a place for you.” (I am not crying.)
  • The final bit of the speech is ambiguous, but the reference to making “things great again” seems a pretty obvious call-out of contemporary reactionaries.

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