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Instead of setting the table, Underground burns down the house

Photo: WGN America
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I suppose it’s fitting to have a big fire conclude tonight’s Underground, since it felt kind of like a burner episode. After a gut-wrenching opening that appeared* to show us the end of Daniel’s adventures in literacy, “Auld Acquaintance” spins its wheels a bit, reacquainting us with James and the Macons, as well as giving August and ’Stine a chance to bond. The episode, which Christopher Meloni directed, is far from a wasted exercise; it’s just that some of these exchanges might have fit better in an earlier episode, rather than wedged in with arson and—maybe—redemption. (Although is it really arson if it’s totally deserved—and awesome?)

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Instead, “Auld Acquaintance” feels overstuffed and therefore sluggish, dragging down the season’s momentum with it. Co-creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, who wrote all but one of this season’s episodes, aren’t slowed down by table setting here. The stakes have long since been established, with Rosalee and Noah making a perhaps ill-advised journey back to Georgia to get her mother and James; Harriet garnering support for a larger-scale rescue effort; Elizabeth needing to find some purpose in her life after the end of her husband’s; ’Stine still trying to get by, one day at a time; and Cato still trying to be the smartest person in the room. Last week’s episode saw them all—with the exception of Elizabeth—knocked back a few paces. It was a reset of sorts, which was made all the more disorienting for coming after a riveting standalone episode for Harriet (and Aisha Hinds). I’m inclined to think that was a conscious decision, but it still feels like an odd choice this late in the game—this particular effort to drive up the tension just loses some ground.

That squandered feeling is strongest during the various interactions between Ernestine and August. In her flight from the Roe plantation, she inadvertently delivered herself right to the people who are now planning to use her to trap her daughter. We all know ’Stine isn’t about to let things go down that way—she only appeared to have all but lost her will to live while in Gullah. She was still in her right mind enough not to help Clara kill Hicks, even though that earned her her former “pupil’s” wrath. So, despite her perilous circumstances, I wasn’t too worried about her at first. I was certain she’d put a plan together sooner than later, and she did. Unfortunately, August was one step ahead of her the whole time, and she wasn’t going to get any help from Patty’s boyfriend.

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After a couple of botched attempts to escape—and a rough journey with The Searchers’-inspired cinematography–August and ’Stine sit down long enough to size each other up. But the whole “bonding over their children” bit doesn’t quite ring true, and it’s not just because I think August would still be kind of pissed about Ernestine’s kid being partially responsible for his kid being hurt. August has kept mum for most of this season, appearing to bide his time until he could exact his revenge against Rosalee/the Macon 7. That’s the purpose he serves for Patty, and what he appeared to be acting on within the larger frame of the show. For him to suddenly be so moved because he had the chance to speak to another parent about failing your offspring… well, it just doesn’t make much sense. August has never been depicted as being nearly as evil as other slave catchers, but that’s indeed the business he was in, and trying to sell his son on. He’s had no real misgivings about any of the other men and women they’ve captured, but ’Stine owning up to her failings is somehow enough to get him to reconsider everything?

Benefit of the doubt time: Underground uses its historical situations and characters to tell current stories, so it’s entirely possible that August represents all those bigoted people who find themselves transformed after actually speaking to someone from one of the groups they’re so hot to marginalize. This could be his ”come to Jesus” moment; he certainly seems to want to help ’Stine. Then again, this has always been August’s racket—pretending to help runaway slaves just to personally deliver them to harm. If that’s the case, it will be an effective—and damning—blow, but it’s hard to tell right now.

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Even though he’s been separated from Rosalee, Noah is moving forward with her plan to bust James out at Christmas. They had originally planned to sneak him (and ’Stine) out while the whole plantation rested, but Noah now has to figure out a way to infiltrate the big dinner that Suzanna’s planning. As welcome a sight as their latest escape was, the Ocean’s Eleven-like planning ahead of the whole thing didn’t jibe with the tone of the rest of the episode, which felt far more somber. The freeze framing and guitar-wailing musical accompaniment made for obvious choices in this setting, really hammering home the point that Noah is putting together a team, damn it. I half-expected George Clooney to show up and help him grease some palms to pull it all off.

And it’s all for naught anyway, since Noah already believes they can’t really trust anyone. So he singlehandedly kills Bill (good riddance) before interrupting the Christmas dinner by holding Suzanna at gunpoint. While the irreverent “sizing everyone up” scene didn’t quite land, Meloni gets a lot of mileage out of the literal table setting here—the dinner guests are all twitchy hands and shifty eyes. There’s the sense that something is about to happen, that a revolt might have just found its way into the Macon dining room.

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Okay, so Cato’s smirking a bit more, but still (Photo: WGN America)

But even though he’s not leading a small army, Noah still puts a decisive end to things when he shows up. Because she knows he won’t come willingly, Rosalee knocks James out as they head to the wagon that Cora’s driving. My shocked laughter at that moment continued as she threw the lantern at the Macon home, because well, my first thought was about the people still gathered around the dinner table. Maybe they left as soon as it was clear the party had ended, but then again, maybe not. So Rosalee’s “let’s burn this mother down” salvo doesn’t elicit quite the same response it might have under other circumstances. The significance of that moment is lost in the mad rush of the end of the episode. And it’s not just nitpicking, not when the rest of this episode—and moments earlier in the season—seemed to want to bring Noah and Rosalee to account for the people they’ve lost or hurt in their quest for freedom. Not the overseers or slave catchers, but the people like Hattie (and, to a lesser extent, James), who are held accountable in the interim.

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Oddly, the more successful heist homage happens miles away, with Elizabeth and Georgia desperate to raise money for the train tickets needed to bring Rosalee and her family home. The snakes are a nice touch, as is Georgia being the one who holds the racist old preacher at gunpoint. Though she doesn’t fire the gun, it’s the catharsis she needs after dealing with all the whispering about her race. “Auld Acquaintance” strives for the same kind of release by having Rosalee raze the Macon plantation, the place of her birth and enslavement, but stumbles more along the way.

Stray observations

  • I don’t mean to be too hard on Christopher Meloni. This was his first time directing an episode of TV, and he did recently guest star on Snatched, so maybe he just got his signals crossed.
  • We need to talk about Daniel, and that horrifying punishment. Watching his hands move so hesitantly over that new monument was just heartbreaking, especially after seeing how deftly they moved when he had his sight. His fate, if this is indeed the end of his story, is especially poignant given that Frederick Douglass himself expounded on the importance of literacy as a path to freedom.
  • Elizabeth’s exasperation over ”begging even good people to join the fight” is understandable, but Harriet still showed a whole lot of patience in sitting there and hearing her out.
  • Even though his appearance has been altered, surely someone will still recognize Cato, or at least his name?
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