Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

John Brown’s army prepares to raid Harpers Ferry in a funny, energetic Good Lord Bird

Ethan Hawke as John Brown.
Ethan Hawke as John Brown.
Photo: Kevin Lynch/Showtime
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“Hiving The Bees” is the first episode of The Good Lord Bird that really feels like an episode of TV show, which I mean strictly as a compliment—it’s a lot of fun, both because it actually has multiple plots and because it tonally nails the series’ mix of wackiness and sobriety.

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Where the closest point of comparison, episode two, focused linearly on Onion’s time in Missouri, “Hiving The Bees” follows several members of John Brown’s crew as they prepare for the raid on Harpers Ferry. Of course, a plurality of the episode focuses on Onion’s titular mission, rousing the local black population to ensure they are ready to respond and take up the freed arms. But there’s also the introduction of John’s daughter Annie, Cook’s affair with the neighbor Mrs. Huffmaster and her nosy sister-in-law, and Brown’s final meeting with and break from Frederick Douglass.

In his second (and potentially final) appearance, Daveed Diggs’ Douglass is even more the butt of the joke. The episode repeatedly asserts that he’s a vain coward—except that here, he feels like more of an audience stand-in than even Onion. In an opening sequence reminiscent of a mockumentary talking head he declares that “captured likenesses will be the great equalizers of our culture.” Although the irony seems obvious, people continue to believe that images—like, say, a TV show—will be somehow undeniable in overcoming evil. (Not to mention Douglass’ faith in the power of his own celebrity.) When he blanches at the prospect of actually following through with the raid, it feels deceptively easy to side with Brown, or Douglass’ man Broadnax who abandons his boss—but that’s not who we are.

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What does it mean to believe in the cause, and to give yourself over to it? Who can be trusted to do that? The Good Lord Bird uses a light touch to ask these questions, largely by moving Onion away from being consumed with self-preservation and making him a true devotee. Now that he’s fully committed to John Brown, he has to contend with people who have the same impulse that used to drive him—and who are less easy to sway. Throughout the episode, we get an outsiders’ perspective on the impending raid: they have about 16 men total, they expect the railman to round up hundreds of potential soldiers in a matter of days or weeks, they’ve chosen Harpers Ferry as the target rather than somewhere closer to a stronghold of free black people. These are frustrating conversations for Onion, but they’re pretty funny, in large part because of the dynamic he has with everyone in town, including an older woman who is one of the few people to immediately clock that Onion is, in fact, a boy.

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“Hiving The Bees” also manages to include a decent amount of comedy without any jokes about how John Brown is crazy, which is a nice change of pace. Instead, we get to hear Cook and Mrs. Huffmaster having sex while Onion tries to push away the nosy sister-in-law. We get Onion’s hopeless crush on the old man’s daughter Annie, which culminates in a very, very silly boner joke—and a moment of typical calculation by Bob, who is inexplicably still part of Brown’s crew and warns Onion away from the girl. And we get the increased madcap energy of the house where the army is holed up, as it becomes clear that the men are going to need to move up the date of the raid. In large part, that energy builds up because the episode is willing to cut somewhat frequently, and because director Haifaa Al-Mansour consistently chooses to focus on shots of the characters running around the house.

Still, the climax of the episode, the final meeting between Frederick Douglass and John Brown, is a pretty dour affair. Diggs is funny, expressing shock at the actual details of the raid (“What have I said to make you think such a plan would work?”), but it’s all bluster hiding the fact that he just doesn’t want to show up for the old man. Brown wants Douglass to lead, but, while the old man describes himself as an animal ready to stop and take his stand, Douglass balks at the prospect. Though, Brown argues, the bees would swarm for him, Frederick Douglass leaves Brown (almost literally) hanging.

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It’s an effective contrast with Onion, who is now so fully behind Brown that upon realizing he has forgotten to convey some crucial information he runs back toward Harpers Ferry, leaving Annie behind (after goofily exposing himself as a boy) in order to ensure to save the mission. It remains to be seen whether Onion is this genuinely committed to the cause, but given that we have several episodes left of the series, it seems like he’ll be sticking around to the bitter end.

Stray observations

  • Annie, played by Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman’s daughter Maya, is a pleasant addition to the show! I don’t know if she’ll show up again, but the calmer and more caring energy she brings to the cause, albeit with a similar level of commitment (and a quick wit when it comes to talking down the neighbors), is a good contrast to her father.
  • Rafael Casal continues to be delightful as Cook, even if he doesn’t really do much beyond lie around the whole episode.
  • “Hiving The Bees” is written by Mark Richard and Lauren Signorino and directed by Al-Mansour.
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