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

Onion and John Brown meet Harriet Tubman in a sleepy Good Lord Bird

Ethan Hawke and Joshua Caleb Johnson.
Ethan Hawke and Joshua Caleb Johnson.
Photo: William Gray/SHOWTIME
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We’re halfway through The Good Lord Bird, and “Smells Like Bear” is a bit of a holding pattern episode. Mostly, it serves to get Brown, Onion, and the rest of the gang to the beginning of the main event: the raid on Harpers Ferry. By the end of the episode, everyone is poring over maps and talking through the plans, but before then, there is a lot of conversation.

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If there’s an emotional core to the episode, it’s the way Onion is led to finally, definitively choose to fight alongside John Brown. He’s been pushed into Brown’s company by a series of coincidences, hijinks, and acts of violence. Woken from an uneasy dream about Steven Zahn, Onion starts out taking a literal leap of faith: jumping off a moving train with John Brown. Later on, Onion is seemingly prepared to shoot someone he thinks is a federal agent swooping in on Brown, the titular bear. But instead the visitor is even worse—Hugh Forbes, a man who takes Brown for all he’s worth and skips town. (The historical Hugh Forbes promised to build a volunteer army for Brown and came up empty-handed.)

The incident is framed as an example of Brown’s fervent, unimpeachable faith, a trait that both allows him to effectively rouse the crowds at the events he attends and gives him a sense of childish simplicity. When he and Onion jump off the train, Brown describes the pair as being “up to no good… in their eyes.” When he learns that Forbes has fled Brown fires off his gun, again acting impulsively. So they do another childish thing, something American liberals have been threatening to do for decades: flee to Canada.

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I’m sympathetic to the perspective that The Good Lord Bird has about John Brown—that his intensity may have made it difficult to think about other people as people. And when Onion notes that his life has become materially less comfortable since traveling with Brown, there’s at least some edge to it. (Certainly, this is Joshua Caleb Johnson’s best acting episode yet.) But I hope that this is pretty much the end of the show making the same argument over and over. Brown has a group of Northerners whipped into a frenzy, only for Onion to note that the only other Black person in the room is a domestic servant. By the time Onion goes to an orphanage for a moment, only to dramatically rejoin Brown, it feels like the second act of a rom-com when the love interests are separated and depressed. It feels like the point has been made, and there isn’t much more to say about it. It is time for John Brown to meet the slavers with, as he puts it, “great gunshot and powder.”

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Because otherwise, things are starting to feel flat, and not just from a plot perspective. The direction in this episode feels a bit more cramped than usual, largely putting Brown into tight rooms without the same level of dynamism present in, say, the Battle Of Black Jack. I totally get that from a production perspective it would be difficult and potentially a lot more expensive to actually show Onion and Brown jumping off the train, but it really would have added a sense of excitement to the episode that we don’t get until the end, when the gang finally starts planning the raid.

Another flat component of the episode: This week’s encounter between Onion, Brown, and an iconic historical figure. In this case, that’s Harriet Tubman, played by Zainab Jah. Framed from behind, walking through the middle of the room, shorter than everyone else, as she goes to meet Brown, The Good Lord Bird is unable to muster the same sense of irreverence it used to mock Frederick Douglass. Instead, Harriet Tubman says, “You know me. My name’s Harriet Tubman,” and gives Onion a talismanic shawl. It sounds a bit like the plot from 30 Rock where Tracy tries to make a serious Tubman biopic.

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And listen, I completely understand not wanting to do a satirical Harriet Tubman. She’s the general! But painting her as a quasi-spiritual figure makes her feel a bit out of step with the rest of the show. At the very least, it helps that she stands strongly behind the old man, and clarifies that, yes, it’s worth fighting (and potentially dying) with John Brown. By the end of her speech, she’s succeeded in getting a few people to sign up to join Brown, including an adventurer named Cook, played by Rafael Casal as a sort of more fun, genuinely rakish variant on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Lee Scoresby from the His Dark Materials show.

Cook’s presence indicates, hopefully, that the final few episodes of The Good Lord Bird will lean into the absurdity, futility, and righteousness of the Harpers Ferry raid, and of Brown’s willingness to sacrifice himself more broadly. As we finally start to see, Brown has a pretty specific plan for the raid, including a reliance on local terrain that will prevent the enemy from using their artillery and overwhelming numbers. He has faith in his men, and in Onion to mobilize the local enslaved population. When he lays out the plan, one of the men responds, “You’re talking about a lot of people dying.” And it’s hard not to think of John Brown as being perfectly morally lucid when he responds, “Yes. I am.”

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Stray observations:

  • “Smells Like Bear” is written by Mark Richard and Kristen SaBerre and directed by Kevin Hooks.
  • The title of the episode comes from “bear grease” the federal officers looking for Brown ostensibly use to slick back their hair.
  • Bob’s first line of the episode: “Old man, the cheese has slid all the way off your biscuit.”
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