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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Good Lord Bird pulls out the fireworks for a botched version of Harpers Ferry

Illustration for article titled iThe Good Lord Bird /ipulls out the fireworks for a botched version of Harpers Ferry
Photo: William Gray/SHOWTIME
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Finally, the big show. “Jesus Is Walkin’” covers the actual Harpers Ferry raid—and, after five episodes building to the thing everyone knows about John Brown, it’s honestly a bit of a letdown.

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Partly, that’s because The Good Lord Bird doesn’t seem to know how it wants to depict the raid. There are moments of ostensible comedy in which Brown doesn’t remember things or seems adrift during the chaos. Bob jumps out of a moving carriage, which is a pretty funny (and fitting) sendoff for a character who has consistently represented the drive of self-preservation—someone who wanted to believe in the cause, but couldn’t quite do it. Other times, the raid is depicted as a creeping horror movie, as everything seems to go wrong in a way that will spell doom for all of the participants.

That makes sense—debates over how to think about John Brown often, of necessity, center on the Harpers Ferry raid, a story that varies wildly depending on the manner in which it is told. For example, in the episode’s opening sequence, Onion tries to give the password for the railman only to accidentally shoot him with the gun he’d be given for self-defense. This man, a free Black man named Heyward Shepherd, was the historical first casualty of the Harpers Ferry raid, a fact often deployed by Confederate sympathizers like the The United Daughters Of The Confederacy, who proposed a monument to Shepherd as a “faithful slave.” (Though there’s little historical record about who he was and why he died—this depiction is an invention of James McBride’s novel.)

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Shepherd’s death is the first chaotic event in an episode full of chaotic events, all of which seem to just kind of happen, one after another. Shepherd is killed, Brown slowly realizes that the bees are not going to hive, trades a hostage in exchange for breakfast, and, eventually, several men participating in the raid are gunned down. In the middle, Onion goes on an errand to bring a small number of reinforcements. There are a few really compelling moments, particularly during some of the frantic gunfighting, but a lot of this feels weirdly flat—director Katherine Woods often puts the combatants in static shots where everyone is just sort of talking, rendered passive by forces beyond their control rather than actively doing anything.

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Whether intentional or not, the episode ultimately feels like a comedy. “Jesus Is Walkin’,” both in the script by Mark Richard and Erika Johnson and, presumably, in the original novel, leans heavily into a portrait of John Brown as a man who is overwhelmed by the events surrounding him and seemingly unaware of what he has done—someone who is fully prepared to die for his cause, but doesn’t seem to think it’s actually going to happen. Most of the white men of Harpers Ferry are presented as regular guys going about their days, flabbergasted by the absurdity of the raid. This decision is used for comedy, contrasting these “reasonable” people with the “insane criminal” John Brown, in moments where they slowly realize that he is not, in fact, joking. One of the men held hostage commends Brown for fighting for the freedom of enslaved Black people, then says “We’ll bring flowers to your funeral.”

It’s possible that I’m being uncharitable, and that the point here is to reflect back to the audience the extent to which we, too, are willing to go about our days and just sort of mutter about how impressive it is that other people do the right thing while refusing to do it ourselves. If it is, it doesn’t really work.

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I’m hopeful that the next and last episode of The Good Lord Bird will zoom out and do more of the work to frame the raid, and Brown’s life, without treating it as much like a joke. After all, one of the big themes in “Jesus Is Walkin’” is the nature of faith, and what it means to work through doubts. As Brown tells Onion, “Having doubts doesn’t make us weak. It makes us human.” Onion wants to believe, and in Brown’s telling, that’s enough.

But as a singular episode of The Good Lord Bird, and without the context of whatever come next, “Jesus Is Walkin’” presents a pretty dismal picture of faith going unrewarded—especially because Onion’s faith in the cause, and in the captain himself, ironically leads him to echo one of the most common modern justifications for evil: “We got orders, Bob, and I aim to follow them.”

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Stray observations

  • “I ain’t got no use for no symbolic sword.” Thank you, Bob.
  • “You have the mathematical skills of a politician and a fool.” This is a great Ethan Hawke moment, as is the ensuing gunfight in which Brown shoots the most openly racist person we see throughout the episode.
  • Early in the episode, one of the men notes that Christianity is often used to justify racism. Still true!
  • Joshua Caleb Johnson is really great in this episode, and the episode does a good job of putting us in his shoes, but it’s pretty funny that The Good Lord Bird blames the failure of the Harpers Ferry raid primarily on Frederick Douglass and Onion.
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