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Underground has unseated The Walking Dead as television’s finest survival thriller

Illustration for article titled Underground has unseated The Walking Dead as television’s finest survival thriller
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Underground quickly distinguished itself as one of the best new shows of 2016 by leavening the horror of American slavery with the rollicking adventure of a meticulously plotted prison break. In that sense, Underground has reinvented the survival thriller, unseating The Walking Dead in the process. (And that would arguably be the case even correcting for TWD’s lack of quality control.) In fact, since the Macon Seven escaped from bondage, it’s almost startling how much Underground resembles The Walking Dead, with its frequent, tragic deaths, the ever-changing circumstances faced by its characters, and its meditations on how it feels to live in a world bent on your destruction. The moment when Cato hobbles Zeke to facilitate his own escape is very similar to the way Shane sacrificed Otis to save himself in “Save The Last One,” except that it takes place in a universe based on history rather than a hypothetical zombie apocalypse.

“Cradle,” the best episode of Underground’s first season, and an early contender for episode of the year, dives deep into a theme that ran through TWD’s second season. It wrestles with the question of what it means to be a child in such a bleak environment, one in which adulthood is far from guaranteed and living longer only means more unfathomable suffering. Underground ditches its elegant, animated credit sequence in order to save time, making it the first episode since the pilot to do so. In its place is a brilliant cold open that shows the production of Necco Wafers, the classic candy that becomes the great equalizer between children whose lives have little else in common. Of course, for most of their young lives they haven’t realized how different they are, and “Cradle” is so devastating and effective because it makes the audience witness the exact moments when each of the four children loses their innocence.

That moment comes early for James, who has been able to avoid the harshest aspects of life as a slave thanks to his tender age and all the maneuvering Ernestine has been doing behind the scenes (and in the wine cellar) to shield James from their reality. But Ernestine can’t protect James anymore, or even allow herself the luxury of believing she can protect him. He faces his first day in the cotton fields with no more assistance than the guidance Ernestine and Sam are able to provide, even as Sam struggles to meet his own lofty quota. James manages his time and attends to his hydration as well as anyone would if they were so young as to have no understanding of the stakes. Of course, Sam knows the stakes all too well, so he switches bags with James and resolves to take James’ lashes until he gets the hang of life in the fields. James can barely sleep that night, so he has to listen to Ernestine and Sam’s conversation and shoulder the guilt of knowing that Sam will suffer unless he can steel himself in a hurry. When he makes weight the next day, it’s a bittersweet and short-lived victory. Ernestine doesn’t react the way he expected her to, and there’s always tomorrow’s date with the scale.

The terrific script, by creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, bookends the episode with the story of T.R., the privileged son of the plantation owner, who has his best friend torn away from him as a result of the horrific practice of slavery. It’s no easy feat to make T.R. just as sympathetic a character as James, all things considered, but by essentially splitting its story into discrete vignettes, Green and Pokaski allow the audience to consider the suffering of each of the children without directly comparing their plights. T.R. is just a kid, so he’s not thrilled at the prospect of owning his best friend along with the cotton fields in which James bloodies his hands every day. The only silver lining is his belief that he’ll be able to make things better once he’s in charge. T.R.’s naivete is adorable and heartbreaking at the same time. He doesn’t understand how growing up in this environment will gradually imbue him with the same cruelty his father displays, nor does he grasp why it provides no comfort to James to know that maybe, after a decade or so, things might get better. T.R. figures that they may not be able to ride horses together, but they can at least share the candy Ernestine gave him in the big house. But James rejects the gesture, neutralizing their only commonality.

Boo’s story is more hopeful, but only by a matter of degrees. She’s fortunate enough to be discovered in the woods by Elizabeth, who takes her in and keeps her safe on this stop of her long, painful journey north. But her freedom, which still hasn’t been fully secured, comes at the cost of both her parents’ lives. Pearly Mae died at Ernestine’s hand when she threatened to give away the Macon Seven’s escape plan in order to ensure Boo’s safety. Now Moses too has died trying to protect his daughter from the slave catchers. Moses went out fighting, and the dreamlike look director Kate Woods lends to Boo’s flashbacks of his death makes it sting a bit less. It doesn’t look like Henry will be as “lucky” as Boo, as he takes the bulk of the damage when the remaining escapees are ambushed at their camp. Henry’s allowed a (probably) final moment of heroism, but that doesn’t less make it any less difficult to part with a character—a person—with so much heart and potential.

Prior to “Cradle,” Underground accomplished the feat of turning a slave narrative into a propulsive, compulsively watchable thriller. Green and Pokaski could have easily focused on the Macon Seven, since the plight of the escaped slaves will always be more palatable than the story of those still trapped on Macon’s plantation. They also could have narrowed the show’s field of vision to the adults of the cotton economy, those mature enough to understand the reality of their situation. Instead, Green and Pokaski dared to tell a story horrific enough to turn some of Underground’s viewers away. It’s a choice that deepens the trust they’ve already earned through patient, assured storytelling, and one that makes me all the more hopeful that this show will get a run long enough to fully realize its vision. Underground just reached a whole new level.


Stray observations

  • There’s not much I didn’t like about this episode, but I probably had the least interest in Ben’s story, though I’m always happy to see Jennifer Nettles.
  • I’d love a little more complexity to Cato. Not that he isn’t an incredibly complex character, he’s probably the most fascinating and opaque character in the show. But it’s easy for him to become a one-noted asshole and he’s teetering on the edge.
  • This is probably the most interested I’ve been in John and Elizabeth’s story. John has demonstrated his willingness to go to any means to help the cause, but it’ll be interesting to see how he reacts to the sacrifice Elizabeth made to protect Boo.
  • Necco Wafers are even weirder than I thought they were.