Photo: WGN America

Cato’s always been a curious matter/character on Underground. He’s been vilified by fans, though only after having given them ample reason. The former overseer blackmailed his way into the Macon 7’s escape, then underestimated (and started falling for) Rosalee during their subsequent flight. Season one revealed that Cato had a tragic backstory all his own—his wife and daughter were sold away, leaving him to wallow in bitterness. But such sad tales are part of nearly everyone’s history on Underground, so there was only so much sympathy to be wrung from that discovery. Unlike Noah, Rosalee, and Ernestine, Cato’s just used his past hurt to justify any current wrongdoings.

But even as it positioned Cato as mostly morally inferior to the rest of the group, Underground also suggested that what could be taken for cruelty was just Cato’s pragmatism. He doesn’t have as much to lose as Rosalee and Noah—not anymore, anyway. And for all his blustering, Cato was really in no safer a position than any of the other Macon slaves. He did whatever he had to in order to survive—should we really knock him if his self-preservation game is strong?

Underground offers no clear answer, and dedicates much of tonight’s chapter to adding more dimensions to the character. If this season’s arcs hinge on answering the question of who is a citizen and who’s ready to be a soldier, Cato is more of a conscientious objector. “Things Unsaid” confirmed that the cunning Cato had in fact returned to America, and “Nok Aaut” shows us he’s making quick work of his season one windfall. There are several flashback sequences, but they don’t prove to be that intrusive, not when they tie into the present so well. The time constraints of a 10-episode season might have necessitated sprinkling them throughout this episode, but it might have worked even better to use them to tell a more linear story.

He’s brought Noah to some fancy house in Philadelphia, where his boxing skills are on display but his motives are hidden. But make no mistake—Cato is still plenty pissed about being left for dead. His hurt at being abandoned shows he hasn’t quite given himself over to rationalizing everything; if he had, he’d understand why Noah and Rosalee kept going. Furthermore, it’s obvious he wants to make Noah suffer, which means that his newfound wealth hasn’t afforded him that much happiness. Well, not lasting happiness.

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Through flashbacks, we see Cato living it up in the recent past with a beautiful woman named Devi. Setting aside for a moment any reflexive anger you might be feeling at seeing Cato gallivanting while poor ’Stine’s will to live is fading on the Roe plantation, these scenes cast our would-be antagonist in a new light. Cato appears to want to give romance and/or marriage another go, as he falls deeply in love with Devi, a British-Indian woman who shares his good taste. But their happiness can’t last because he’s more embittered and haunted than he realizes.

“Nok Aaut” takes its time stripping away their joy, from a clash over prejudice and racism—Devi’s “being treated less than is not an America invention” is spot-on here—to a confounding moment in the boxing ring. Cato seems remorseful of his past actions, so much so that he can’t bring himself to own up to them in front of Devi. But what really throws him for a loop is being on the receiving end of a sucker punch. The other fighter seems to have cheated—it’s not clear whether the Marquess of Queenbury’s rules have been invented or adopted, but that guy was holding something when he punched a gloating Cato. This backhanded move seems to remind Cato of either devious slave owners or just the white man who insulted Devi at the bar the other night. Or rather, it reminds him of what these men see him as, which is less than. Cato doesn’t stoop to their level—he dips further below it, cracking the racist guy over the head with a Champagne bottle, and then knocking out the other fighter once the fight was over.

The cracks in Cato’s facade are starting to show, so he just tears down the whole illusion, breaking Devi’s heart and presumably devising the plan that puts Noah at his mercy. The two men have it out after Cato tries once more to force a response from Noah—he tells him he’ll set seven slaves free if Noah will just turn himself in. Cato believes he’s exposing Noah’s venal nature, utterly failing to recognize the same self-preservation instincts he possesses, that kick in whenever he’s in danger. They come to blows, but even though Cato’s thrown a huge wrench in his escape plan, Noah spares him. “They’re already killing enough of us,” Noah resignedly says. “I’m not about to help them.”

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Because Underground often addresses timely matters, their exchange could be interpreted as a commentary on inter-demographic conflicts. Slavery’s long since been abolished, but its legacy is very much alive, from redlining to racial disparity in the criminal justice system. Noah knows they have a greater enemy, and he’s not about to treat Cato the way some white man would. Whether or not that resonates with Cato remains to be seen, but he does ultimately free the slaves he tried to guilt Noah with, so maybe Cato’s not so far gone after all.

Real-life allusions also found their way into the B story this week, which saw Elizabeth being roused from her mourning period. Georgia and the rest of the sewing circle are trying to keep her busy and engaged, but what really snaps Elizabeth out of her daze is meeting one of the most radical abolitionists she’s encountered to date. The man—who kept referencing “the captain,” but whose name escapes me—answers the “citizen or soldier” question in his introduction to the sewing circle. He backs John Brown’s campaign in Kansas (the “Bleeding Kansas” conflict), and tries to fire up the group by telling them that war is the only way at this point. When Elizabeth tries to shame him for his eagerness in serving up young (white) servicemen and their families, he reminds her of how many black families have already been condemned under slavery. It’s a nice callback to “Things Unsaid,” wherein Georgia represented a similar argument (though she was too kind to spell it out for the grieving Elizabeth).

Georgia proves to be the voice of reason again, as she reminds Mr. Captain Fan that black bodies will almost certainly be made cannon fodder should war erupt—they’ve already been used to build this country, why wouldn’t they also be used to preserve it? What they do agree on is that direct action needs to be taken to further their cause. As they prepare for a big rally, Elizabeth and Mr. Captain Fan—wait, maybe the captain is John Brown?—talk about how they became radicalized in the first place. MCF feeds her the kind of heartbreaking, guilt-ridden story she was hoping for before telling her he didn’t need to personally encounter the evils of slavery to know it’s evil. It’s something he knows in his bones, he says, a feeling shared by her late abolitionist husband.

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It feels a bit mansplain-y; after all, Elizabeth’s already risked and lost a lot. Her shame doesn’t last long, thankfully, as she steps up when Georgia is unable to deliver her speech. And whether she’s galvanized by their chat or the reminder of what she’s lost, Elizabeth delivers a great oration. “Those who make peace impossible make violence inevitable,” she thunders, shortly before being cracked in the face with a rock by some protestor. If she wasn’t radicalized before, she is now.

Stray observations

  • “Nok Aaut” was written by Nadria Tucker and Tiffany Greshler.
  • It’s good to see Alano Miller back—he handles all the curveballs, emotional and otherwise, so well. His performance places Cato on the knife’s edge between good and bad, but he doesn’t look wobbly at all.
  • When I urge people to watch this show, I usually present it as a historical thriller. But I’d also like to credit the show for juxtaposing the more brutal moments with so many images of loving couples. Whether or not you think he deserves it, Cato enjoyed real bliss with Devi, and the camera angles worshipped their beautiful brown bodies.
  • Speaking of which, this is reportedly not the last we’ve seen of Rana Roy, who plays Devi.
  • “I kinda want to see you try.” You know what, Cato? So do I.
  • Re: the episode capper—Rosalee’s journey appears to have taken a toll.
  • This week in Daniel: He now curses his literacy, because it makes him aware of so much evil, and all the good things that are out of his reach. I’m really looking forward to seeing how his story ties in with the rest.

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