WGN America was already home to historical dramas like Salem and Manhattan before picking up Misha Green and Joe Pokaski’s Underground. So the platform was hardly stepping outside of its wheelhouse to feature the drama-thriller about the Underground Railroad. But the series still represented a challenge, as The A.V. Club’s Joshua Alston noted in his review of the first season, and that was how to get people to tune in for a slave narrative on a weekly basis. The show is so much more than that, but there’s no denying the initial hurdles. Salem and Manhattan were also rooted in darker periods of our nation’s history, but the protagonists, victims, and villains were primarily white.
There’s a noticeably different divide in Underground, which tells the stories of the many passengers and conductors who traveled that network of safe houses, most of whom were black. White characters are present, of course, and playing the antagonist as often as the ally. And though it’s set in the antebellum South, the series is undeniably timely. That’s a quality that’s being ascribed to more and more properties these days, especially those with any kind of political bent. But Underground premiered at the tail end of the two-term tenure of the country’s first black president, which coincided with the renewed backlash against that very achievement. It’s also one of the few series with a black woman at the helm, as Green shares writing and showrunning duties with Pokaski. So there was really no avoiding that attribution.
The current administration includes people with ties to the white supremacist movement, but this significant, dismaying shift in the political climate has had little effect on the show. As Pokaski told The A.V. Club recently, “People often ask us about parallels, and we say it’s not a parallel experience, so much as continuity. Take [the documentary] 13th, which traced the continuity of oppression from back in that time to the effects of oppression now. It’s just something you can’t ignore.” There’s been no need to spice up facts or perform any narrative gymnastics to reflect how slavery has shaped the country, propelling some upwards while all but dooming others. But while they never shy away from any of the well-documented brutality, Green and Pokaski keep Underground hopeful—and exciting.
That’s a strange way to put it, but as hard as it is to watch, their hybrid is riveting. The core cast of characters includes Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Noah (Aldis Hodge), two lovers and fugitives who made their daring escape in the first season, and have had to deal with the fallout in the latest string of episodes. Even after getting off the Macon plantation and fleeing Georgia—not to mention linking up with Harriet Tubman (Aisha Hinds)—their future remains uncertain. Though the details of their stories are mined from historical accounts, Green and Pokaski have played with the narrative structure throughout the series’ run, doubling down on the risks in the second season. The premiere, “Contraband,” juxtaposed the near-silent tableau of Daniel’s (Bokeem Woodbine) budding literacy or illumination with a shocking lights-out for a season-one character. And he was one of the good guys.
Nods to The Revenant, The Searchers, and Ocean’s Eleven have followed in the episodes since, but the real standout was Harriet Tubman’s one-woman show (or, in the preferred parlance, TED Talk) in “Minty.” Hinds and the script kept the viewers’ attention even as the action was relegated to an auction block, where Tubman shocked her audience by discussing the need for war. Even more surprising was the breaking of the fourth wall—or, as Pokaski puts it, “the fourth window”—at the end of the extended episode. While referencing the call to “make America great again,” Tubman/Hinds looked into the camera and told her audience (and viewers) that no one gets to sit out this conflict. “Citizen or soldier” has been Underground season-two’s theme from the premiere, but this call to arms is significant: Not only did Tubman herself cross a line, but so did Underground.
The show’s creators aren’t backing away from its relevance or message, even as the stars of another politically charged series attempt to shift the focus away from the marginalized group at the center of that story. Because for Pokaski and especially Green, it’s as much a part of real life as it is the show. Underground’s roots run deep—there are hundreds of years and countless stories to draw inspiration from. Green and Pokaski, who wrote all but one of this season’s episodes, also have plenty of modern-day injustices they could incorporate, but that’s almost gilding the lily. They don’t concern themselves with working in references to contemporary social justice movements, because they’re already sharing the one that predates them all. When asked if current events inform the show, Green said she and Pokaski have more than enough to take from historical accounts: “This is a story about American heroes.” She also couldn’t help but quote Nina Simone, referring to her duty as an artist to “reflect the times.” And for his part, Pokaski says now “isn’t the time to back off.”
Not all of their storytelling gambles have paid off equally; handing the reins over to cast member Christopher Meloni, who plays slave catcher August Pullman, for “Auld Acquaintance” produced one of the weakest offerings of the series and a diffused focus. The penultimate episode, “Citizen,” is similarly scattered, thanks in part to Rashomon-like editing that shows how a fire, a rescue, and a betrayal occurred through multiple viewpoints. It’s not the most daring technique to undertake, which might be why director Lawrence Trilling drops it about halfway. Or maybe he knows how easy (and advisable) it is to just set a camera on Hinds, whose Harriet is having a crisis of faith—the same woman who’s already helped 50 slaves (by the show’s count) find their way to freedom is concerned that she’s not a leader. She doesn’t use these particular terms, but she’s thinking of herself as a soldier or conductor; really, anything but the “general” that John Brown considers her.
“Citizen” sees Noah and Rosalee fight over the meaning of family, while Elizabeth and Cato—the latter of whom has the very meta task of being a runaway playing a runaway—find common ground. Just as important, we learn the fate of Daniel, the stonecutter who began teaching other slaves to read as soon as he’d mastered his own literacy. His storyline has run parallel for much of the season, but in “Citizen,” he finally connects with someone from the core group. But first, we learn the price he paid for his literacy—a cattle brand was used on both his eyes, rendering him blind. The revelation is made all the more painful and shocking by Woodbine’s performance; the actor who ran away with the last season of Fargo lends Daniel so much quiet resolve and dignity here. Until we see him meet Elizabeth at the boarding house, though, it looks like our new fave has met a tragic end.
Such a development is at home in Underground, which never fetishizes suffering but neither glosses over it. Green says a lot of these moments come from the extensive research she and Pokaski have done, but so do the ingenuity and courage that kept the Underground Railroad running: “We’ve talked a lot about this idea of literacy, and reading, and how knowledge is power, wanting to see and understand someone’s journey to have that kind of knowledge and power.” But she also credits Woodbine with bringing them to life, saying, “I think that that’s what we were excited about doing with Daniel, and having someone like Bokeem [Woodbine] come in and kind of fill that role, where you could watch him for a scene an episode, and just be so intrigued by him.”
Green’s words are a reminder that she and Pokaski are primarily focused on telling stories—despite its provenance, Underground isn’t a history lesson. And yet, the shameful past that looms over the show is as much of a draw as the thrilling chase scenes. The series’ creators strive for that balance, which is why Green says there’s “nothing brave” about telling the stories of the Macon 7, or of their real-life counterparts—the courage is in the tales themselves.