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Underground searches for justice—and a savior

Photo: WGN America
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Underground returned last week with a bang and a whimper—the resistance lost a valuable ally when John Hawkes was murdered, and Elizabeth has been devastated. In the immediate aftermath, with the gunshot still ringing in her ears, she sits motionless on the steps of the courthouse, the same courthouse where she regularly met John. Elizabeth is hurt and angry, and looking for someone to blame. She doesn’t quite end up setting her sights on Rosalee, though she is peeved that John’s niece can’t make his funeral. But the way Rosalee hangs her head when talking about John suggests she feels guilty that he was killed after their attempt to rescue Noah.


“Things Unsaid” makes us sit with Elizabeth’s grief, where we see her rejecting the comfort of others while also refusing to acknowledge that she’s in mourning. She won’t make the funeral arrangements, not even when Georgia—who invited her into the sewing circle and is now boarding her—offers to help. Elizabeth’s not quite being cruel, but she can’t see past her own pain right now. So the day before the funeral, she sits on the same bench where she used to wait for John; but this time, she has a loaded (and stolen) gun in her purse. She wants justice for John, but she doesn’t have much of a plan, because she’s not sure who to target: the lawyers who won’t prosecute? The politicians who cluck their tongues and call it a “senseless death”? The bigots who think John got what he deserved?

As Elizabeth rails against these nameless officials, Georgia gently interjects on occasion, but otherwise lets her friend and fellow abolitionist vent. Elizabeth’s grief fills the scene, but Georgia’s silent support also speaks volumes. Elizabeth’s words about no one caring that a “good man died” express the sentiments of every black woman and man who lost a loved one during slavery. They were every bit as innocent, every bit as full of potential as John, were it not for the system that kept them in bondage. Elizabeth doesn’t pick up on the role reversal, but the viewer does. These actions extend into the present day, where there are still so many senseless murders of black men and women by the state. And the grace and optimism that Georgia shows is a testament to that we continue to see in black women to this day.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the same episode that showed how oblivious Elizabeth can still be also featured the return of Patty Cannon (now played by Sadie Stratton), the “most notorious slave hunter,” according to her would-be biographer. The real-life Cannon preyed on freed slaves, whom she either sold or killed. “Things Unsaid” doesn’t venture into the illegal trading, focusing instead on the class divisions among white people. Patty’s proud of the reputation she’s developed, believing she’s pulled herself up by the bootstraps. But she’s also offended when the biographer reminds her that while her father was a nobleman, her mother was a prostitute. Then, after lulling her into a false sense of security with some praise, he tells her that Harriet Tubman’s tale of outsmarting the most notorious hunter makes for a better story.

Patty might realize she’s being manipulated, but it’s not likely. She prides herself on competing in a man’s world, and even commanding a male workforce. But her failure in this matter eats away at her; Harriet is now her nemesis, and not just because she eludes her. Harriet has done more than just help however many dozens or hundreds of slaves make their way north; she’s become a symbol of hope, of resistance. Harriet is the deliverer, the savior. That’s something that irks every hunter on this show, but I read this episode as a commentary on white feminism, which prioritizes the fight against sexism—focusing on the wage gap, for example, even though gaps also exist among what white women and women of color earn—over intersectionality. Patty’s far more malevolent, of course, but we also can’t ignore the complicity of white women in the Confederacy, or really, in this current day and age.


We’ve seen this elsewhere on Underground: before Patty, there was Suzanna Macon, who punished Ernestine even though she couldn’t have turned Tom away. Underground co-creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski wrote “Things Unsaid,” and they deftly highlight the differences without shifting the focus entirely to another conflict. Patty is their foe, but she’s also a cog in the machine. She knows enough to know that she’s shot the Black Rose on the river bank and not Moses, but she’s also playing to her audience, the journalist whose work she admires so.

Photo: WGN America

Suffering is relative here, its scope encompassing everything from the void in Elizabeth’s life now that she’s widowed and never had a child, to Ernestine having to help her lover’s lover deal with an unplanned pregnancy. Hicks doesn’t want the child, so he sends Clara to get some kind of miscarriage-inducing concoction. At first glance, ’Stine’s composure in the marsh is impressive even for her; she matter-of-factly tells Clara there will be a lot of blood. But she’s more likely detaching herself from the latest upset in her life. She doesn’t count on Hicks much, but she also knows she can’t turn him away. And he doesn’t want to marry Clara, so all she can do is pass along that potion. Ernestine eventually cracks, though, and tells Clara that her children were the best thing to happen to her. Which is why she knows exactly the kind of pain Clara is in when she discovers her under the tree after Hicks forces her to drink the concoction.

It’s not quite the same grace we saw in Georgia earlier, but again, ’Stine isn’t being afforded any opportunities to rise above her surroundings. It’s enough that she’s surviving right now. The Roe Plantation is an awful place, and she is just trying to muddle through. And whether it’s the ether or her pain, she’s now hallucinating everyone from Pearly Mae to her dead husband (Sam’s father). Despite always being in the thick of it, Amirah Vann maintains a nuanced portrayal of Ernestine; her suffering seems never-ending, but it’s not one note. There are different offenses, different levels of treachery. In a flashback, a pregnant Ernestine is both excited about the birth of her baby, and fearful that she’ll lose this child, too. Not in a miscarriage, but because he was sold.


The revelation that Rosalee is pregnant makes her thwarted attempts to rescue Noah all the more tragic. Harriet wants her to forget about Noah, and focus on getting her family to freedom, but Rosalee has more reason than ever to reunite with her love. Noah wears the ring he made for her, or to remind him of her, which he only removes while trying to plan his own escape. The man is down, but not out after his attempted flight from Ohio. He methodically takes apart the carriage he’s being transported in, and he’s even managed to find a way to pick the lock on his chains. Noah’s been biding his time, letting his Scottish “drivers” think they still had the upper hand. Class rears its ugly head once more, as Noah reminds his jailers of their place in society. They might get to act tough around Noah, but they’re in someone else’s service, too.

For now, though, Noah’s ingenuity is for naught. Despite how undeniably thrilling it was to watch him throw his chains to the ground, he’s still far from being free or even on the run again. The person who’s been pulling the strings is Cato, who just chuckles at Noah’s shocked expression. But at least he got his ring back.


Stray observations

  • Nice touch including the references to Harriet Tubman’s documented narcolepsy.
  • I wanted more Aisha Hinds, of course, but I’m sure I won’t have to wait long.
  • I don’t think Daniel’s story will remain separate from the rest of the action, but I’m also thinking it could be great if his story is unfolding in a different time somehow, and we’ll find out he’s the father of one of our characters. But maybe I’ve just been watching too much Legion.
  • Patty Cannon was seriously fucking awful, and she died in prison.

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