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Underground takes stock of its many tragic legacies

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Because it briefly slipped my mind that ”Whiteface” marks the midseason point, the episode’s converging storylines felt a little too convenient upon my first viewing. The final leg of Noah’s journey, for example, probably should have gotten a little screen time this week. Instead, he’s none the worse for wear after surviving Cato’s wrath; then again, Cato’s scheming was mostly intended to knock Noah off his high horse, so maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised. But that narrative expediency can be overlooked, because resolving some of the smaller issues and moving the larger plot forward are necessary at this point. And Underground has never been a show that drags things out—no, not even Ernestine’s suffering—so it makes sense that it’d get down to the business of bringing the major players back together.


Accordingly, “Whiteface” features several reunions, including the one we’ve been anticipating the most, that of Noah and Rosalee. Though they briefly laid eyes on each other during that failed escape in the season premiere, they’ve remained apart while Rosalee got more pregnant, and Noah more despondent. He shows up rather surreptitiously at Georgia’s door after fleeing Philadelphia, but there’s swelling music to indicate just how emotional a gathering this is. And it is gratifying to watch them embrace—they treat each other so tenderly, even though Noah doesn’t seem to initially be aware that Rosalee is pregnant. He’s so relieved to see her that he just listens as she recounts her daring escapades with Harriet, not once chastising her for taking the risk (unlike Elizabeth).

The awe Noah feels over what Rosalee’s accomplished keeps him silent, but there’s something more. He’s unwilling to tell her about Cato and his trip back to Ohio, in part because he seems disillusioned by what he discovered in the north. He’s also briefly thrown by the fact that Rosalee is already planning to head back to Georgia to rescue ’Stine. But after speaking with Elizabeth, who is now reminding him of the perils of moving “cargo,” Noah has a revelation: He knows he is willing to risk everything to be with Rosalee, even though that could mean losing Rosalee. “They make you think freedom is a place,” he tells her, but he knows that being free is made up of choices, like, say, deciding whether you’re going to assent to the evils of slavery by staying home, or if you’re going to enlist with the men and women battling against it. In this moment, he recommits to Rosalee and the Railroad.

Hi, John Legend (Photo: WGN America)

It’s really a beautiful exchange, and one that makes me so glad that Aldis Hodge is playing off Jurnee Smollett-Bell once more. I’ve missed the romance, which had been kind of sidelined, albeit understandably so. But it’s still what keeps Rosalee and Noah going, and what will get them through what’s probably their most dangerous assignment yet: Springing ’Stine, whom they probably don’t realize is in Gullah. And they’re stronger than they realize, or are just beginning to realize: “We’re not the same people that ran together,” Noah tells Rosalee. They both want more than just their freedom now—they want a life, with parents and children.


’Stine is hardly aware of this plan, or of how her children are doing at all. She hit bottom last week, and seemed ready to give it all up. But in “Whiteface,” she also talks about holding out for more. She isn’t fooled by the apologetic Hicks, but neither is she trying to punish him. Ernestine gives a heartbreaking speech about the cycle of violence, and of how oppressed men in turn oppress the even more vulnerable. They’re acting out someone else’s ”narrative” for them, she says, one that was first written over a hundred years before their time, which prevented slaves from forming families to draw strength from. ’Stine owns up to all of her coping mechanisms: The opiates (so much for ether, Danette), the attempts to manipulate Tom Macon to keep herself and her kids safe, and her attempts to drive away the pain by sleeping with Hicks. But as she urges Hicks to break free, he just gives her another bottle of opiates.

For a brief moment, it looks like she’ll spiral again, but Ernestine is keeping her wits about her. She’s coaching Clara on how to win over Matthew Roe, which she hopes will mean that the younger woman will convince him to get ’Stine off that island. And talk about tragic legacies: Ernestine, who put herself through all of that with Tom Macon just to protect her children, could now be exposing Clara to the same dangers. Whatever short-term victory will be won—some independence from her family, some favors—Clara will pay a high price for it. It’s just the reality (and history) of the matter. Even if they fall in love, Clara and Matthew will never be on equal footing, not under slavery.

Photo: WGN America

There are still a lot of irons in the fire here—in addition to all this planning, Devi and Cato are reunited (again, briefly), and the Resistance hits a road block. With so many threads, it’s a bit of a relief not to have an opening scene dedicated to Daniel, though Bokeem Woodbine will always be missed. But despite having so many disparate stories, “Whiteface” writers Misha Green and Joe Pokaski are mostly able to weave them together to build the episode’s larger theme—the question of equity. We see that Rosalee and Noah treat each other as equals, despite not really having a similar example set for them by anyone else in their lives. They’re able to make it up as they go along, in a sense. ’Stine doesn’t believe she can expect any such thing from Hicks, or from anyone really while they’re all in bondage. Emboldened by his money, Cato thinks he can move about Philadelphia society the way white people can—not to mingle with them or curry favor with them, but as their equals. He’s looking to start a war, after all.


Cato does hobnob with sympathetic northerners at his own soirée, where he meets Frederick Douglass (John Legend, who looks the part, but seems to be reading from a Wikipedia entry). He opens up to his guests about his past when—speak of the devil—August Pullman shows up, with Patty Cannon on his arm. Cato outright taunts them, because he doesn’t seem to realize how precarious his situation is. He’s riding high on all the scandalized reactions to his minstrel show, which lures white people in with the promise of mocking black folks, but ends up sending up their oppressors with whiteface. His friend tries to warn him about poking the bear in this manner, but Cato looks ready for a fight. He gets one, which he loses, but not before Devi returns.

Perhaps the most surprising place for this discussion of equality is between Elizabeth and Georgia, the latter of whom is arrested for fraud before the halfway point. But not because she’s been passing, though that certainly seems to disturb Elizabeth. Maybe it’s just the way the episode was edited, but she appeared to take a long time to get Georgia’s free papers together and head down to the jail. In fact, Georgia returns before Elizabeth can even hitch a ride there. Georgia is accosted in the street by some racists, but that’s after Elizabeth practically yells at her that she’s been passing this whole time. Again, these could just be acting/directing choices, but the fact that Elizabeth thought Georgia was white when she wasn’t doesn’t seem to be sitting well with the widow Hawkes. It’s not quite the same as the moment that the minstrel show audience members realize they’re the ones who are being laughed at, but there is an air of shock, even betrayal, around Elizabeth. She even criticizes Georgia for putting their fellow “conductors” at risk with the lie, showing once more just how ignorant she is. And again, Georgia shows far more decency than she should when she quietly explains just how painful it’s been to write her real mother out of her life just to stay safe.


There’s so much to unpack here—passing, white feminism, classism, code switching, assimilation. Underground tries to do all of these ideas justice, to varying effect. But it also lives up to its own legacy of introducing themes not often seen on TV. It’s not just that co-creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski explore life under slavery every week; they show us the many methods people used to survive such cruelty, which makes this so much more than another slave narrative.

Stray observations

  • EDITED: “Whiteface” was not directed by Salli Richardson-Whitfield, the actor-director who starred in Antwone Fisher and Being Mary Jane, who’s also helmed episodes of Queen Sugar and Rebel. That is not a low down dirty shame. It was actually directed by Kate Woods. Thank you, commenter maraleia.
  • My screenshots are always so grainy, but I really wanted to include some images of Rosalee and Noah’s reunion, as well as the raid on Georgia’s home.
  • It’s telling that the rich white people at the minstrel show are mollified by what they think is a depiction of poor, rural whites, but it doesn’t last. The other side of that classist coin is the way Patty Cannon makes her way through polite society. She doesn’t really have the pedigree for such things, but, as a white woman, she can fake her way for longer.
  • Because I watch screeners, I usually miss out on the promos for the following week’s episode. But I will endeavor to snap up the pertinent videos to post here as soon as I come across them.
  • So I guess Patty is just going to squat in Cato’s home now? Ugh.
  • Christopher Meloni didn’t utter a single word this episode; maybe the mash had his tongue.

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