13 May 2016
The season 1 finale of WGN America’s Underground was like “BOOM! POW! BANG! Come forth Harriet Tubman!” Everything about the black girl magic (and vengeance) in this finale was delicious!
Two weeks ago I wrote: “If Sam’s demise provided the foundation for Tom’s political success, then his spilled blood will nourish the ground that gives birth to a mother’s rage…”
For the finale, we open to a mother in mourning. Ernestine’s sassy strut has slowed down to a shaky meander. All of this mother’s heartache leaks through the cruel gash left in her soul by her oldest son’s premature end. Every bone in her body is infected with grief. This much seems to satisfy the Reverend who exits the front door of the Macon plantation with a sinister smirk smeared across his face. Amirah Vann transmits every agonizing atom of a broken mother with painful precision.
Delivered in silky alto, the Peace Prayer of St. Francis that Ernestine breathes over her youngest son is this mother’s best attempt to summon some meaning out of misery, to somehow organize rage into righteousness. Her incantation hovers just above a whisper, and yet, this pitch is just powerful enough to render us assured that Jehovah will undoubtedly provide the “peace,” “love,” and “pardon” for which she pleads. However, Ernestine is not so much praying for peace or love as she is praying against a more consuming, diabolical temptation: revenge.
At the risk of sounding redundant (inasmuch as I’ve mentioned this in my others reviews for weeks 7 and 8), Amirah Vann is artistic perfection to the umpteenth degree. There’s something absolutely intoxicating about this petite power package of a thespian. Even if Vann is new to our screens, she nonetheless exists in a first-rate league of leading ladies that includes forerunners like Angela Bassett, Viola Davis, and Phylicia Rashad. Like addicts, we gobble up all of the tasty tenacity and scrumptious sass this Afro-Boricua sista serves.
Ernestine: “There’s only pain now.”
Tom: “It doesn’t have to be. I can make you feel something else.”
In Tom’s office, Ernestine’s eyes are soggy with tears; her mouth is immobilized in perpetual droop. As he pities himself, I am convinced that “ain’t nobody got time” for any of Tom’s sympathy-seeking trickery. He is a coward and a wannabe who is visibly uncomfortable around his own kind (other white folks). He finds his best comfort in the shadows…with Ernestine. For him, sex is the only way he knows how to exercise/express power; this is the toxic logic of an abuser-wannabe-hero. When he kneels and begs for forgiveness, Ernestine absorbs the blame.
Their relationship is frustrating, complicated, blurry, and messy. And then again, it’s not because it’s abuse. Despite Ernestine’s one stipulation —“Never in the house. I say when, I say where always” —Tom proceeds with his habit of twisting melancholy into erotica. Biology prevails and her body contorts in harmony (he intends to fondle her into both forgiving him and forgetting his transgressions). This is the worst kind of abuse because it’s tangled up with the human body’s most basic desire for touch, tenderness, and intimacy. Perhaps, he misinterprets her sobs as the kind of erotic encouragement that a man likes to conjure up out of his woman. But, this ain’t that. This is not romantic and this is not love. We’ve seen this behavior before in episode 6 wherein Tom whined about being stressed out by the Reverend Willowset after which he attempted (unsuccessfully) to unload all of his lust and libido onto an emotionally fatigued Ernestine.
By the time we get to the wine cellar, though, Ernestine is not interested in any of Tom’s lies, sugary promises, or lustful shenanigans. His elaborate schemes about shopping in Virginia and dining in private nightclubs in Washington clue us to the fact that he intends to harbor her as a “kept” woman. As an aspiring politician in the 1850s, Tom would have been familiar with the gossip that circulated about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings several decades earlier. And if Jefferson’s Monticello scandal wasn’t enough inspiration, then he would have been aware of other contemporaries like abolitionist and US House of Representatives member Thaddeus Stevens who kept a mulatto woman named Lydia Hamilton Smith as his housekeeper and rumored live-in lover. While historians continue to debate over whether or not Stevens and Hamilton-Smith had a sexual relationship, it would be the height of naïveté to suggest the opposite. Films like Courage to Love (starring Vanessa Williams) and The Feast of All Saints (starring Jennifer Beals) explore the problematic of the “kept” mulâtresse and the elite slave owning white men who maintained them.
Tom continues to try to make amends, but Ernestine reads straight through the game and the bogus reverie he concocts. In a previous article I wrote: “Ernestine is singularly prepared to survive (at any cost) and more than anything else self-sacrifice might be her greatest and most troublesome quality.” But at the finale, Ernestine rounds a new arc. She is woke! And it is the awakening we’ve been waiting for!
Ernestine: “I was foolish to think that anything I could do could keep my children from danger.”
At the beginning of the season, Ernestine was a mother whose sole priority was survival. Even if survival meant that she would have to offer her body as the erotic ransom upon which her family’s safety was predicated, then she was prepared to make that sacrifice. However, by the finale she discovers what we already knew: safety is a mirage. More disturbing is the reality that Black life has always been rendered disposable (both in the antebellum South and on our contemporary streets). The introduction of Patty Cannon in this episode (a domestic terrorist who kidnapped and killed indiscriminately both free colored folks and runaways) best demonstrates the fragility of freedom (that still continues) for black folks in America.
To be sure, the juxtaposition of the “house slave” versus “the despondent field nigger” still floats around as a colloquial trope in everyday African American language. But as usual, Underground shatters any wisdom we proclaim to have about the past. The “Big House” was never a safe haven; it was always a messy den of dysfunction disguised as a luxurious refuge far away from the fields. But, life is nonrefundable and for Ernestine any semblance of protection in the Big House was extinguished on the night that her son’s body swung from its porch.
Fortunately, Underground never uses carnage or horror merely for the sake of summoning sensational cinema. If there is a moral behind every story, then there was certainly a menacing message as Ernestine cranked the death lever to the tune of Tom’s gasps for mercy. Could there be redemption in revenge? “There’s no surviving this life….We both goin’ to hell,” Ernestine concludes with a final toast to Tom’s dangling corpse (she doesn’t spill this fine wine over her body; she sips). She exhales: “You just a bit sooner.”
Mocked up as a suicide (thanks to the help she enlisted from the Reverend’s butler), Ernestine leaves Tom’s body hanging. It is an eerie homage…to Sam. This final clapback is cold-blooded, demonstrating, once again, that no deed is too dirty for this petticoat gangsta. If Tom thought he could fondle his way back into Ernestine’s good graces, then he certainly discovered (just as the last bit of life was chocked out of him) that hell hath no fury like an awakened, unbounded, unboxed bondwoman.
There are no archetypal heroes or villains here. Enslaved women were not merely cooks or the benign objects in the background of a white man’s picture, they could also be killers who committed crimes of passion. Yes, Ernestine is a boss. Yes, she is a bona fide gangsta diggin’ the scene with a saucy sashay! Yes, she slayed her captor, but she just might fall head first into karma. As she hung her baby daddy-molester-captor-paramour, I was reminded of Celia, a young enslaved woman in Missouri who killed her sexually abusive master in 1855. Whereas Celia was put on trial for murdering her master-abuser and sentenced to an execution by hanging, Ernestine will not have to stand before the gavel or meet the gallows; however, she just might make her day on that damnable slave “Block.”
In all of this, what is the significance of the White Whale (the Moby Dick trope that titles this episode)? The lesson of Moby Dick, like the central character Captain Ahab learned, is that one’s own ruin is tangled up in pursuing revenge (capturing the whale).
Misha Green and Joe Pokaski have anchored this narrative around rebels and the black girl rebellion we witness from Ernestine and Rosalee is thrilling! Like her mother, Rosalee has rounded a gutsy arc. While previously convinced that she wasn’t made for running, Rosalee discovered here that running is her calling. But Misha Green and Joe Pokaski really gave us our lives when they introduced that gun-totin’, bandanna rockin’, skirt wearin’, black body-snatcher Harriet Tubman!
Harriett: They said you was lookin’ to steal slaves?
Rosalee: Can’t steal somethin’ that ain’t property in the first place.
Harriett: Well, I aim to teach you how. Name’s Harriet.
The fingerprints of the Black girl genius Misha Green are smeared all over this show. Proof is in the scrumptious melanin swag that beautifully rounded out the finale with Harriett Tubman arising as guide and teacher. Every inch, nook and cranny of this show is sheer excellence. Meanwhile, we are left dangling for dear life on a cliffhanger…Will Ernestine be sold? What will happen to James? What will be Noah’s next step? What will Cato do with his riches? The questions are endless.
Nevertheless, while we hang on, we await Season 2 like hopeless addicts in need of rehab. Underground has gotten into our blood precisely because it has been born out of our blood…yes, the blood, sweat, and tears of our ancestors. We pour out a little for those who have gone on before us…
In the meantime, I’ll be watching the History Channel’s upcoming ROOTS remake.
Read my other reviews from the season:
Episode “Black & Blue”