6 May 2016
Underground’s episode 9 was stuffed with flesh and fantasy in bloody, gory excess. Perhaps we’ve become comfortably accustomed to this routine of mixing gore with pleasure. Nevertheless, these electrifying scenes are always convincing enough to leave us feeling awkward and grappling for any crumble of sanity and poise we might have left by the end of it.
After last week’s emotional roller coaster, we open to Rosalee in chains. She’s curled up (like contraband) in the back of a wagon. Patty Cannon’s gang of goons manhandle her into a slaughterhouse. Rosalee ditches the “white woman’s dress” (which is laced with a substance significantly more sinister than silk and buttons) and tosses it into the fire. This slaughterhouse is just gory enough to make all of the scenes that follow creepy. Any efforts the characters make to preserve their sanity in this environment are useless against the real nemesis here: a hallucinogen called Jimson weed (datura stramonium), otherwise known as Devil’s snare.
True to its name, Devil’s snare induces a spell that blurs the lines between reality and the imaginary. While Devil’s snare had been used for various reasons in traditional medicine—including as an anesthesia to render patients unconscious—according to Alfredo Lopez Austin’s book, Mexico’s Indigenous Past, “old inhabitants of Central and Southern California” ingested datura “to commune with deities through visions.” To be sure, it is precisely this hallucinogenic potency that the creators of Underground intend to probe.
As the fumes choke the atmosphere, the situation turns bizarre and oddly revelatory. Rosalee confronts her father.
Tom: “Four fingers, two cubes. You remember don’t you?”
Rosalee: “Yes massa.”
Tom: “Well get to it.”
Rosalee is back in her old crimson garbs, her sartorial chains. If there was any ambiguity surrounding the paternity of Ernestine’s two youngest children, it was cleared up here. “You are my daughter!” Tom “imaginarily” scolds Rosalee. “And there is no freedom for you!” Rosalee argues back at her father. “You let him do this to me! You let him do it over and over ‘til my arms were torn; and you just sat there!” Her more than dozen scars are her biggest demon because they not only evoke memories of the overseer Bill, but they are also a reminder that her father was a nonchalant participant in the traumatic event. The culmination to this hallucination is brutal when Rosalee stabs Ben in the stomach.
Meanwhile, August’s hallucinations are particularly erotic. Ernestine appears wielding a butcher knife; her fingers are dripping with blood. She wipes her hands on August’s bare chest and slaps him with the knife a few times for good measure. “Blood stains everything, can’t get it out for nothing!” It is every bit of gory eroticism without descending into crass vulgarity. In this moment, Ernestine (operating as August’s guilty conscience) scolds him for misleading his son down a heinous path. “What have you taught your son?” she hisses. “The hunt ain’t never over; not for you. The wolf doesn’t always know he’s a wolf, but he suspects.” (Obviously, Ernestine still runs ish even when she’s a phantom!). This scene is a spiced-up inversion of a previous moment in episode 4 wherein a knife-wielding August interrogates Ernestine about her daughter. Outside of the fact that Ernestine represents August’s conscience packaged in a petite black woman’s body, what we discover here is that August digs Ernestine…hard. This is not a surprise. Every movement this mocha matriarch makes (even in the spiritual realm) secretes the kind of intense swagger, ego, and poise that endlessly enchants. She fades to dust, reminding us, too, that her clapbacks are everything! Yes, the melanin magic is real!
August is knocked out of this erotic reverie just as Noah arises from a bloody pool and attacks him. Meanwhile, I am reminded that salmonella is real!
Action, gore, and fantasy aside, it’s the historical reality that always repeats for us in nauseating high definition just how downright dire and ugly the circumstances are for enslaved people. When John Hawkes outbids Bazil Abott for a young slave girl who he intends to exchange for Clyde’s freedom, we are made privy to the barbaric business that fueled antebellum economics: the bartering of black bodies. Like any elite southern white plantation owner, Abbott’s pockets are engorged with bloody cash (the profits reaped from black flesh and free labor). Abbott advises John: “Anybody can be bought and sold; not just the niggers.” If green is the color of money, then they negotiate in shades of ebony…ebony people. Some lives are worth more than others. White lives? Not necessarily. “I hold a very high value on black lives,” Abbot concedes. Here, black life retains the higher premium. Yes, black lives matter, but only as capital to nourish the belly of the cotton-king god.
This week’s Underground was crammed with combat, knives, guns (even Boo shot a gun), gore, sensuality, daddy issues, phantoms, and brutal truth. It was a heavy bundle and it is just the kind of juicy variety that keeps us watching!
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