“Contraband,” the first episode of the second season of Underground, opens with Beyoncé’s “Freedom” blaring as a roll of thunder awakens an enslaved man on the Fellow Plantation in 1858. The man arises before sundown, and we watch him toil all day, sculpting a statue before handing his money over to his Master at sundown. Soon, a montage of his workdays reveals what he’s really up to, stealing news clippings from around the plantation to teach himself how to read. “Soldier” is the first word he learns.
Deep in some backwoods somewhere, we find a determined Rosalee running with some escaped slaves. This isn’t the meek Rosalee that we first met in season one. She expertly moves through the forest cutting off the slave catchers who are on her heels. Unfortunately, Rosalee just isn’t fast enough. But, just when we think she’s cornered, an armed Black woman, who we soon learn is Harriet “Moses” Tubman, comes to her aid. Neither Harriet nor Rosalee are here to play games; both ladies are strapped and ready. Season two of Underground is already lit.
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Back in Ohio, abolitionist John Hawkes is in court arguing for Noah’s release and return to Georgia as his wife Elizabeth looks on desperately from the back of the courtroom. The judge isn’t trying to hear John’s stall tactics, however, and in the meantime we learn that Noah has been incarcerated for five months. He ran six hundred miles from Georgia to Ohio only to end up back in chains.
In prison, Noah looks rough, fine as hell and fully bearded, but rough. As usual, he’s vigilant about his surroundings, watching and observing the enslaved men who are incarcerated with him. He picks up on a plot that two enslaved men have crafted to overtake the prison guards and escape, a plan he quickly realizes is trash.
Rosalee has gotten her group of enslaved men to relative safety at John and Elizabeth’s home, which has now become a full station on the Underground Railroad, We learn that she and Harriet got rid of the slave catchers by paying them off — who knew that was a thing?! John also has good news for Rosalee; the judge has granted his request to “inspect” his sister-in-law’s property; aka Noah. They won’t be able to jailbreak Noah though; he will be heavily guarded during the “inspection.”
However, Harriet wants the group to move on to the next station, but the men are tired and injured, so Rosalee doesn’t think it’s the best idea. Tubman isn’t buying it; she knows that Rosalee has other reasons for wanting to stick around, and she tells her that her plan to free Noah is dangerous. The most famous conductor of the Underground Railroad tries to reason with Rosalee to no avail. The two throw barbs with Rosalee telling Harriet that what she and Noah have isn’t like her relationship with her husband John. But, Harriet reminds Rosalee that the journey to and from Georgia and Ohio is a lengthy one and if she’s worried about Noah, their plan is destined to fail.
What Rosalee doesn’t know is that her family isn’t in Georgia on the Macon Plantation anymore. Her little brother James might be there, but her brother Sam is dead and her mama, Ms. Ernestine was sold to the Roe Plantain on the South Carolina coast.
Ms. Ernestine is not the same woman we met last season. Her back bears the scars of deep lashings, and she inhales some substance every morning, getting high to make it through the day. Ernestine shares a cabin with a man named Hicks, but she doesn’t fool with any of the other slaves. Instead, while high, she hallucinates seeing Pearly Mae, the woman she poisoned last season. It’s clear Pearl is haunting her, even in her new version of hell.
Later, John arrives at the jail to see Noah for his inspection. John is hoping to get Noah back to Georgia immediately and tries to slyly get more information from the guards, but they aren’t budging. Before John leaves the jail, he says, “My niece is down from Canada, she’s excited to reunite with the rest of the family, ” a message that Noah instantly realizes means, “Get ready.”
Rosalee, who’s found work as a maid in Saint Michael’s Hospital in Ohio, deals with nasty white nurses, but she’s got much bigger fish to fry. Seeing a window of opportunity, she steals the keys to the supply closet from a nurse and takes some medicine the escaped slaves need.
Elizabeth is also poised to become more badass this season. Sent by abolitionist William Still, Lady Hawkes arrives at a boardinghouse where she meets the proprietor; a woman named Georgia. It appears at first that Elizabeth has signed up for a Sewing Circle, but it turns out, these ladies are here for the movement. They are all about being armed and learning how to shoot. The women also discuss rallies, bake sales and writing pamphlets to help champion the abolitionist cause. All of this reminds me of Boo. Where did Rosalee take her? We thought Elizabeth was never going to let that child go.
Now, let’s get back to that horrible escape plan that Noah’s new friends are planning to attempt. It’s not going to work and it will put Noah’s escape plan in jeopardy, so he thwarts it. The men are understandably pissed, but after Noah explains that he’s a member of the Macon 7 and that he’s got a plan up his sleeve they ease up a bit.
Ms. Ernestine is still struggling. She watches from the field as the overseer smacks Hicks down, refuses to engage with the other slaves, and sees another vision of Pearly Mae. But, no matter what she’s going through, that doesn’t stop her from engaging in some late night delight in the woods with Hicks.
In court once more, Rosalee watches John from the balcony. The judge arrives with his final verdict on Noah and says that though the law says Noah should be returned to Georgia (The Fugitive Slave Act), that’s not what’s going to happen, Noah will hang. Both Rosalee and John are devastated.
John seems flabbergasted that the judge would just ignore the law, but Rosalee knows what’s up and tells him, “Open your eyes! This happens all the time. Rules don’t apply to Black folk.” Ever the mediator, Elizabeth says they need to come up with a plan. They decide to try and grab Noah when he’s at the gallows as soon as the noose is around his neck. RISKY AF!!!!
In his cell, Noah listens to the other prisoners talk about Canada, France and their other plans for freedom. All the while, he bends and shapes a sharp piece of metal with his hands. When asked about his plans once he’s free, Noah responds, “It don’t matter. It ain’t about a place no mo’.” Clearly, he’s up to something.
Later that evening, John and Elizabeth sit at their kitchen table chatting. John desperately wants to believe in the justice system, but he now realizes how corrupt it is. Elizabeth urges him to figure out a way to disrupt it. John decides he wants to get a seat on the Court of Commons to help change the system from the inside out.
The next day, we see Noah being beat into submission as he’s dragged out of his cell. He soon learns he’s headed to his execution. There will be no escape after all.
In South Carolina, the evil overseer arrives at Hicks and Ernestine’s cabin. He demands that Hicks go down to the marsh to fish out some indigo, but Hicks interjects and get a kick in the groin. The overseer reminds him that their arrangement doesn’t make them friends. Hicks takes out his anger on Ernestine, who after offering him rice and giving a sassy response to his attitude, receives a slap that sends her flying out of her chair. It’s clear she’s not in a good place, the old Ernestine would have NEVER dealt with this.
Ernestine gets high and Pearly Mae appears once more. But, she’s no Casper. Pearly Mae reminds Miss Ernestine of all that she’s lost and urges her to kill herself. These two scenes are riveting. The psychological effects of slavery are hardly even discussed, and Underground is exemplary for highlighting them. Also, the permeation of violence from the white slaveholders and overseers toward Black people and then from black men towards Black women is also extremely poignant. Pearly Mae’s ghost doesn’t win today though. Miss Ernestine doesn’t kill herself. Instead, that evening, she curls up next to Hicks, both getting high to forget their troubles.
Noah, meanwhile, is about to hang, but this isn’t the end. Just as he’s asked for his last words, he hears whistling and spots Rosalee dressed in men’s clothing. What’s she up to? Well, she’s about to create a distraction with a massive explosion.
Wrenching the noose from around his neck, Noah ushers the other slaves into a cover wagon driven by John. Though the Marshalls are hot on their tail, the women of Elizabeth’s sewing circle have shown up to protest and thwart them. But, slave catchers soon accost the wagon, snatching Noah out of it and overturning the wagon in the fracas. Elizabeth and Rosalee ride up soon just as John drives a knife into the neck of one of the men. Heartbreakingly, however, Noah gets captured during the fray.
At the courthouse once again, John signs the affidavit to put his name on the ballot for the Court of Commons, Elizabeth happily by his side. That happiness is short-lived when a man on horseback puts a bullet in John’s head. Elizabeth is stunned, heartbroken, and shattered.
Surely John isn’t actually dead right? (I mean he looks dead as hell… but maybe he will somehow survive?) DIS TEW MUCH.
John Legend’s “In America” plays as the camera pans away from John’s bloodied body. This is 1858, a horrific and tumultuous time for our country. Slavery and its effects have permeated itself into the fabric of the nation, and Underground is only beginning to show us how much. It’s obviously going to be a rough ride this season. I hope that you all buckle up and take this journey with me.
Underground airs Wednesdays at 10PM ET on WGN America