This review will contain spoilers for the first season of Underground.
The first season of Underground followed the escape of a group slaves referred to as The Macon 7 and the repercussions for those left behind. Underground is more than a series about slavery, systemic racism, and politics. It introduced the complexities of survival and the tenuous balance of power and submission, both perceived and actual. It’s the first show chronicling the escape of slaves and not purely focusing on the constant abuse by the masters. WGN has really stepped up its game this spring with the debut of the popular Outsiders and Underground. After some initial missteps with their previous original programs, Underground was able to set the bar for consistent quality and well-acted period drama produced by the network.
One of the most compelling and tragic storylines was the relationship between Tom Macon (Reed Diamond) and Ernestine (Amirah Vann). Ernestine had to wear so many hats as head house slave: leader to the other house servants, maternal figure to the Tom and Suzanna’s children, mother/protector to her own children, and seemingly willing paramour to Tom. These lines consistently blurred and crossed often causing a conflict of conscience.
In episode 5, Stine has to make the decision whether to allow Pearly Mae to give up the destination of the Macon 7 or find a way to silence her. She ultimately chooses the latter and continues to pray for forgiveness for her transgressions. I am not a mother, but in that moment I felt every bit of her fierce protective nature, which was displayed when Stine chose to kill Pearly Mae in order to protect her child. Amirah Vann’s performances throughout this season were flawless. She knew her character. During the season Stine always played it strong and safe. Her ultimate goal was to protect her children and that involved keeping Tom happy. Her children were her only source of joy in this world, so when Tom so recklessly took one of them away for the advancement of his career, she was broken and had enough.
In the season finale, Stine’s revenge for decades of entrapment came to a head and with the help of the mute servant, she hangs Tom in his own wine cellar, making it appear as if he killed himself.
The final scene of the season with Stine and Suzanna was intense. I’d wished for a face-off in my original Or Nah post, knowing there would not be a satisfying outcome and I was correct. This one-sided conversation between these two women answered all the questions one may have had during the season. What did Suzanna know? Did she care? What would she do when Tom was gone? This was all summed up in a 2-minute carriage ride.
The Evolution of Rosalee
As the season progressed not only did Rosalee come into her own as a young woman, but she used the lessons learned from her mother to finesse her way to freedom. Although Jurnee Smolett-Bell’s Rosalee and Noah were love interests, the scenes she shared with Alano Miller’s, Cato, demonstrated an unexpected amount of chemistry.
The last three episodes were grueling, stomach churning, stressful, and powered by the emotions and motivations of each of the main characters. They were also the best episodes of the season.
The misuse of secondary and tertiary characters and the late introduction of others: A few characters were introduced as throwaways and sadly they felt that way. Zeke is introduced with this heartbreaking story involving the loss of his first-born child. He is part of the Macon 7, but is killed 3 episodes into the season. He felt like someone we should have gotten to know, more so than Henry who made it 8 episodes. The female slave catcher, who is apparently the head honcho; she shows up in the season finale wrecking shop and arresting August (Christopher Meloni). Maybe this was their way of introducing season two’s antagonist, but it seemed a bit ham-fisted that this person we’d never met wielded so much power. What happened to the Jay the Magical Negro? Clarke Peters (The Wire) is an exceptional actor and he didn’t even get to stretch his legs in this role.
Most shocking moment
Episode 9: The hanging of Sam (Johnny Ray Gill) from the balcony of the Big House during Tom’s party. I was physically ill when I realized Tom murdered Sam in order to gain favor with the pastor and advance his career.
There were some weaker moments in the show, episodes three and four are really faded in my memory, but overall the season provided exceptional story-telling and great performances. The finale introduced a major historical figure and pioneer for the freedom of slaves. I am not completely onboard, but luckily for us, Underground was renewed for a second season so we get to see how this new character impacts our remaining leads.
Underground was a show I had not intended to watch. I thought like so many period shows, I’d tune in to the first episode and be turned off by the blatant and lazy historical inaccuracies, and 6 months later, catch up with On Demand. Thankfully, I was wrong. A robust and complex story with compelling characters and exceptional performances, Underground is my choice for sleeper hit of 2016.
Underground season 1 = 9.3/10