Thursday, March 24, 2016

Underground Recap: A Day of Rest

[Sublimal Sunday Rest Programming]


March 23, 2016 11:00 p.m.

Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Rosalee. Photo: 

The Lord's Day
Season 1
Episode 3

Underground is moving at a breakneck clip. Perhaps this is because the season will only last 10 episodes, but the pace increasingly requires suspension of disbelief.

At the top of this hour, we find out that Noah intends to implement his escape plan — which he just solidified a few days ago — in less than a week's time. The escape requires complicated steps: installing hooks under a bridge, fashioning harnesses strong enough to hold men who weigh nearly 300 pounds, deciphering the cryptic lyrics of a Negro spiritual, and forging freedom papers with the master's seal. How is he going to manage all that in seven days? It's fitting that one of themes of "The Lord's Day" is the characters’ faith — whether in God or in their fellow man — and the role that faith (or the absence of it) plays in various characters’ decision-making. If Noah thinks they can pull this off, his own faith must be Herculean (or Samsonite, as it were).

While listening to Moses preach in the field on Sunday morning, Noah realizes that they are usually given a respite from work on the Sabbath, which means no one will be closely monitoring their whereabouts. He now has in six days
to pull off an escape with five men, one woman (or two, if Rosalee agrees to come along), and one child.

Through a series of intercut scenes, we see that the Macons are also at church— an indoor, predominantly white service — and August and Ben Pullman are in attendance. Interestingly, the house slaves are at this service, standing the whole time in a single aisle while the white congregants sit. August notices Rosalee scratching at the wounds she sustained on her little brother James’ behalf in the pilot episode. The itching means the gashes are finally healing, but inside, her hopes and worries continue to fester.

The difference between these two Sunday services is stark. The white service is stoic and mostly silent, the congregants still and prim. It’s the only time of week where they’re not able to move about or immediately act on their impulses. Meanwhile, Moses’s sermon is loud and animated. As he describes God creating the sun and moon, he pantomimes the action. The congregants are vocal in response; it’s the only time of the week where they’re able to sit unsupervised, to speak freely, and to rest.

Sam comes to Rosalee in the afternoon with a directive from Noah: She must steal Tom's seal, pass it off to Pearly Mae to stamp their forged papers, and then return it before he notices. Rosalee still hasn't made up her mind whether she'll run with them — she isn’t certain she’s hardy or brave enough for the journey — but she decides to test her mettle by accepting the assignment.

And if that doesn't sound enough like aMission: Impossible sequence, just wait for what comes next. When Master Tom makes a surprise visit to Sam's woodworking cabin, Noah has to balance himself in a rope harness suspended from the ceiling beams. (Sound familiar?) Despite nearly dropping his pistol, Noah remains undetected. Good news, too: Sam's harnesses, which they'll be using to travel under a bridge, totally work. It's worth noting that Tom does suggest that Sam make James his apprentice — just as he promised Ernestine he would.

Tom and Suzanna have decided to sell Seraphina, in light of her drowning her baby. Suzanna laments that the "nasty business" of slave sales is happening "on the Lord's day," but she can’t have a “murderer” on her plantation. Pearly Mae gifts Seraphina a bonnet, reciting the Lord's Prayer as she puts it on her head. It's the second time the show has illustrated the stark contrast of religion in the lives of white slaveholders and the enslaved. For the former, it provides a veneer of propriety. For the latter, it's a consolation, even when it feels as empty or futile as a hat plopped on your head as you're being sold. And it's a promise of retribution — either on this side of the grave or in the afterlife — which is why it makes so much sense that the runners' “roadmap to freedom” is embedded in a spiritual.

When Zeke catches wind of Seraphina's sale, he charges the wagon that's carrying her away like a raging bull. He does a great deal of damage, then punches the driver and another white man before being subdued. Uh-oh.

Zeke is thrown into a box — the plantation's version of solitary confinement — and Noah petitions Cato to get him out. Noah has faith in Zeke, insisting their escape team needs someone loyal enough to risk himself for “a wife he’s not even speaking to.” Zeke’s mental state has seemed precarious ever since the death of the baby, a fact Cato is fully aware of. It’s almost certain that the box, which is barely large enough to contain him, has heightened his anguish. At first, Cato resists the idea of freeing Zeke, but he eventually agrees. When he lets Zeke out, however, Cato tells him that Noah was going to leave him there. Zeke unwisely believes him.

After spending way too much time in Tom's office, Rosalee snags the seal. But she misses her opportunity to return it undetected, so Tom punishes the field hands to smoke out the thief. They must hold heavy beams overhead until their arms give out, and if everyone collapses before the seal is returned, each of them will get 50 lashes. Noah's team of beam-holders is the last left standing.

Ernestine figures out that Rosalee is the culprit. She demands to know where Rosalee hid the seal; in her panicked state, Rosalee had dropped it in the molasses Ernestine was making. Thinking quickly, Ernestine bribes T.R. Macon with molasses candy to take the fall. Unsurprisingly, he isn't punished for the deed. Suzanna just tells Ernestine and Rosalee to clean up the mess he’s made and to notify Tom that she’s found the seal.

Discouraged at failing her first covert mission, Rosalee decides she is, in fact, unfit to run — but as she walks toward the slave quarters to tell Noah, she's waylaid by the sloppy drunk overseer, who bends her ear about his deceased wife. It's an eerie scene — it’s clear from the moment he stops Rosalee that he intends to rape her — made all the more chilling by its predictable outcome: The overseer, angered by Rosalee's rebuff of his disgusting advance, drags her into his house and an unseen scuffle ensues.

We cut to a shot of the exterior of the house, then hear Rosalee's screams. Dishes shatter, and then silence. Another slave catches the tail end of the noise. Her expression suggests she’s fully aware of what’s happening, and she’s sorry to hear it, but she continues on toward her quarters. When Noah passes, he hears nothing — until a hysterical Rosalee bursts out of the front door and into his arms. In an inversion of last week's final scene, she's the one insisting they run. Now. The overseer's dead, she says. He immediately grabs her hand and they run for dear life. The way Undergrounddirector Anthony Hemingway shoots running scenes like action sequences never gets old to me.

The camera cuts to the Hawkes's house. They’ve been dealing with their own, less interesting drama this week: They’ve moved into a new phase of their abolitionist initiation and are spying on government officials to find out where constables and slave catchers will be posted. They also take in their first "cargo.” We see him for the first time in this scene. He’s played by Jussie Smollett … and he’s holding John at knifepoint.

The show ends on a shot of Noah and Rosalee, huddled in the hidden undercarriage of a departing wagon. They’re wild-eyed and still clutching each other.

I have so many questions now. What will happen to everyone else? Were all those plans for naught? How will Cato retaliate when he learns he was left behind? How will Tom and Suzanna make Ernestine's life difficult in Rosalee's absence? Is Rosalee fit for life on the run? Is Noah? Will their romance survive? It's in the Good Lord's hands now.

Other Notes:
Shout-out to @claireshegoes, who informed me that Clarke Peters's character does actually have a name: Jay.
August gets almost no screen time in this episode, but it doesn't bode well for newly escaped Rosalee that he took such close notice of her at church. He'll be on their trail soon.
Rosalee has an interesting conversation with Sam, which reminds us that they’re half-siblings. He feels like their mother abandoned him when she moved to the house; Rosalee says that living in the house is even more confining than in the field. She says at least field slaves have quarters that they can call their own — she and Ernestine “just shadow other people’s lives.” There’s no true freedom to be found anywhere, and by the end of the episode, Rosalee is even more certain of that.
The use of contemporary music still seems pretty hit or miss for me. It's mostly used to underscore action sequences or to introduce new Hawkes-centered scenes, and it’s more distracting than useful a lot of the time. An original instrumental composition would’ve worked just as well. A notable exception, of course, was the Kanye track used in the very first shot of the series.

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