No amount of ‘Contraband’ can prepare you for season opener of WGN’s Underground: Recap and Review
At last! After a whole year of waiting and anticipating, we are finally going to see the continuation of the hit series that took the world by storm. WGN America’s Underground became a smash success the moment the first episode aired, giving viewers an opportunity to see our nation’s dirty laundry of a past. From the creation of the Macon 7, to the impactful imagery and dialogue that sent shivers down the spines of viewers, this series took the story of slavery and the journey to freedom, and dialed it to eleven. So it only seemed fitting that when we rejoined what was left of last year’s cast, we weren’t just in for a good story; we were in for a seriously great story!
As the episode opens, a slave suddenly awakens for his day. The man, quiet to not wake up the others in his quarters, heads to meet some stone-cutters to receive their shipment. The man, named Daniel, is a skilled mason, planning and deciding where he will make his cuts, and working diligently, until his master creation is complete. Once done, he receives payment for his work, but sadly, his satisfaction in his work is short lived. The front door, and without a word, his master walks down to where he is standing, takes the money out of his hands, and walks back into his home, closing the door behind him. The man heads back to his quarters, and starts digging out of his boot what looks like some stashed money, but it turns out to be something else: newspaper clippings and random articles that were tossed around. The man gingerly attempts to sound out a word, and after some difficulty, finally says the word; “soldier.”
We come to a scene where we find Rosalee running with another slave, making their way through a thick forest, followed by two white men on horses. Rosalee encourages the man to keep going as one of the horsemen is right about on her, when suddenly a tree comes tumbling right in front of him! Rosalee takes off after to find the other slave, but not before she hears him fall and break his leg. To make matters worse, the horsemen arrive at the same time, guns pointed, and ready to take the slave and collect their reward.
Luckily for Rosalee, Harriet Tubman also gets to them at the same time, with one gun pointed at one of the men, and an ax pointed at the other. Bargaining, the men do their best to show their machismo by slinging insults at the women, but Harriet stands strong, with a fierceness in her eyes; “Ain’t nobody scared of you either.” The men end up giving up, and bargain with the women.
Somewhere else, John Hawkes is trying to deliberate with the Judge in regards to the case against Noah. Attempting to save him from a death sentence, John uses the Fugitive Slave Act to levy that Noah is property, and should be returned to his owner for proper punishment. He also requests to see Noah, stating that Noah’s owner is worried that her property is “rotting away.” Back at John and Elizabeth’s home, one of the safe houses in the Underground Railroad, John tells Rosalee that they had a good day in court. Harriet, however, isn’t so persuaded that the plan will work.
In South Carolina, Ernestine, who was sold at the end of last season, is seen naked in the arms of another slave. As she gets up for the day, she walks over to a mirrored cabinet, where a red liquid sits in a bottle in front of her. She grabs the bottle, pours a bit into a cloth, then inhales deeply, putting herself into a euphoric state. We see that this liquid is messing with her so much, that she begins to hallucinate, seeing images of Pearly Mae, the slave woman whose death she was responsible for.
Elizabeth Hawkes is introduced to a group of women who are also a part of the Underground network, but not everything is as it seems. To what Elizabeth thought was a sewing circle, seems to be more of an all-female gun club. After John goes to inspect Noah to see how he is doing, Noah deciphers that John and Rosalee are planning to rescue him on his route back to the south. To not mess up any of his plans, Noah stops a duo of slaves imprisoned from executing their own escape plan. Noah reveals to them who he is, and that if all goes to plan, they’ll be with him when the rescue mission is under way. But his hope is to not last.
John Hawkes heads back to court, and as it seems, the judge understands the laws that John is utilizing, and knows that they are the correct course of action, but decides to rule against it. With Rosalee in the seats hearing this, she goes into shock, uncertain for Noah’s future. Back at the Hawkes home, Rosalee is irate, demanding that they figure something out, or else Noah will die. John, disgusted at the way things happened, doesn’t understand how the judge can decide this way. “Open your eyes,” Rosalee tells him, seething. “Rules don’t apply to black folk.”
They decide that if they’re going to save Noah, they’re going to have to do it out in the open, and at the gallows. Later that night, John lies awake at the dinner table with a bottle of whiskey. He expresses his concern for not doing enough for the cause, and offers Elizabeth his resolution for this: he’s going to place his name on the ballot for a seat on the Court of Commons. Elizabeth, uncertain in her eyes, gives her husband her support, kissing him sweetly.
The next day, the whole town square erupts in a fire of chaos and explosions, as Rosalee and John, alongside with Elizabeth’s new “sewing circle,” make a harrowing escape for Noah! But much like the rest of the episode, nothing is ever to last, and Noah is pulled off the getaway wagon by someone not a part of the police, and dragged away. Hooded, Noah is put in the back of a wagon, and taken away, to Rosalee’s utter shock and confusion.
We soon finally see John put his plan to action, placing his name on the ballot for the vacant seat on the Court of Commons, hand in hand with Elizabeth. But after just taking a few short steps down the courthouse stairs, John hears his name called, and as he turns, suddenly finds a bullet to his head, killing him instantly.
Seriously?! They’re going to do all this in the first episode?? I mean, I get throwing the wrench into the plans to rescue Noah, and even then, the second rescue mission not being a success, but man! That ending! What the heck! Phew! Ok, let’s settle down, and talk about this week’s episode. So as the season opener, aptly titled “Contraband,” we are introduced to the new lives that each person now has: Rosalee as a dedicated smuggler of the Underground Railroad, the Hawkes as more involved members of the network, Ernestine as a slave addicted to some red substance, and Noah as the learned man.
I use the term learned man in the sense that after everything he has gone through in the last season, he has gained wisdom, and it shows. He walks with a sense of purpose, his eyes aren’t shining with fear like before, and his goals are no longer just to be free, but to help free others. Each of these characters are in a position opposite of where they were last season, and although Ernestine isn’t in the best of places, I’m completely captivated by the direction these arcs are going.
Can we all just agree that Aisha Hinds is killing it at Harriet Tubman? Like, seriously, I don’t think anyone else could’ve have done a better job, and I’m loving everything about her, from the delivery of her lines to the deadpan stare downs she has with slave catchers. I’m loving the dynamic of her role tied with Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Rosalee. Rosalee has become a more confident and courageous woman in the show, and to tie her with someone like Hinds’ Tubman is only going to make for incredible television!
All in all, I have to say, I didn’t think they could top last season’s opener, but yup, they did. They blew that one away, and then some! I love the twist at the end, and even though John was a vital part of the group, I’m anxious to see what Elizabeth will decide to do. This show has always had me sold, and this is exactly why: great storytelling, tied with unforeseeable futures, and incredible performances. Underground is the show that everyone needs to see.
Catch Underground on WGN America on Wednesday at 10:00 p.m. ET/PT