Tonight, the WGN America series Underground ends a fascinating first season. Underground, which has already been picked up for Season 2, chronicles “the Macon 7,” a group of slaves who plan a daring, dangerous escape from their Georgia plantation in 1857; the cast includes Aldis Hodge, Alano Miller, Amirah Vann, and Jurnee Smollett-Bell as house slave Rosalee. With the swift pacing of a thriller, Underground carries an undercurrent of dread beneath its episodic intrigues not unlike The Americans: In both shows, history is not on the side of our heroes. Throughout Underground, the runaways and those still on the plantation continually rub up against the likelihood that they’ll never be truly free.
Underground creators Joe Pokaski and Misha Green met while working as writers for the NBC sci-fi hit Heroes. We spoke to them about the surprising history of the Underground Railroad, borrowing from the comic-book genre, and bridging the past and the present.
Flavorwire: Who came up with the idea to create a dramatic series about the Underground Railroad?
Misha: My sister was just like, “You should do a show about the Underground Railroad.” And I was like, “You know what would be a great title? Underground.” I started doing a little bit of research and I thought, this is a huge, epic chapter in American history and I would love to tackle it with somebody, and the first person I thought of was Joe. It was right after Heroes had ended so I came to him and I was like, we should do a show about the Underground Railroad.
Joe: And from there I was just like, oh, somebody must have already done that, because it’s such a cool story and we were just amazed that nobody had. We dug in and we found the truth was stranger than any fiction we had ever read.
Misha: Once we started listening to the slave narratives at the Library of Congress and doing a lot of research, we felt we really needed to give voice to these people. We’ve always seen slaves of this time period as whipping posts and those doing the whipping, and it was much more complicated than that.
By making the show about one group’s escape, you avoid the show becoming ten hours of slaves being flogged and tortured — they’re on the move, they have things to figure out along the way, it’s more than just abject suffering.
Misha: We always talked about this show that way, that it’s about the occupation, it’s about the revolution. We want to see all of our characters have personal agency and use their cunning and their wits to figure out how to undercut this system of injustice.
Did you always envision it as an action series?
Joe: Yes, that’s what we talked about from day one. We both come from a genre background, comic books and horror, and you generally have to make up a story about underdogs who have to traverse 600 miles against the most hostile terrain, against all odds. [With Underground], the action, adventure, the ingenuity, the danger was all baked into the history.
Renwick Scott, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, and Aldis Hodge
Is the story of the Macon 7 based on true events or people?
Joe: Little bits and pieces really helped inform our characters. Misha found this great letter, for example, of a slave girl basically asking the question, to run or not to run? And until we read that, it was a little simpler than we thought — the idea of, do you take this chance, leave your family behind, run into the unknown into a place that may be hostile? It’s so much more dangerous than you learn about in school. The more information we found, the more characters came from it, which is why we have way too many characters.
Who was the first character you sketched out?
Joe: Rosalee was kind of our central character. The house servant who doesn’t know anything else but this plantation felt like our Peter Parker of sorts.
Misha: We talked about it a lot as the origin story of a superhero.
You do see her get a lot bolder as the series progresses.
Misha: Jurnee Smollett-Bell has kicked ass at showing that kind of arc, going from this quiet house slave who doesn’t even want to run to, in the end, becoming this person who’s risking her life for everyone else.
Jurnee Smollett-Bell as Rosalee
I learned a lot about the Antebellum South watching this first season. How do you balance the desire to educate with the desire to entertain?
Joe: I think they go hand in hand. Whether it was Henry “Box” Brown putting himself in a box, or something simple like Necco Wafers existing back then — everything we found that we used seemed to inform the story.
Was there anything in particular you learned that surprised you?
Misha: So many things. Back in the pilot, James fanning them in the parlor [in the first episode, a young boy sits in a little swing suspended from the ceiling, fanning party guests] — when we read about it we were like, wow, so little black boys were being used as A/C in 1867. Those little things. The same thing as the pregnancy corset — who knew people still wore corsets when they were pregnant? That’s crazy! Delving into the research, literally every other page there was something that was like, wow, I can’t believe this was happening.
Joe: One of the episodes takes place primarily on a floating brothel, which I didn’t realize existed, these gunboats that floated down the river to get business. The more we found, the more it opened up our world to the thriller.
Misha: And to the ingenuity of the runaways. For instance in episode eight, when [Rosalee and Cato] dress up [as free blacks] and go to the big house — that’s actually a real story, and that was advice that an Underground Railroad conductor was giving to runaways. Where’s the last place they’d look for you? In the big house. If you walk around like you’re supposed to be there, people will not attack you or question you.
Is there anything you can tell me about Season 2?
Joe: We’re hoping to get bigger in scope. This first season was about following these seven runners, and now we’re hoping to explore the Underground Railroad as a larger network.
Underground airs at 10pm on WGN America.