‘Underground’s Thrilling Second Season Sparks a Dialogue Between the Past and the Present

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Underground’s second season, which premieres tonight, opens on a familiar sound: Beyoncé, singing the first lines of “Freedom,” off her Lemonade album. If that sonic reference feels a bit on the nose for a show about a group of runaway slaves attempting to escape to freedom via the Underground Railroad, well, that seems to be the point. Underground’s contemporary soundtrack is an expression of the show’s most effective feat: Closing the gap between the past and the present.

The show’s first season stuck close to the Georgia plantation where the runaways, known as the Macon 7, called home. The finale introduced a new character, Harriet Tubman (Aisha Hinds), an indication that the next chapter would venture further from the plantation. Judging from the three new episodes I’ve seen, it appears the first season was largely a prologue for this season’s more detailed dramatization of the Underground Railroad.

With former house slave Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) working for Harriet Tubman, a.k.a. Moses, as a “conductor,” the show explores the complex system of “stations,” or safe houses, guideposts, and codes that escaped slaves and white abolitionists used to ferry people north. Creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski correctly assumed a series about the Underground Railroad would make for thrilling television, and this season does not disappoint.

Now that characters who once shared a plantation have been separated, the show ventures into new areas, like South Carolina’s Sea Islands, where Rosalee’s mother, Ernestine (a fantastic Amirah Vann), also a former house slave, is working on a plantation. The Sea Islands scenes allow Underground to explore the Gullah/Geechee people — African slaves and their descendants who settled in the Lowcountry regions of Georgia and South Carolina — and their culture, much of which remained intact due to the region’s isolation. (If you’ve seen Julie Dash’s magnificent 1991 film Daughters of the Dust, set among a Gullah community in early 20th century South Carolina, and a visual reference for much of Beyoncé’s Lemonade, these scenes will look familiar.)

With the exception of Ernestine, who’s stuck in a deep depression after losing her son, Sam (Johnny Ray Gill), last season, most of the characters are on the run most of the time, which gives the show a jolt of adrenaline. Nobody’s safe for long; there’s no time to celebrate a victory, because a catastrophic setback is sure to follow on its heels.

Nevertheless, they persist, and while the writers surely didn’t plan for a Trump presidency and the grassroots organizing it’s inspired, the new season paints the Underground Railroad as a social movement in ways that resonate deeply today. Scenes of white abolitionists holding up signs at a public lynching serve as a reminder of the deep roots of America’s culture of protest; at one point, Elizabeth Hawkes (Jessica de Gouw) tells her fellow abolitionists, “There are more than three of us, we’re part of a movement now. We can do this.” Georgia (Jasika Nicole, a dead ringer for Thandie Newton), the owner of an inn that doubles as a covert station, tells Elizabeth and the other women working for the cause that if they can only inform people in the North of what’s really going on down South, they can “incite good people to action.”

But later, Elizabeth tells her husband, “Seeing a problem isn’t enough. The system isn’t going anywhere. We have to figure out a way to disrupt it.” Again, some of the dialogue is a little heavy-handed, but that bluntness, coupled with the contemporary language of “disruption,” hammers home the parallels between then and now.

The language and focus on grassroots activism is just one way in which Underground feels particularly tuned into contemporary political and social discourse. The introduction of a new character, Patty Cannon (Sadie Stratton, a dead ringer for Julianne Moore) — a real-life slave catcher who for roughly a decade ran an operation to catch runaway slaves and sell them back into bondage — evokes the current debate between those advocating an intersectional, social-justice approach to feminism and the more marketable, Lean In brand, by which any successful woman can claim the feminist label even if her position undermines equality for the most vulnerable among us. (Say, I don’t know, heading a project to build a luxury hotel connected to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.)

In Patty, Underground finds a counterpoint to its cast of ass-kicking women working for the cause of freedom. Independent and sexually liberated, Patty leads a gang of men charged with the task of tracking down Rosalee, a.k.a. the Black Rose, which will make for a great story for Patty’s biographer. (“You can’t make a legend out of the truth,” she tells him, in another resonant line. “At least not one worth publishing.”) When she orders one of her men to swim across a river to find Rosalee, he asks why she can’t send Smoke (Jesse Luken) instead. “Because I am going to bed Smoke later,” she replies, “and I don’t want to catch a cold.”

Like Ava DuVernay’s Oscar-nominated documentary 13th, Underground insists that we see the connections between the institution of slavery and contemporary racial inequality; that we see the country’s history not as an open-and-shut case but as a story that’s forever being written. “It’s foolish to think wounds close,” Elizabeth says. “They bleed and bleed.”

Underground Season 2 premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on WGN America.