It happens just before the first episode of Underground’s pilot (“The Macon 7”) cuts to its end credits: Noah, a slave kept in bondage on a Georgia plantation (played by Aldis Hodge), is found out by Cato (Alano Miller), a fellow slave and also one of their master’s drivers. Noah is plotting to escape from the Macon farm and thus from the grip of servitude; bit by bit, piece by piece, he has started sketching out a path to self-emancipation, hard though that journey may be. But in a single, tense moment, all his well-laid plans are endangered by the cunning deductions of Cato, who approaches Noah in the foyer of their master’s grand estate, leering like the cat that ate the caged canary.
And in that moment, Cato presents Noah with a logistical decision, wrapped around a major humanitarian predicament. First comes the intimidation, the threat of having his scheme revealed to his owner, Tom Macon, who has shown Noah mercy—such as it is—once already in the episode, and is less likely to show him mercy again, should he learn precisely how Noah has fooled and deceived him. Then comes the taunt, which is a good deal more cruel than the promise of a hanging. “The thing you ain’t consider,” Cato hisses with no small amount of satisfaction, “you get caught or not, it’s gonna be the slaves left behind that’s gonna pay the price.” All Noah can do is point out the obvious, through gritted teeth. “Don’t act like you care about nobody else. You only care about yourself.”
“You’re right,” comes Cato’s barbed retort. “That’s why I don’t mean to be left behind.”
However you look at this exchange—and you can look at it in any number of ways—it is crucial to understanding one of the show’s sources of dramatic strain. WGN’s Underground is a series about flight, about the risks of flight, about people who willingly shoulder the burden of those risks in the pursuit of their own liberation; it’s about doing whatever it takes to break free from institutional oppression. That’s the heart of Noah’s confrontation with Cato, whose loaded accusation casts a shadow on Noah’s intentions. Even cursory research on the fate of runaway slaves shows that the consequences of their actions were usually horrible—branding and amputation are popular keywords—but occasionally, those consequences would be visited upon slaves who chose not to run, too.
Cato uses this knowledge against Noah, and in that moment we can see Noah wrestling with his instinctual response to the indictment. Just one glance at Noah’s eyes tells us that he didn’t think about the ramifications of running, or, more specifically, the ramifications his running might have on others. He’s trying like hell in the moment to hide his horror from Cato, who with the utterance of a single sentence has thrown a righteous wrench in Noah’s designs. But Cato is being tricky, because we know—even if Cato only suspects—that Noah means to decamp from Macon’s plantation with the help of several co-conspirators: Henry and Moses, Zeke and Sam, and, eventually, Pearly Mae and Rosalee. To hear it from Cato, you’d think Noah means only to take himself to the North, that he cares solely for his own well-being and not for the plight of all Macon’s slaves. We know better.
And yet Cato, underhanded smugness aside, has a point. Even if Noah and his partners in absconding succeed in evading recapture, whether by Macon’s men or by roving slave catchers, and even if they arrive safely in the promised land, they will only have spared themselves from further suffering. Meanwhile, countless others remain shackled to the Macon plantation, where they will continue to labor under the whips of their master and his overseers, and where they may be subject to punishment in retribution for Noah’s departure. (Say a prayer for poor Pearly Mae, whose brave sacrifice, made in hopes of her and Moses’ child growing up free, will certainly be repaid with swift cruelty in next week’s episode, “Run & Gun.”)
If this sounds like a form of shaming or an admonishment of Noah and every runaway slave in the history of slavery, well, it isn’t. Because, as much as you’d like to think you’d be concerned with the fate of everyone around you, you have to admit it: If you had even a hint of that fire behind Noah’s eyes, along with a map to freedom, you would run, too. Anyone would. The antebellum South was a veritable smorgasbord of gruesome human abuses. Noah can scarcely be blamed for striving to find a way out, whether solo or with others. Let it also be said that the options available to Noah are few. He has precious little access to necessary resources, and as Macon’s lawful property, he is under close watch by the plantation’s overseers, more so than most, by consequence of the failed escape attempt he makes in the opening sequence of Underground’s premiere. (In that regard, perhaps Noah is lucky, if you can call it that; five lashes seems like a rare mercy, compared to straight up mutilation.) Maybe this is why Noah means to make exodus to the North in good company: He learned from his first attempt at getting the hell out of Georgia. He knows that he can’t go it alone.
Therein lies the crux of Underground’s portrait of American history. The show is an ode to the group effort, to the necessity of collaboration in combating systemic barbarity. You need someone like Noah driving that effort, certainly, but Noah can’t undo slavery all on his own. He needs Henry, Sam, Moses, Rosalee, Pearly Mae, and yes, Cato, who in Underground’s fourth episode sparks off its most desperate and exhilarating set piece to date. (It’s worth noting that in getting his thoroughly badass Django Unchained moment, earned with fire and the steel of his blade, Cato gains instant additional depth as a character.) Cato is smart enough to understand that Noah needs help, and if he appears at first to be motivated chiefly by his personal well-being, “Firefly” shows him to be just as devoted to the escape plan as Noah. He might be one of Macon’s drivers, but he’s also a slave, or did you never stop to wonder how he got those facial scars?
On the other side of Noah, Cato, and their stratagems, we have John and Elizabeth Hawkes, a married couple covertly working as conductors on the Underground Railroad. The Hawkes possess a great degree of privilege that allows them to face slavery and racism head-on in ways that Noah and Cato simply can’t. They risk much, though not as much as runaway slaves, and they endure far less than people wholly stripped of agency and denied their own humanity by the function of slavery; it is also necessary to emphasize that Underground is focused more on struggles of Noah and his band of fugitives than with the Hawkes’ subterfuge. But the fundamental statement Cato makes at the end of “The Macon 7” is important for how it unwittingly unifies the efforts of abolitionists like the Hawkes, and individuals like Noah, who do not have the luxury of personal freedom, and who—by striving to attain personal freedom—break inhumane laws and put themselves in immediate danger.
Without people fighting to escape the South, and without people fighting to facilitate that escape in the North, you cannot have true freedom. Underground implicitly acknowledges this dichotomy, and in doing so the show emanates hope. But that hope overlays the explicit tragedy Cato lays out before Noah, and before the audience. What happens to the people who get left behind? How do they find their freedom? When do they get their justice? Underground isn’t about morally dubious heroes, but it is about painful moral conundrums. The road that lies before Noah and his comrades is a difficult road—physically, mentally, emotionally—and it is made more difficult by the choice they’re forced to make in planning their getaway. In the context of the show’s plot, they’re making the right choice. In context with history, they’re making the right choice. But this series won’t let us soon forget that they’re still making the most heartbreaking and impossible choice imaginable.
Underground’s message of collectivity and unity—across state lines, class lines, social lines—feels like a clarion call blaring over the ghastly sideshow that is the United States’ 2016 election cycle. We’re divided within our political blocs as well as without; an outsider unversed in the rites and rituals of America’s civic shindigs might assume we’re a four-party country. Grant, of course, that comparing America today with the America of Underground is like comparing a combusting hoverboard to a tire fire, and that the 2010s look significantly less brutal than the 1830s. We live in a demonstrably better world today than yesterday, but our nation remains split by discord. And that’s the great lesson of Underground, whose portrait of solidarity in the face of overwhelming and lawful inhumanity reminds us how far we’ve come, how far we’ve yet to go, and what we have to do to get there.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film for the web since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant and Movie Mezzanine, and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.