I was extremely impressed by the early episodes of Underground, WGN America's drama about a mass slave escape from a Georgia plantation. Over the course of its first season, my estimation for the storytelling and performances only grew, and I was very glad when WGN recently ordered another season. If you have the means to catch up (WGN's not available on all cable systems, the episodes are available for purchase but not to stream on any subscription service), I strongly recommend it.
Tonight was the season finale, and I want to talk about a few specific things that happened in the episode just as soon as I tell you about the one rule you can't break…
Through the previous nine episodes, Underground did a great job of mixing sturdy ongoing storytelling with grand moments, like Cato setting the cotton fields aflame to kick off the impromptu escape. Minute-to-minute, the action and the characters all made sense and were mostly compelling (the boring John Hawkes excepted), and that only made the more elevated scenes, like the revelation of Sam's body hanging from the Macon house, or Rosalee confronting her feelings about Tom being her father, hit even harder. It really felt like Green and Pokaski knew exactly how they were going to tell the story of the Macon 7 across these 10 episodes and then move on in the new season, with either an entirely new or mostly new cast of characters.
Instead, the plan seems to be to bring back as many of the survivors as possible, which resulted in a finale that had to contort itself more than any previous episode had to make
And perhaps because so much of the finale became about finding ways to keep as many characters as possible in play for a second season, “The White Whale” felt a bit shakier than previous installments. There were plenty of excellent moments – August taking out all of Patty's goons by himself, Noah's “I want to be counted!” speech, Ernestine murdering Tom, and the final image of Rosalee returning to the South to link up with Harriet Tubman(*) – but at the same time the logic of it felt shaky, and/or undercut prior moments.
(*) This is both an incredibly timely choice, given the recent news about the $20 bill, and a cleverly-staged one, with “Harriet” surrounded by so much sunlight that she could be anyone, which gives the producers a chance to cast the best available actress rather than having to rush it for the finale of a show that, at the time, wasn't a lock to return and make that into a big job.
The previous episode, for instance, didn't show us Cato's death, so it's not a cheat that he made it out alive and with the chest of cash. At the same time, that situation was presented as so dire – far worse than, say, August being alone in a barn with those goons – that it felt like whatever value was gained in revealing him to be alive was outweighed by questions over how he got there. Similarly, leaving August alive but in jail – for a crime where he could very easily claim self-defense – seemed a sketchy way to work around his knowledge of the Hawkes' role in the Underground Railroad while still holding out the possibility of having him pursue Rosalee again. For that matter, I didn't love the shift in these final episodes from August as a slave-catcher who took no pleasure in the job but desperately needed the money to him as a man seeking revenge for his paralyzed son; his reluctance made him a more complicated villain than Tom or most of the other white characters, without absolving him of guilt, and now he seems set to be more purely evil.
These actors – Aldis Hodge, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, and Christopher Meloni in particular – were so great that I don't begrudge the creators from trying to keep them around, rather than going for some kind of anthology miniseries approach to stories of slave escapes. At the same time, the closest structural ancestor to Underground is Prison Break, which struggled mightily to keep the same group of characters constantly escaping, being caught, and escaping again because they couldn't stand to let go of them all and start over. This season was excellent enough that I'll gladly be back for the next round, but I have concerns now that I didn't a couple of weeks ago.
What did everybody else think?