April, you may have heard, is the prestige-iest month of TV that ever prestiged, with the premiere or return of one critical gem after another, from Better Call Saul on Monday to Veep and The Leftovers this coming weekend to Fargo next week, to name just a few. And it would be easy for both TV reviewers and hardcore TV fans to stick to watching and/or writing about the same handful of critical darlings, just as a way to keep the month manageable.
But sometimes, extraordinary work gets done on less prestigious shows, and it’s important to make note of it when it comes, like tonight’s stunning episode of WGN’s Underground.
The slavery caper drama’s second season has been more ambitious than its first, which has led to mixed results. On the one hand, it’s adopted more of a Leftovers-style POV structure for many episodes, which can make a spotlight on a character like Rosalee or Cato feel even more powerful than if the scenes had been spaced out over a few hours, but which has taken away some of the narrative momentum that made the first season click so well as a combination of historical drama and prison break thriller. But the performances are still great, and that genre splicing remains potent.
Tonight’s episode, “Minty” (it airs multiple times this evening starting at 8pm ET), is a more intense and specific focus than anything the show’s done before — really, more specific than almost anything scripted American TV has ever done: an episode-length monologue by a single character, none other than Harriet Tubman (Aisha Hinds) herself.
Though a few other characters appear, notably Elizabeth Hawkes (Jessica De Gouw), and briefly converse at one point, “Minty” is presented as a performance Tubman gives for a group of abolitionists, telling them her life story to encourage them to contribute money and more to her fight to end slavery. (WGN’s press notes compare it to a TED talk, which isn’t far off.) It’s just Tubman on a makeshift stage, standing and sitting, making the audience (both the ones in the barn with her and the ones watching from the future) alternately laugh and cry, shifting deftly from childlike vulnerability to righteous adult anger, making the cause deeply personal even as she illustrates the many ways slavery is an abomination whether you’ve been personally affected by it or not. At one point, she even sings “Go Down Moses” (a fine choice for an episode airing during Passover), holding the crowd spellbound by every note.
It’s an astonishingly controlled performance by Hinds, who is having herself one hell of a spring. Carrie Coon is getting lots of deserved hype for her upcoming Fargo/Leftovers twin bill, but Hinds has been doing exceptional work on a pair of less-heralded shows, here as Tubman, and on Fox’s flawed but interesting Shots Fired as a political activist minister. On both that series and this, she delivers fiery speeches decrying the evils of racism, but the characters and contexts are wildly different, and so are the performances to match.
There’s a history of filmed stage monologues by people like the late Spalding Gray, but doing it in the context of an ongoing narrative series is unusual. Horace and Pete did something similar last year with the Laurie Metcalf episode — which opened on a nine-minute close-up on Metcalf’s face as she told a story to an unseen listener — but even there, the monologue was broken up from time to time by Metcalf having conversations with Louis CK’s Horace. (Before that, the most prominent example of this was probably a Maude episode that’s just her talking to her therapist.) “Minty” puts even more of a burden on Hinds, and she shoulders it so deftly, it feels like no trouble at all, even though this is such an anomaly.
Hinds has appeared a few times already this season on Underground, but “Minty” functions so well as a stand-alone exercise that someone could easily watch it as their very first episode of the series and not be lost at all. It’s not representative of what the show is week to week, but it puts the escapes and double crosses and monstrous behavior into an incredibly powerful historical context without diminishing the fictional characters who have to share the screen with Tubman.
This is, again, an absurdly busy month, but “Minty” (written by Underground creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, and directed by series stalwart Anthony Hemingway) is special enough to be worth seeking out, if you can somehow spare the hour.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com