WGN America’s Underground had a mighty impressive debut season last year, threading the needle that allowed it to be both a fun adventure story about a mass slave escape and a powerfully candid accounting of one of the great blights on our nation’s history.
But as I watched the first season finale, I began to worry that too many contrivances were happening to keep this particular group of characters — escaped slaves Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) and Noah (Aldis Hodge), slave catcher August (Chris Meloni), and Underground Railroad station masters John (Marc Blucas) and Elizabeth (Jessica De Gouw) Hawkes, to name a few — in play for a second season, rather than taking the anthology miniseries approach and starting over with a new set of escapees.
So when I sat down with the show’s creators, Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, at the Television Critics Association Press tour in January, this was foremost on my mind, along with a discussion of the new season’s biggest addition: Aisha Hinds as the most famous Underground Railroader of them all, Harriet Tubman — introduced in full action hero mode with a rifle in one hand and an ax in the other.
The interview below was conducted before I’d seen anything from the new season, which premieres tonight at 10. The first three episodes are a mixed bag: Several of the new characters (not just Tubman, but Jasika Nicole from Fringe as head of a “sewing circle” of gun-toting female abolitionists) are wonderful, and the returnees are great, too (Smollett-Bell in particular goes through hell as Rosalee tries to bust Noah out of jail), but it’s more sprawling and less focused than the first season, where the hunt for the Macon 7 created a unifying structure that the new episodes don’t have yet. It’s still an excellent show (and very smartly ties off a couple of story threads that weren’t working last year), but a bigger scope brings it with a higher degree of difficulty, and we’ll see in time if Green and Pokaski can pull it all together as well as they did a year ago.
When you initially were putting the idea together, was the plan always going to be to follow as many of the survivors of the escape through it? Or was there a point at which you started wondering if you would do an anthology thing where next year you dealt with a different group of escaped slaves?
Joe Pokaski: No, we always wanted to do that. We talked about that very early, because even in early conversations about season one, we were like, the interesting about this story is once you get north, the world is still a horrible, horrible place. That was fundamental to our loving the story.
Misha Green: So much was going on at this time in American history that we knew that we wanted to start small with these characters that we could really fall in love with and get to know, and then watch and see how history interacts with them throughout the seasons.
Now, it’s not a prison break, but the escape from the plantation gave season one a narrative unity. Everything is about this group of people and the people coming after them. Now they’re scattered to the five winds, and everyone has their own agenda. Was that challenging in terms of writing this year?
Green: No, because I think one of the things that was so fun writing-wise in the first season was seeing these characters and how they dovetailed all the stories when they came together. I think that we do that this season as well, too, where we do have our individual stories we’re telling, but those are dovetailing with everyone else. All these characters are crossing still.
Pokaski: On some level it was a little freeing. Because we were so tied to the linear of, “Now they’re here, and then they’re running here for at least the middle of the season,” we were able to step out and say, okay, “Episode three is now going to be about what it’s like to be a black woman. And episode four is going to be about toxic masculinity.” And really be able to tell a few more character-centered stories than we were able to last year.
August for a lot of the first season is a conflicted character. He doesn’t really like what he does, but he does it to make money for his family. Then by the end, he is a man out for revenge for the death of his son. How did you land on that as the place you wanted to take him?
Green: What fascinated us was that this is a system within society. That they are actually the people in the right, they’re law-abiding citizens when they are hunting down other people. I think for us it was interesting to see how someone who we might see as morally wrong today can thrive in that situation. He found himself thriving, until he came up against the Macon 7. I think that’s what we wanted to explore over the course of his first season.
Pokaski: I think we also just didn’t want to let anyone off the hook either. So many people who read the first script were like, “So then he redeems himself at the end, right? Is that what happens?” And we’re like, “Yeah, ’cause that’s what happened to America, everyone turned good over the course of 10 episodes.”
When last we saw Cato before he turns up with the money, he seemed like no hope, Butch and Sundance, “I’m going to die here.” Are we going to get into exactly how he got from there to being okay and with the money?
Green: Not in season two. Cato’s a mystery. I think that what we get most excited about is Cato is when he pops up and you’re just like, how? How did you pull these things off, man? You were just a snake in the grass.
Pokaski: He was a bad penny before there were pennies. A cat—
Green: —that lands on his feet. We’re really excited about the storyline for Cato this season, because again, it allows us to open up the world and understand. He goes across the pond, and I think that will be fun to watch what it’s like to be colored on the other side of things.
The first season had a lot of iconic visual moments. One of the early ones is Cato lighting the cotton on fire to set off the escape. How much of those big moments are you guys, and how much is [director] Anthony Hemingway saying, “I really want to see the cotton field on fire here”?
Pokaski: Oh it’s like lip sync. We’re just challenging each other every day. We write something ridiculous and Anthony goes, “That’s ridiculous, but you know what’s really ridiculous?”
Green: “The way I’m about to shoot it.”
Pokaski: Right, like the Gullah plantation for example, we were like, “Okay, we’re going to show a different type of plantation.” Misha had this great research about these South Carolina islands in which several crops were grown. We’re like, “But we’ll only see the rice plantation,” and Anthony’s like, “Or, we show big glide shots and drone shots in which we see everything.” I think the fun with Anthony and us is we’re all idiots, and we challenge each other to do nearly unproducible things.
It’s a remarkable thing you guys are pulling off here, because on the one hand, it’s a show about this historical atrocity that went on for generations, and all these awful things happening. And on the other hand, it’s this ripping adventure yarn, and there are a lot of fun and exciting moments. How do you find the balance between wanting this to be a thrilling entertaining show without it seeming like this era was fun?
Green: We asked “Can we find the balance?” in season one, and I feel like we did. I think that the story of the Underground Railroad lends itself to be told as a thriller-esque action adventure. And I think that you can tell that story and have fun, and laugh at some moments, and have a good time, and also keep the depth, and the seriousness, and really understand that this is our history, and a lot of what was going on then is still going on today. I think it only enrichens the kind of adventure of it.
Pokaski: It’s hard with so many television shows to tell a story that hasn’t been told, and this story, showing these people who ran as heroes, hasn’t been told for some reason.
For most of the first season, the Hawkeses were essentially a show embedded within the other show as they learned how the Underground Railroad worked. This year is there going to be any narrative thread that’s quite as separate as that one was?
Pokaski: [Rosalee’s mother] Ernestine for a little bit, I think. Last we saw her, she got sold off onto a different plantation, and she stays separate for a little while.
Green: I think it’s in the same way, it’s that thing that all of our stories cross at some point, which I think is always fun. I think now the central location is the Hawkes’ home and their running that station. It’s that thing, it’s an ever-evolving thing.
Who had the idea to introduce Harriet Tubman with a rifle in one hand and an ax in the other?
Pokaski: It was her, I’m sure, if it was a badass crazy moment.
Green: You know, I think Harriet had that idea. I feel like we were just channeling her spirit. You know, that’s Harriet to me. And it was awesome. I think she pulled it off so great.
Pokaski: I remember we were looking at smaller axes and props, and Anthony’s like, “No, go with the full ax. Aisha can handle it.” We’re very glad we did.
You were very clever, and Anthony was too, with the way it was shot in the finale, where it’s just Harriet Tubman bathed in a glow of light. She could be anyone, and you got to cast her later. How important was it to find Aisha?
Green: It was so important. I’m trying to think of the equivalent. It was as important as finding a Chris Meloni, where you could have an August that you could look at and not go, “You’re the villain,” but instead, “I have to think about how I’m you.” I think we had to find a Harriet that was accessible, who would not be afraid of the myth of the woman and be the woman. We lucked out with Aisha.
Pokaski: Boy, didn’t we.
Green: She’s just fantastic.
Aldis has been acting since he was a kid, and he can do a little bit of everything, but I don’t know that I’ve seen a show that quite takes advantage of as many of the things he can do as this one. Over the course of the first year, what did you figure out about what you can have him do?
Pokaski: Everything. We had him shoe a horse in the second episode, he was like, “Let me try it.” This was a specialty of the time, in which you’d have to apprentice and train. He’s like, “I’m on it.” This is a guy who designs watches in his free time, the inside gears of watches. I can’t think of a single thing that he can’t do, and it makes fun writing for him. We’re like, “Maybe he’ll make …” something in prison that I almost spoiled.
Green: You almost spoiled, I was like, “You’re getting close!” But yes, he’s fantastic, and I think this season it’s also just watching him and the character of Noah grow and go into deeper places. Because it’s so easy to say you want to be a hero, it’s so easy to make that first step towards heroism. It’s much harder to continuously be that, and I think we see that with his character this year.
There was a fairly high body count towards the end of the first season. Were there any characters who might have survived, and you were weighing it? Obviously not everyone can make it, otherwise it’s a fantasy.
Green: We had it pretty mapped out. We knew who and where, when it was going to happen.
Pokaski: It was important to us not to show it as a cakewalk in which everyone got free at the end either, so I feel like we just wanted to really feel the challenge of it. One of the first things that surprised me when we were doing research was how many people were killed or captured. It was a daunting number in which I wouldn’t have run.
Green: I think that it was important too, going into season two to carry that idea of survivor’s guilt, what do you owe to the people you left behind? What do you owe to the people who died along the way in your process? I think that’s something both Noah and Rosalee’s characters are really dealing with this season.
But there wasn’t a moment when you were like, “Oh my God, we’ve got Mykelti Williamson here. Let’s find a way to keep him on our show”?
Green: I feel like we have to do that with everyone, because you know, Johnny Ray Gill, Adina Porter… They’re all so amazing that you have to fight that instinct to be like, “We could just change it,” but having those people play those characters when [death] comes along, it doesn’t feel meaningless. You feel like you’ve attached to them because they’re such amazing actors that they can do that in three episodes.
Pokaski: Plus we’re genre storytellers, so we also get to break the rules of reality and bring one or two of them back every once in a while.
August, towards the end of the season, figures out that the Hawkeses are running an Underground Railroad station. Then he gets thrown in jail for the other things he’s been up to. How hard is it then for you in writing the second season to work around this knowledge that he has, where he could just bring down what you called your central location by telling somebody?
Green: I think that’s just great. What you just said, I was like, “Ooh.” It makes me excited.
Green: I like when people know things, and I like when people have secrets on TV shows, and it’s all about when is that bomb under the table going to blow up?
Pokaski: That being said, we also have no shortage of crazy situations we can put people in so they don’t have time to act on information. It’s just part of the show.
Finally, let’s talk a little bit about Jurnee. She’s also been around since she was a kid. What did you learn about what she could do over the course of year one?
Pokaski: And then she topped us in year two.
Green: Yeah, and then she topped us again.
Pokaski: She’s like, “I’m gonna do it all pregnant.”
Green: Yeah. We talked about her character and how it’s the birth of a superhero from day one. We talked about season one as kind of Terminator, and season two is Terminator 2. Watching that evolution, and her being eight months pregnant … it’s that thing where you watch it too, it’s her and Aisha and you’re just like, “What’s happening right now? This is amazing.” It’s been great.
I know Harriet often dressed as a man when she was working, so I imagine putting Jurnee in pants and a jacket was helpful in terms of disguising things.
Pokaski: The amount of discussions about patterns in scarves and jackets was more than I ever imagined in my life.
Green: “Can we get away with overalls?”
Pokaski: “Is this floral print too big?” I have no idea anymore.
You can’t do a lot of the usual disguising pregnancy thing.
Pokaski: Right, no laundry baskets, no briefcases-
No big purse.
Pokaski: Yep. Can’t put her on a jury.
Green: The discussion of that first running scene in the first episode was a lot of discussion about that too. How do we do this with an eight-month-pregnant actress? Anthony, of course, is always amazing, and he comes up with the craziest things. She literally was running in a circle, and he was like, “I’m shooting it real close. It’s gonna be amazing.” I was sitting there watching it, thinking,”This is not gonna be good.”
Pokaski: Then it shows up on screen.
Green: Then you see it and you’re like, “I hate you, Anthony. That looks amazing.”Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org