Set in 1857 Georgia, WGN’s Underground tells a harrowing yet riveting story of a group of runaway slaves that uses the Underground Railroad system to escape their horrific situation. The slaves, known as Macon Seven, named after the cotton plantation that serves as their prisoner, travel 600 miles to the north, where slavery is abolished. Along the way, members of Macon Seven face physical, mental and emotional challenges to test their resolve.
The heart of Macon Seven is Noah (Aldis Hodge), a strong-willed man who thinks that freedom is a right of every person, not a privilege to a few who bear the correct skin color. Through a meticulous process, he culls information and recruits trusted individuals vital to achieve his goal. At one point, he unflinchingly faces the lashes as a consequence of his daring acts. Noah sees the younger version of himself in Henry (Renwick Scott), an intuitive member of Macon Seven. Their bond, forged by slavery, transcends beyond friendship and is the main reason for their loyalty and utmost respect for each other. Armed only with the coded words of the song “Follow the Drinking Gourd” as their guide to freedom, Noah and Henry start to have hope in their hearts.
But like most slaves at that time, they do not know how to read. In order for their plan to succeed, it is imperative to have a literate person in the group. They believe that charismatic preacher Moses (Mykelti Williamson) is it. Moses decides to take his wife, Pearly Mae (Adina Porter) and daughter Boo (Darielle Stewart).
Zeke (Theodus Crane) is the brawn to Moses’ brain. Zeke is built like an ox and has the strength of one, and with nothing and nobody to keep him in the plantation Zeke readily agrees.
Their small gatherings raise the suspicions of Cato (Alano Miller), Noah’s rival. He is trusted by plantation owner Tom Macon (Reed Diamond) but disliked by his fellow slaves because he preens like a peacock but is cunning as a fox. Noah gives his grudging yes to Cato only after the former lands himself in a sticky situation and needs the latter’s help. Cato’s intellectual acuity is in full display in the burning of the cotton plantation.
The last member of Macon Seven is Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), a sheltered mulatto who seems weak in mind and body. Unlike most of the slaves, Rosalee neither works under the scorching sun nor wounds her hands picking cotton because she works in the “big house”. Although her choice is obvious from the moment she and Noah stare at each other, she claims to be on the fence about escaping. Her mind changes when the white plantation overseer attempts to rape her. As she fights for freedom and survival without her mother’s protection, Rosalee grows as a person and discovers how strong she really is.
Rosalee leaves her formidable mother behind, Ernestine (Amira Vann). Ernestine is the head house slave of the Macon “big house” and is loved by Tom and his children so much so that Tom takes her as his lover. She uses her influence over him to keep Rosalee and her brothers from working on the field. Ernestine’s influence is limited by Macon’s wife, Suzanna (Andrea Frankle) who in turn, barely tolerates Ernestine and her children’s presence in the Macon property.
The Macon Seven escape right in the middle of Tom Macon’s nomination process as a senator. The inopportune moment reflects badly on Macon as a slave owner, which forces him to place a huge bounty on each one. With determined slave catchers right behind their tails, the Macon Seven literally run for their lives. One of the slave catchers is August Pullman (Christopher Meloni), a skilled tracker and hunter but lacking in the parenting department.
As Pullman and others pursue the slaves like a pack of hyenas, the Macon Seven perish in the most dramatic fashion. Only three safely cross the river and arrive at the safe house of abolitionist lawyer John Hawkes (Marc Blucas) and wife Elizabeth (Jessica de Gouw). Ironically, John is the brother of Tom Macon.
The arduous journey to the north is not the end of the tunnel as the surviving members of Macon Seven continue to fight for their safety and place in the world. As they struggle to make sense of their experiences, the world around them continues to turn and churn out novel ways to torture them.
Underground has several strong characters worth rooting for, with the women edging the men. Rosalee, Ernestine, Elizabeth, Pearly Mae, and Suzanna are feisty females who are willing to do everything, including murder, to protect what is rightfully theirs. Consequently, most of the memorable scenes in the show belong to them: the last conversation between Ernestine and Pearly Mae, Rosalee and Elizabeth fighting August and the carriage scene that involves Ernestine and Suzanna. Among them, the most enthralling character is Ernestine. She is manipulative and dominating yet tender to her children. Her despicable acts are understandable because her intentions are clear from the start, to keep her children safe.
Underground has many characters and multiple settings but the storytelling is never discombobulated. The first half of the season takes its sweet time to develop the characters and explain their motives. The last half is explosive, literally and figuratively, with multiple in-your-face violent scenes. Thankfully, the blood and gore is carefully balanced by acts of humanity from unexpected sources. Even with the dizzying events, the slaves remain front and center. Their points of view, whether significant or petty, are more important than those of the white characters because Underground is their story and their history.