This week, Dear Television welcomes guest critic Lisa Woolfork, Associate Professor of English at the University of Virginia.
"Preparing for War"
SARAH: Lisa! I’m so excited to have you here to talk about Underground, and specifically what it’s doing with gender. Which: Lisa, for all its clichés, this show is really...wild. It just gets more fascinating to me over the course of the four episodes that were available for screening. I’m not sure it gets better! But, like Game of Thrones, another show we both love watching, Underground seems to get more and more interesting to talk about. It’s also like Game of Thrones in that it’s really dense portrait of a material world, and in its willingness to drive right at everything that could possibly be difficult or controversial to portray.
LISA: Hey, Sarah. I am delighted to talk through Underground with you for these next few episodes. I find the show’s format energetic and novel. It does well to put the time sensitive nature of both fugitive slaves and those slaves who have lived their whole lives in one place into a credible context. The pacing is at once frenzied and timely. Most importantly, it is historically acute. This is a hard combination to pull off. I’m not sure I’d describe aspects of it as “cliches”; I prefer the term “conventions,” like the fundamental conventions of the 19th-century slave narrative — those stories always had certain aspects about them that can be found across the genre. So for me, when I see something that conforms to what I expect or know to be true based on firsthand 19th-century testimonies or subsequent archival research, I find it affirming of fundamental truths about the past.
This seems important since some of the show’s ambition (as noted with the musical experiment of integrating contemporary music into its 19c story) seems to be to collapse the divide between the past and present, to view the characters as *characters* rather than types (archetypes or stereotypes). I agree that the material world is densely drawn here (and it is difficult for me to look around the grounds of the Macon house and outbuildings and not see everything there as paid for by the forced extraction of labor from black bodies), but rather than seeing the epic scale of Game of Thrones, I see a bit of Sons of Anarchy here, especially the latter seasons of Sons where small gestures trigger a concatenation of events leading to huge consequences.
SARAH: To get started, let’s talk generally about how this episode, “The War Chest,” is structured, and why it’s so interesting about race and gender. From a narrative perspective, this episode needs to provide a connection between its two central characters, Rosalee and Noah, that would make them want to run away together. To do that, to describe a romance between slaves, “War Chest” opts to cross directly over a feature of slavery that’s been controversial to depict since the 19th century: sex between the enslaved and those who claim to own them.
In this episode, Ernestine, who I described last week as an archetype of the slave novel, the protective mother (her daughter Rosalee understands her as unwilling to resist slavery) — and here the language is very hard, and I’d be interested in how you’d describe it — uses her sexual subordination to her owner in order to strategically protect both Rosalee and her younger son, James, from the risks they face as slaves. And then, two young men, Noah and Cato, strategically use their sexual subordination to a neighboring slaveholding woman (the slaves call this woman “Bare Back Shaw”) to steal a gun from her house. It’s only then, after these two remarkable on-stage moments, that we get a fairly conventional love scene. Rosalee and Noah slow dance while the soundtrack plays a slow jam by The Weeknd, and Noah asks Rosalee to run away.
At first I felt it diminished the romance between Rosalee and Noah to put it at the end of an episode that spends so much time thinking through the issue of rape. The romance feels like it’s staged in such conventional, predictable ways and didn’t seem up to the task of existing in this sexually fraught world. But the more I think about it, the more I appreciate Underground’s insistence on the reminder that this is a world in which relationships for the enslaved took place. And certainly, “War Chest” did capture the overarching tension of Underground, as it tries to shuttle between melodrama and realism, innovation and — as you say — convention.
LISA: I think the key to this episode, if it has only one key, is found in the title “The War Chest.” Primarily, the war chest is figurative. This is meant to suggest Macon’s attempts to get the rest of the good ol’ boys to endorse his candidacy and fund his campaign. If a slave — who may just be his daughter — is molested in the process, what’s the harm? A fully funded campaign will make it easier for him to cement his ambitions as a plantocrat and statesman (writing this from Virginia, I can say we have quite a few of those in these parts). The second war chest is literal — a stash of booty from the Revolutionary War that Noah plans to pilfer to wage a war of his own.
But there is another war that is subtle and waged by women. Rosalee picking up that ribbon and going to the dance is more than a dash for a type of freedom — it is a reclamation of her own body and a chance to prioritize herself and her capacity for pleasure. It’s a beautiful transition from someone who is forced to *act* as an object, taking the reins of her subjectivity. This is a lesson she may have inherited from her mother. I found the scene with Ernestine in the wine cellar initially quite disturbing. On the surface, it looks like a case of women using sex to manipulate men. But this would be a fallacy or at least not the whole truth. Framed within the context of the previous scene, Ernestine intervenes in the molestation of her daugher with this interruption. She is also using her own War Chest (pouring wine to be sucked from her actual chest) to extract (unenforceable) promises from Macon to protect her son.
SARAH: Lisa, I hadn’t even thought about the title “War Chest,” and how it resonates for so many of the episode’s characters. The “War Chest” is actually a great way to think about the chiasmus between the episode’s sex scenes. Both Noah and Ernestine, who handle slavery differently in most ways, are willing to use sex to accumulate the resources they need for the battles they face. So it’s interesting to compare the pistol that Noah secrets away to the promise that Ernestine gets from her owner, Tom — is a promise the same kind of weapon? Both Noah and Ernestine are successful, but I’m still trying to think through the differences in their successes.
But then again: is “success” the right word, when describing a system of endemic, fundamental sexual violence? I’m so interested in the way Underground thinks through that question: through the agency it shows Ernestine possessing in the wine cellar scene’s details. As it begins, Tom, the master, descends into his (artfully lit) wine cellar, knowing (it seems) that he will find Ernestine waiting for him. The camera shows us the silhouette of Ernestine’s beautiful naked body, as she holds a prized bottle of wine. Saying “We don’t want to waste anything this fine on your rude guests, do we?”, she pours the wine over herself, but as Tom reaches for her body Ernestine slaps him, shoves her fingers in his mouth, and makes him speak the promise that her son — presumably, their son — James will never be sent to the fields. Only when he’s promised does she let him touch her.
So the show displays Ernestine working with a powerful metaphor: pouring the wine over herself, she emphasizes that she and the wine are similar; are both prized and unusual and emphatically delicious commodities. She does not try to take herself out the realm of consumption; instead, shoving her fingers in Tom’s mouth, she exerts control over how she is consumed. I’m still thinking through my response to this scene, but I think overall that I admire Underground’s willingness to really make space, visually and narratively, for Ernestine’s erotic power — and I think the show manages to do so without erasing the fact that the scene is disturbing.
LISA: I like that you mentioned the way Ernestine pushes her fingers into Tom’s mouth. This invokes the act of penetration and what it indicates for those slave characters who seek to take an active liberatory role. Ernestine penetrates Tom, Cato penetrates (from behind in a sexual posture of both deep penetration and control) Shaw/Char as a distraction for Noah’s plan to steal the antique revolver. Both acts of aggressive penetration by a slave character of a master’s body seem important beyond the prurient. Just as the female vampire figure (a different but related topic, sorry!) disrupts systems of heteronormativity and reproduction that rely on male-female congress as only unilaterally penetrative, we see Ernestine — a character with a relatively low position of social power — initiate a complex and seemingly routine act of sexual role play (and even reversal). She offers her body, yet withholds it; slaps him and soothes him.
The erotic lens through which this scene is filmed, however, in some way obfuscates the broader context. Tom is under no legal or moral obligation to keep his word to Ernestine, no matter how much illicit wine-soaked sex they have. If, as the Supreme Court ruled in Dred Scott, the black man has no rights to which the white man is bound to respect, then how will Ernestine make sure that Tom keeps his promises? She can’t, but her ability to try is how she maintains a small measure of influence of the lives of people she loves. I find it interesting too that Cato’s sex with Char is presented in a spirit of comic relief — it is as if the issue of women enacting sexual violence upon the bodies of men is a specter the show isn’t ready to broach. Instead, it gets folded into a larger story of sex for men as simply an act of physical labor rather than a source of emotional vulnerability. It’s hard to imagine the scene with the gender roles reversed and still have it be a source of wry humor or titillation for the slaves (like the “house girls”) who snicker at what they overhear.
SARAH: True. But I’m glad that Underground gives equal narrative space (if not equal narrative treatment) to men and women’s experience of sexual threat; certainly, in the 19th-century sources for this show, abuse of men is present but typically much more elliptically portrayed. I think it’s great that we see Noah, like Ernestine, navigating this part of his life in such a practical, strategic way, and turning these quotidian abuses (as you say) into strategic opportunities. Noah, too, knows about this slave owner’s “appetites,” to use his word, and the way she wants to consume and display black bodies. What was interesting to me, and what I’m still thinking through, is that Cato plays out emotions about this scene (which happens off stage: the show depicts Ernestine and Tom, and Noah in his memory with Char, but leaves Cato’s encounter to the imagination) primarily in the anger he feels toward Noah, and in their running argument about who can and will lead the group of runaways. So in that way, we do see the experience of sex as a more psychologically complex experience.
But that doesn’t change your point that the episode’s treatment of Cato’s encounter is very different: the laughing house girls are really interesting! Let’s come back to Noah and Cato and their sexual labor in a minute — I want to add some details to our discussion of Underground’s depiction of slavery and women’s lives. For instance, this show impressed me in that its first shot of the Macon plantation focused on a group of young enslaved girls braiding each other’s hair. That’s the kind of thing that grabs me as both a Game of Thrones fan (braids!) and an avid reader of 19th-century novels. Braiding and styling hair is such an intense and intimate experience between women — in novels, and in life — and I loved that the show “mentions” that, the mutual care-taking of these enslaved girls, in its first moments.
And the show carries that attention into other relationships as well — ones that are very much not about care, even as they depict the art of caretaking. There’s a really intense moment in the first episode when Miss Susannah, the slave mistress, gets jealous and angry at Ernestine after Ernestine does too good of a job braiding Susannah’s daughter’s hair. Susannah is so angered by Ernestine’s ability to accrue attention and power this way that Susannah de facto punishes Ernestine for her success — by letting the overseer threaten James, and then whip Rosalee, for an offense that would not otherwise merit it. (Here, Susannah punishes Rosalee through her children’s bodies.) This show seems very sensitive to the small ways in which people who do not have legal control seize power and agency within those systems, whether that power is used for good (as those girls do, caring for each other) or for ill (as Susannah does, at basically every opportunity).
LISA: White women were totally culpable for and invested in this system. There was no intersectional feminism (or precious little that was actionable) in the 19th-century South. The hair styling is quite intricate and the intimacy required reminds me both of Anna and Mary in Downton Abbey AND the levels of labor extracted from black bodies during slavery. There are many types of work — physical, emotional, aesthetic, creative. I see the cross racial hairdressing as part of that creative labor — most people enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done but that satisfaction is complicated for enslaved workers. The intimacy of cross-racial hair care and dressing/undressing opens the door for a critique of breastfeeding as a labor that slave-women routinely provided for slaveholders.
SARAH: Yes, totally. Particularly disturbing in this regard was the scene in which Ernestine prepares Susannah’s room for bed while Tom and Susannah — who wears only her corset — cozily discuss their baby and their future. Ernestine’s complete invisibility to them is brutal.
One of the things that’s most impressing me about Underground so far, actually, is the way it shows that its enslaved characters are both invisible and completely exposed: which is to say, because the slaveholding world cannot see them as human, cannot register their emotional presence, their physical bodies are aggressively, flagrantly displayed. Noah is strip searched in this episode; later we’ll see other characters who are punished naked. In this way, the show manages to indicate to its viewers that such regular, enforced exposure is horrifying and to also, at the same time, show how adept its characters have become at navigating their world.
LISA: I, too, am interested in this. We talk a lot these days about the commercialization of the black body through exploitative music or sports contracts. It is another thing entirely to see the dude from True Blood capture and/or kill runaways because he needs to pay for his wife’s medical care.
Two things about the exposure of bodies. First, I was perennially struck by the blood stained bandages on Rosalee’s arms. Today, if we saw a woman who looked like that it would inspire curiosity, concern or even compassion. We might ask, ”Is she cutting herself? What is the story of those wounds? Eeek. They’re still seeping blood.” But in Underground, no one thinks twice about them. Her physical suffering sparks no curiosity or interest from anyone. To me, this illustrates a perfect symmetry with the historical past and further establishes the profound indifference to black suffering under the regime of slavery. The silence around her wounds — which are not seen as “wounds” in the context in which they appear — reveals a larger pattern of apathy surrounding the physical and emotional conditions of black lives in that environment. Next, the strip searching of Noah helps to redefine what vulnerability means — does the word “vulnerability” lose its meaning when that condition is quotidian? It worked well with Rosalee’s comments about the tattoos on his back. And it underscores the value of his feigned limp — even in times when he is forced to be stripped bare, or when his body is turned inside out (though lashes that tear open his flesh), his body remains his own and has secrets.
SARAH: Which I guess is as good a place as any to stop? Though I’ll say again that writing about this episode with you has made me appreciate it much more. I still have lots to say — but let’s end by giving our best and worst?
SARAH: I love the moment when Noah’s explaining his plan for stealing the gun to Cato and describes the source of Shaw’s fame: “he’s was the youngest man to do something or other in the war against the British.” I thought this was such a sick burn — Noah’s so dismissive — and also so significant that he does not refer to it as the Revolutionary War! Because of course, for Noah, it wasn’t at all. And from the perspective of Noah, and this show, it’s only now that the pistol will be used to escape slavery that it's purposes will be truly revolutionary.
LISA: When Rosalee decides to re-possess authority over her own body (after feeling disgusted by how she was treated by that group of white men, blaming herself for having looks that attracted them to her) and rushes out to join the parade walking to the dance. I like the way the show pays attention to the vast array of complex human emotions: its slave characters feel fear, joy, longing, outrage, desire, hope, despair, and more. These are true characters, not types set up to prove a point or accomplish a narrative task. And the excerpt from The Weeknd’s “Wicked Games” that frames Noah and Rosalee’s dance is perfect, “Bring your love baby I could bring my shame/Bring the drugs baby I could bring my pain/I got my heart right here/I got my scars right here.”
SARAH: I still could care less about our morally-vexed slave catcher August, having his father-son dramas with Ben. Why is his moral crisis important here?
LISA: When Rosalee picked up the ribbon that she found in the bedsheets that had been thrown on the floor. My initial, shameful, response was that she was stealing and would be caught and punished. Then I remembered that her whole life, her body’s labor and even its shadow had been stolen from her and put to the use and pleasure of other people. The ribbon is the least of what she is owed from that house. (And it wasn’t even missed.)
SARAH: Wow, yes — that fear! I had the same response! But then, isn’t that ribbon Elizabeth’s ribbon — the yellow from her nursery? I’m still really unclear how Underground is going to connect Rosalee’s quest for freedom and pleasure with Elizabeth’s quest for a baby. One more reason to keep following this show along!
Sarah and Lisa
Lisa Woolfork is an Associate Professor of English at University of Virginia.
Sarah Mesle (PhD, Northwestern) is faculty at USC and Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Prior to arriving at USC, she held postdoctoral fellowships in English at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a 19th-century Americanist by training and is interested, generally speaking, in the long history of the American popular novel and in the many ways pop culture can excite, estrange, and surprise.
With Sarah Blackwood, she is co-editor of Avidly.org. You can follow her on Twitter.
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