Sunday, April 2, 2017
"UNDERGROUND": Things That Make Me Go . . . Hmmm?
Ever since its premiere back in March 2016, I have been a major fan of "UNDERGROUND", the WGN cable series about a group of Georgia slaves who attempt the journey to freedom in antebellum America. But I am also a big history buff. And since "UNDERGROUND" has a strong historical background, it was inevitable that I would notice how much the series adhered to history. Although the series' historical background held up rather well, there were some aspects of the series that I found questionable, as listed below:
"UNDERGROUND": THINGS THAT MAKE ME GO . . . HMMM?
Women's Hairstyles - I had no problems with the hairstyles worn by the African-American female characters. However, I cannot say the same white female characters - especially the two sisters-in-law, Northern socialite Elizabeth Hawkes and Southern plantation mistress Suzanna Macon. The latter's hairstyle seemed to be some vague take on mid-19th century hairstyles for women. However, the hairstyle worn by the Elizabeth Hawkes character seemed to be straight out of the late 19th century or the first decade of the 20th century.
Patty Canon - A group of professional slave catchers/traders were featured in the episodes between (1.06) "Troubled Waters" and (1.09) "Black & Blue". These men were led by a notorious illegal slave trader named Patty Cannon. The lady herself finally appeared in the flesh in the tenth and final episode of Season One, (1.10) "White Whale". However, the presence of Miss Cannon in a story set in 1857 proved to be anachronistic, for she lived between the 1760s and 1829. Hmmm.
Location, Location and . . . Location - One aspect of the series that annoyed me was that viewers were more or less left in the dark was the locations of the fleeing fugitives in two episodes - "Troubled Waters" and (1.07) "Cradle". Their journey in Season One was spread throughout four states - Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio. I really wish that showrunners Misha Green and Joe Pokaski had kept track of the fugitives' locations - especially in those particular episode. Also in "Troubled Waters", they traveled north (I think) aboard a keelboat that previously served as a floating whorehouse. I am aware that a few rivers in the United States flow northward. But I could have sworn that the two nearest ones in the series' setting would be the New River in southeastern North Carolina and the Monongahela River that flows from West Virginia to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Neither river is that close to the fugitives' route.
James as a Field Slave - In the second episode, (1.02) "War Chest", viewers learned that the Masons' housekeeper, Ernestine, is willing to have sex with planter Tom Macon in order to secure the safety of her children, which includes preventing their seven year-old son James from becoming a field slave. Ernestine's efforts come to nothing for the episode "Cradle" opened with Ernestine and her older son, Sam, preparing young James for the harshness of the cotton fields. While the scene was heartbreaking, I also found it slightly unrealistic. Slave children on large-scale plantations would not be sent to the fields (cotton, sugar, tobacco, etc.) until they were at least nine or ten years old. The sight of James in the cotton field would have been more realistic if he had been a few years older.
Harriet Tubman - The series' Season One finale ended with successful fugitive Rosalee meeting the famed Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman at the Philadelphia home of abolitionist William Still. This is not a blooper, considering that Miss Tubman's base of operation stretched between Maryland (her home state) and the New York-Canada border. However, since news of actress Aisha Hinds being cast to portray the famous abolitionist in the series' second season, I cannot help but wonder if the setting will shift toward the East Coast.
Sam's Role on the Macon Plantation - The series' premiere, (1.01) "The Macon 7" first introduced Sam - Rosalee's older half-brother and Ernestine's oldest child - as the Macon plantation's carpenter. Audiences saw Sam serve in this role until the fifth episode, (1.05) "Run & Gun", when he and the other remaining slaves on the plantation worked out in the cotton field to put out the fire caused by one of the main fugitives, Cato. Sam worked in the cotton field until his escape attempt at the end of "Cradle" and his death in (1.08) "Grave". Yet, I have no idea why owner Tom Macon kept him in the cotton fields. Considering that the latter never suspected him for helping the Macon 7 escape, why would he have Sam working in the field, instead of the carpenter's wood shop?
Boo's Fate - The Season One finale saw the youngest of the Macon 7, Boo, playing in the garden of William Still's Philadelphia home. Before that, the young girl lost her mother Pearly Mae first to slave catcher August Pullman and later to Ernestine's act of murder on the Macon plantation. She then lost her father to members from Patty Cannon's gang on the banks of the Ohio River. After spending time at the home of Elizabeth and John Hawkes, she was reunited with Rosalee and Noah, before joining the former at Still's home. But Noah got captured and Rosalee decided to return south to find him. So what will happen to Boo, now that she is literally orphaned? She certainly cannot remain in the United States. Her time with the Hawkes proved that.
End of the Journey - Northern States or Canada - Ever since the series began, many characters - especially the Macon 7 - discussed about taking the arduous 600 miles or so journey from Georgia to the Ohio River and freedom. Yet, no one even brought up the idea of continuing the journey to Canada. After all, Season One is set in 1857, seven years following the passage of the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act. The fugitive law was mentioned by Elizabeth Hawkes' former beau, Kyle Risdin, who used it to force her husband John Hawkes to assist in the search and capture of a fugitive slave. So why did the Hawkes, Still, and the Underground Railroad conductors in Kentucky (I believe) failed to inform members of the Macon 7 that reaching the North would not be enough . . . that they would have to travel all the way to Canada in order to be safe?
Ernestine's Position on the Macon Plantation - Sam was not the only member of Rosalee's family that left me confused about the chores assigned on the Macon plantation. I also found myself confused about the chores of Rosalee's mother, Ernestine. "The Macon 7" made it clear that Ernestine was the Macon family's housekeeper. In fact, the series featured scenes of her acting as supervisor of the house slaves. And yet . . . other episodes featured Ernestine supervising the work inside the plantation's kitchen. I found this odd. Surely the plantation had its own cook preparing and supervising the meals? Plantations and the households of wealthy families would have a cook. Why did this series have Ernestine, a housekeeper, supervising the kitchen? As housekeeper, Ernestine would not be serving drinks or food to the Macon family and their guests. She would order a maid for this function. Yet, the series has shown Ernestine not only ordering maids to serve food, but also herself performing the same chore. Huh? But the biggest mind bender occurred in the fourth episode, (1.04) "Firefly", which featured Ernestine butchering a hog. I really found this difficult to accept. The housekeeper of a wealthy family acting as a butcher? C'mon! Really?
Despite the above quibbles, I really enjoyed "UNDERGROUND". The series is in the middle of airing its second season. After it ends, I plan to post a similar article on the show's historical background.