Underground

 
 

Underground is sneakily feminist—a bloody, action-packed thriller made refreshing in its use of the female gaze across every episode.”


Title: Underground
Episodes Reviewed: Seasons 1-2
Creator: Misha Green 👩🏾🇺🇸 and Joe Pokaski 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writers: Misha Green 👩🏾🇺🇸 (20 eps), Joe Pokaski 👨🏼🇺🇸 (20 eps), Jennifer Yale 👩🇺🇸 (10 eps), Tiffany Greshler 👩🏼🇺🇸 (10 eps), and Ben Cory Jones 👨🏾🇺🇸 (9 eps)

Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸 

Quality: 3.5/5
Underground is an exciting, genre-blending show: zombie flick meets historical fiction meets civil rights activism in a heady mix of action and righteousness.

Season 1 is incredibly strong, maintaining momentum from start to finish. Season 2, on the other hand, stumbles by splitting up the storylines into loose strands that struggle to come back together. Keeping track of everyone suddenly becomes a chore, the plot soggy and overburdened with at least five different narratives.

When characters reunite in moments that should feel climactic, the excitement is displaced by trying to remember what they were each doing last. A couple of these moments feel especially forced; in one, we’re meant to find out that a character—Georgia (Jasika Nicole)—is actually a freed slave, masquerading as a white woman. However, Georgia’s character looks biracial, so when the show tried to reveal her freed papers as some kind of twist, I was mostly confused because I never imagined people saw Georgia as a white woman. Another example of empty drama is the idea that Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), one of the main characters who is pregnant in Season 2, was ever hiding her pregnancy from the father. She looks massive, so when Noah (Aldis Hodge) “finds out” she’s carrying their baby and gets angry at for her hiding it, I was again flummoxed that he could ever think she wasn’t pregnant.

In short, Underground is a wonderful show that artfully mixes genres. However, the second season falls into the classic trap of trying to do too much. Bigger is not always better; in fact, their strongest episode of the season was aggressively minimalistic, as actress Aisha Hinds delivers an hour-long monologue in the role of Harriet Tubman, allowing pure, unadulterated oration to shine. We could have used more of this restraint across the entire season.

Gender: 5/5
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
Underground is a master class in demonstrating female empowerment without making it the focus of the plot in the way shows such as Good Girls Revolt or Jessica Jones do. Instead, Underground taps the history of Harriet Tubman’s incredible accomplishments and uses it as its guiding star, infusing every scene with palpable respect for women shown through cinematography, dialogue, screen time, and direction. 

The feminism in the show feels especially powerful due to its basis on historical facts. Women have always been leaders in political organizing; they’ve been mothers bearing the thankless burden of raising children without help; they’ve been abused by men and the system of power distribution; and women have always found both strength as well as toxicity in female relationships. They just haven’t had enough representation on TV to portray them accurately.

Underground helps close the gap, prioritizing deep characterization. It doesn’t shy away from the dark underbelly of what it means to be a complicated woman; Rosalee’s mother, Ernestine (Amirah Vann) murders another woman in order to protect her family. Bounty hunter Patty Cannon (Sadie Stratton) tracks Harriet Tubman like prey, but we can’t help but respect her ruthlessness as she makes a name for herself in a man’s world.

Race: 5/5
Given its source material, it’s a no-brainer that Underground glides through this category. The majority of characters are black, and while any slave story could easily fall into a simplistic dichotomy of “Black = Good, White = Bad”, Underground just manages to inject enough character depth via the morally-fluid Cato (Alano Miller, who plays a black character) and good-hearted Elizabeth (Jessica De Gouw, who plays a white abolitionist) to remain complex enough to warrant a perfect score.

Also notable are a variety of biracial characters: Rosalee, her two siblings, and Georgia all have significant roles. In following their storylines, I was curious about the prevalence of biracial individuals during this time period. So I dug into the 1850 U.S. Census and found some interesting data:

  • Biracial individuals made up a significant portion of freed slaves—fully 36.6% of them were half-black and half-white. Georgia is an example of this demographic.
  • Mixed heritages were less common among those still in bondage—7.7% of those enslaved were biracial, a much smaller share than that of freed slaves. 
 
 
  • Despite the 165-year difference, shares of the black population hold roughly steady to today’s ratios—in 1850, 13.9% of the population was black and 1.7% were biracial black and white. In 2015, 16.3% of the population was black and 2.5% were mixed-race.
 
 

I was surprised to discover that so many black Americans in the 1850s were mixed-race, hinting at disturbing power dynamics and sexual abuse in what is already a bleak chapter in America’s history.

LGBTQ: 1.5/5
No overt representation of LGBTQ characters across 20 episodes. According to an interview with Jasika Nicole, the actress who plays abolitionist Georgia, her character is gay. However, we never see any indication of her sexuality. 

I’m adding a half point for context; the characters in Underground are largely more concerned with survival and freedom than they are falling in love, so it makes sense that sexuality takes a backseat.

Mediaversity Grade: B- 3.75/5
Underground is a great show, flexing the thriller genre by dropping it into a historical framework with timely parallels to modern-day issues. It’s highly enjoyable to watch, despite a more sluggish Season 2, and while I don’t necessarily think the show needed to explore a queer story arc we wouldn’t be grading on diversity if we didn’t ding them for lack of LGBTQ inclusion.

Where Underground leaves its competitors in the dust is its robust, black-majority cast written with rich complexities and its sneaky feminism, the entire show employing the female gaze in a manner that feels all the more refreshing in its bloody, action-packed context.

There’s nothing like Underground on TV right now, and I seriously hope it gets renewed for a third season.