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‘The Underground Railroad’ Episode 2 Recap: The View from Nowhere

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: When Sir Thomas More coined the term utopia, he did so as a pun. Spelled eutopia, from the Ancient Greek, it means “good place,” which is how the term functions in fantastical literature—utopia as ideal society. But spelled utopia, which is the version More emphasized, it translates rather to “no place.” By definition, then, the ideal society cannot exist.

Griffin, South Carolina seems like a utopia in the eu sense, at least at a glance. By the time The Underground Railroad arrives there for its second episode (“Chapter 2: South Carolina”), our heroes Cora and Caesar have been safely ensconced there for some time. In this semi-integrated town, dominated by its futuristic “skyscraper,” Black people are not enslaved, but free—again, at least at a glance.

Oh sure, there’s a lot of patronizing they have to deal with from the white people who run the town—”for the practical betterment of Negro life,” as they put it—and teach its Black residents courses in literacy and etiquette. Their jobs aren’t exactly ideal, either: Caesar has to put up with a bullying boss at his factory gig, while Cora works as part of a living diorama of slave life for the entertainment of visitors to the town’s museum.

But it’s miles beyond anything they experienced on the plantation, and their pleasure in the difference is evident all over their faces. Cora, now going by “Bessie” to hide her identity, is free to get her hair professionally done, and to dress in fine clothes. Caesar, now known as “Christian,” is rewarded for his literacy with a job working as a doctor’s assistant. At a social for the town’s Black residents, the pair share their first kiss, though Caesar’s shoulder blocks our view of their lips meeting.

In retrospect, that’s a sign.

UNDERGROUND RAILROAD EP 2 CROSSFADE

Minutes later, a woman starts screaming that “they’re taking my babies” before she’s led away. The next day, Cora realizes that the director of the museum performances knows how to handle a whip because he used to do so professionally as an overseer. Caesar is given “vitamins” that are being distributed to all the Black men in town free of charge, though in the case of an ailing coworker they only seem to make his condition worse. Cora learns that the town’s doctors are able to sterilize their female patients—purely on a voluntary basis, of course—during a doctor’s visit that brings up painful memories of her rape by other slaves.

Before long, the lies fall away like so much threadbare clothing. The vitamins are poison, deliberately administered to test the resiliency of “the Black body.” And as Cora’s tutor tells her while condescendingly gazing right into the camera, the tubal ligation procedure is not voluntary if a subject’s blood test results come back positive for…whatever it is they think they’re looking for, and soon it will be Cora’s turn. These evils are completely unknown to Sam (Will Poulter), their white liaison to the Underground Railroad in the area; his obliviousness is explainable, but given the dire circumstances, it’s difficult to see how it’s excusable.

Enter the slave-catcher Ridgeway and his diminutive assistant Homer (Chase W. Dillon, in one of the most compellingly offbeat child performances I’ve seen in a long time). A chance encounter with a slaver who’s moving on from the town with the screaming woman in tow leads him to this nowhere-place, and it’s not long before he’s on the scent of both Cora and Caesar. Cora escapes and flees to Sam’s hideout after Homer finds her and tries to capture her himself; Caesar, though, does not evade Ridgeway’s prying eyes. After seeing him walk away in a dream in which he encourages her to be strong, Cora hops on a maintenance train in the Railroad tunnels, forced to leave her only real friend behind.

There may well be meta commentary at work before this episode’s grim denouement. Cora’s playacting as a slave for the entertainment of a white audience seems, in its way, like The Underground Railroad accounting for the ways in which the horrors of America’s treatment of Black people can be repackaged and sold to the same privileged group that historically executed those horrors. Meanwhile, the abrupt recapture of Caesar, not even a full episode after he escaped the plantation, is a depressing but bold narrative decision, the kind made by a show willing to take risks. Both indicate thoughtful creative minds at work, setting up a world in which a good place becomes a no-place with the wave of a white hand.

Sean T. Collins (@theseantcollins) writes about TV for Rolling Stone, Vulture, The New York Times, and anyplace that will have him, really. He and his family live on Long Island.

Watch The Underground Railroad Episode 2 on Amazon Prime

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