clock menu more-arrow no yes

WGN's new drama Underground is a tense, terrific history of the Underground Railroad

The series tells the story of runaway slaves with honesty — and shades of Ocean's Eleven.

The escape team of Underground.
WGN

Underground is a tense, exhilarating thriller. Its plot frequently twists and turns in sudden and devastating fashion, weaving in and out of storylines with an urgency that leaves your heart pounding. Characters are good, evil, and every shade of gray in between.

Underground is also about slaves trying to escape from a plantation.

Rating


4


That startling juxtaposition defines WGN’s new drama series, which debuted Wednesday, March 9, and centers on a single plantation in Georgia, its owners, the black market surrounding capturing and selling runaway slaves, and the slaves who yearn to be free.

From co-creators Misha Green (Sons of Anarchy) and Joe Pokaski (Daredevil), Underground doesn’t shy away from the visceral, everyday horrors of what it means to be a slave. But even as it makes its audience face the characters' trauma, the show is careful not to completely define them by that trauma. Each character is distinct, wracked by his own particular kind of pain, and they are fueled by everything from sheer rage to hesitant hope.

Underground isn't perfect over the course of its first four episodes (the number screened for critics). There are a few clunky transitions and lagging plot lines, and some of the writing is so over-obvious it almost pulls you out of the story. But the series does such an impressive job building out the world of the plantation, the treacherous woods surrounding it, and the distant possibility of freedom lying somewhere up ahead that these missteps are quickly forgiven.

It helps that the pace is relentless; the writers could have easily stretched out the contents of any single episode for half of the series' 10-episode season. But that pace is crucial to Underground’s success — especially once the slaves' escape plan starts coming into focus.

Underground is harrowing, but it's also a slick heist story

Reluctant allies Noah (Aldis Hodge) and Cato (Alano Miller).
WGN

Underground features several plots vying for attention. There are a ton of recurring players, between the Macons who own the cotton plantation, the frustrated allies trying to make the Underground Railroad work, and hungry hunters like Christopher Meloni's August Pullman who turn runaway slaves into profit. But the most gripping stories, by a mile, are those unfolding within the tight, fraught community amongst the slaves fighting for their lives on the Macon property.

The slaves who work in the fields resent the fact that their peers keeping the Macon family happy in the house perform far less physically strenuous tasks. The slaves who work in the house — mostly women, like Amirah Vann's steel-jawed Ernestine and Jurnee Smollett-Bell's nervous Rosalee — long for the camaraderie some of the field slaves have but which they can never express themselves since they're constantly in the same rooms as their white masters.

Still, all of these characters are united in their bone-deep need to be free.

Underground could have easily spent its first season digging into the multilayered relationships between its characters, but it makes a smart, quick pivot. Slowly at first, and then all at once, the show becomes an ensemble heist that hinges on ringleader Noah (a ferociously good Aldis Hodge) plotting a mass escape.

By the end of the first episode, Underground is a period piece Ocean’s Eleven, but with the highest, most crucial stakes imaginable. As the A.V. Club’s Joshua Alston put it: "The thieves are literally stealing their own bodies."

After making several unsuccessful runaway attempts, Noah has realized that he can't pull it off alone. And so he goes about enlisting people he trusts and values, like Rosalee, recruiting Zeke (Theodus Crane) as muscle and Sam (Johnny Ray Gill), a carpenter, as the practical brain. He even turns to Cato (a terrifically unsettling Alano Miller), a fellow slave who's managed to become a Macon family favorite. Noah and Cato can't stand each other, but they know working together is necessary in the long run toward freedom.

And so the team starts to come together.

Once you realize that Underground is telling the story of a heist meant to save lives, an extra jolt of electricity pulses through every scene. Again, these characters are trying to steal themselves, and they're up against the most incredible odds. As you watch Noah rally support for his plan, you know he's trying to convince them to take a huge leap that could very well end in death — or worse.

One of the most immediately distinctive aspects of Underground is how it uses music

Outside of the brilliant choice to tell this story as a harrowing caper, Underground's stylistic decisions create a wholly unique aesthetic. In particular, the show's music choices are scattered but striking. (Executive producer John Legend likely had a hand in this aspect of the production.)

You'll notice this right off the bat. The show opens with Noah running and hiding in the woods, being chased by snarling dogs, and the scene is set to Kanye West's "Black Skinhead." The song, a track off West's 2013 album Yeezus, boasts an incredibly catchy beat, one that has led to it being used in things like the trailer for The Wolf of Wall Street and a tease for the raunchy sorority comedy Neighbors 2. But that driving rhythm isn't the point of the song, not by a long shot. Its lyrics are desperate and defiant, inextricably tied to West's own blackness. Employing it in the context of something like the collapse of Wall Street at the hands of smarmy white guys was a bizarre and insulting choice.

So when Underground opens with Noah's breath matching the beats of "Black Skinhead," eyes wide and hopeful and terrified all at once, it's flooring. Finally, this song is used perfectly — and in a period piece, to boot.

Underground's modern-day musical interventions aren't always used as well as they are in that opening scene. When abolitionists John and Elizabeth Hawkes (Marc Blucas and Jessica De Gouw) entertain socialites, for instance, the soundtrack turns to jarringly peppy pop songs, as if it's offering a spin on Sofia Coppola's decadent Marie Antoinette.

But the show's music choices land far more than they miss, which holds especially true when recognizable hits are folded into the slaves' daily lives. Gospel interludes are used frequently in the slave quarters, not to mention over Underground's gorgeous main credits:

In the third episode, a heart-stopping sequence is set to the Macon matriarch practicing classical piano as her slaves surreptitiously set a part of their plan into motion, their ears always on alert in case the tinkling keys stop. Even Noah's escape plan relies on music — more specifically, a gospel song whose lyrics act as a code to freedom.

Underground's canny combination of contemporary beats and traditional gospel hymns doesn't just drive the action forward; it connects the terrible history Underground is retelling to the present day.

Make no mistake: Underground knows who its stars are

Rosalee (Smollett-Bell) takes a moment.
WGN

For as many conflicts as there are raging around the concept of plantations, the burgeoning Underground Railroad, and what it means to be a freed slave, Underground depicts just as many within the microcosm of the Macon plantation. Throughout the show's first four episodes, no characters are more compelling than the slaves — which is exactly as it should be. Making white people the stars of this story would've been an infuriatingly shortsighted choice, and Underground is smart to avoid it at all costs.

Instead, the show quickly establishes its ambition to honestly and truthfully portray the very real suffering that slaves endured. It delves into the physical atrocities, with harsh punishments doled out on the ever-changing whims of white slave owners, as well as their emotional equivalent, with the Macons frequently forgetting that the black people living on their property are, in fact, people.

And as Underground unfolds, we get to see how Noah, Rosalee, Cato, and more use their circumstances to their advantage. Since the owners see their slaves as less than human, they tend to discuss valuable information around them — without ever thinking twice about it. Bit by excruciating bit, the slaves use their owners' ignorance to identify loopholes and weaknesses that maybe, just maybe, can help them achieve freedom.

As of its first four episodes, Underground is in a solid position moving forward, thanks to its breathless momentum and wonderful anchoring performances from Hodge, Smollett-Bell, Vann, and Miller in particular. Now we get to see if it can keep up with its own unforgiving, electrifying pace.

Underground airs Wednesdays at 10 pm on WGN. The first episode is currently available to stream on WGN's website, or through Amazon.