Episode 1 of The Underground Railroad begins with a montage; a series of artistic sequences both forward and backward in time. “The first and last thing my Mama gave me were apologies” Our protagonist says. This is Cora, and she’s been born on a plantation.
With Cora’s friend Caesar leaving and heading North, Cora does her rounds and sits with a blind man named Jockey that evening. Joyous singing is soon cut short though when the slave owner, Terrance Randall, shows up.
He berates the men and women, eventually punishing a boy called Chester. Cora is beaten too for jumping in to save the child, eventually receiving stricter punishment after spilling Terrance’s drink. It’s a horrific scene, as all the slaves stand in rows and watch helplessly as the duo are whipped. Their cries pierce the air, carving a hole in this uneasy silence descending on the plantation.
Night turns to day and Cora is in a bad way. She’s bloodied and beaten, shaking uncontrollably. Caesar reads to her and tries to encourage the girl to leave the plantation. While Caesar is adamant he’s not supposed to be there, Cora bitterly retorts “Well I am.”
The next day, James Randall succumbs to illness and dies on the plantation. This man is closely aligned with Terrance, and he shows up at the fields and booms out some new rules.
He’s breeding his slaves like cattle; he intends to watch to make sure he’s getting the best. Unfortunately this also sees him take a fancy to Cora, stepping up to her in the fields and running a dirty finger over her head.
Part of this new deal includes Terrance bringing Big Anthony to men named Connelly and Ridgeway. They speak of an underground railroad but for now that’s not elaborated on too much. Instead, Big Anthony is whipped outside for Terrance’s amusement, while the men sit and eat together.
There’s anger in Caesar as well as Cora, although his is tinged with a hint of sorrow. He’s forced to procreate for Terrance but certainly isn’t happy about it.
That evening, after a day of whipping, Terrance brings all the slaves in to see Big Anthony. He’s in an awful state, with numerous cuts over his body. Terrance then has him burned alive while the others watch. As the flames lick hungrily into the air, jovial music plays from the musicians. It’s a disgusting juxtaposition and one that’s incredibly difficult to watch.
That night, Cora slips out with Caesar. She’s seen enough and is going to leave. As they rush through the forest together, Lovey shows up and decides she’s coming with them. Caesar is not so sure this is a good idea but eventually reluctantly agrees.
As they begin their journey, night turns to day and numerous men come racing out and attack. With a knife in hand, Caesar and Cora manage to kill the men and slip away. This is obviously going to cause every white man to descend on them soon, armed with hounds and shotguns.
Lovey is lost, and they’re unable to go back for her now. Instead, the pair wade through swampy water in a bid to try and lose their scent. A water snake is nearby though, but the pair manage to continue on without too much trouble.
Eventually they make it across to their destination; a house sporting a red roof. Running together across the fields, they find themselves in a white man named Fletcher’s house. Interestingly, he’s one of the men Terrance spoke to at the house with Big Anthony.
With both Cora and Caesar likened to wanted fugitives, Fletcher agrees to show them their route and opens a trap-door descending down to the basement. It’s actually a passageway to the underground railroad, which stretches on for many miles. The steam train arrives at the station, prompting Fletcher to hand over the Gulliver’s Travels book to Caesar and send them both on their way.
The Episode Review
The Underground Railroad gets off to a fantastic start, delivering a harrowing and chilling account of life on the plantations. In a way, the show echoes the same shock factor as something like Roots, with the fantastical element of the underground railroad itself serving as a slightly different flavour of drama.
It works well too, and the abuse and suffering these men and women are forced to endure at the hands of Terrance is really difficult to watch.
In particular, the treatment of Big Anthony will likely draw audible gasps from many (including myself) and that whole sequence was absolutely harrowing. The decision to play jovial music against this too is a sick juxtaposition but one that works incredibly well in the context of this story.
Cora and Caesar’s journey has just begun but already The Underground Railroad oozes sophistication and a real eye for detail. The direction in this is nothing short of masterful and this looks like it could well be one of the best shows of the year. We’ll have to wait and see what the rest of the episodes have in store for us though!