Tennessee – Exodus
Episode 5 of Underground Railroad begins with Ridgeway leading Cora and Jasper through the burned forests of Tennessee. On the way Jasper sings to calm his nerves but he’s not eating. Cora worries that he may not make it but remains quiet for now, looking for a way to escape.
It turns out Ridgeway finding her was just dumb luck. He never intended to stumble upon the girl but he does comment how he would have found her “before the trail ran cold.” Whether that’s really true however, we’ll never know.
Terrance Randall is not a forgiving man though and Ridgeway warns Cora of the horrific fate that awaits her upon returning. In fact, Lovey was badly hurt, pierced through the ribcage and left to rot. 2 days later and she’s still alive. It’s enough to churn the stomach – and for Cora to plot her escape.
Cora bides her time and manages to break free from her binds. At least those attached to the wagon anyway. She scrambles away but the chains are just too heavy and she’s eventually stopped by Boseman and Ridgeway. They tie her back down and force Cora back to the wagon.
Eventually Ridgeway loses control. Boseman doubts the Great Spirit and begins to turn on the hunter. Unwilling to hear anymore, he shoots the man in the stomach, leaving him and Homer alone with these two prisoners.
That night, Cora gives an impassioned prayer to those she’s lost along the way, including Caesar and Lovey. This is enough for Jasper to snap out his entranced state and talk. He was a picker in Tennessee but was caught taking from the pantry. “We’re crawling in a bowl of ashes” He tells her, as he questions her resolve and heading back to a bloody homecoming.
Well, the wagon gets moving again but it eventually comes to a stop when Ridgeway finds an abandoned camp, complete with residents plagued with yellow fever.
There’s a really interesting conversation in here too, with Ridgeway talking about Homer and how he came to be with him. According to Ridgeway he was taken to this child like a moth drawn to light. Them talking is just enough of a distraction for Jasper to slip away and begin praying in a tent.
Jasper seems to sense something about Ridgeway’s past. When the hunter catches up, Jasper stares a hole through him and tells the bounty hunter, “He gon’ look at you and see what you done.” This is, of course, in reference to Ridgeway Senior and it catches the man off-guard.
With no Boseman around, Ridgeway gives more responsibility to Homer, giving him a set of keys. It’s clear our hunter is starting to lose control though, muttering to himself and lashing out against his two prisoners. Homer and Ridgeway head down to a stream where they find a raccoon. Laughing together, they take their eye off the ball as Cora seizes the opportunity to run.
With no Jasper in sight and chains still rattling against her flesh, Cora faces the water and takes the plunge. Ridgeway is there though and he pulls her to safety.
While Cora is still alive, Jasper is declared dead. Unfortunately, Ridgeway punishes Cora by chaining her to Jasper’s dead body. It’s a horrific, torturous ordeal and one that sees Ridgeway mock her every cry.
In the morning she’s unchained from Jasper and watched by both men like a hawk. Leaving Jasper’s body behind, a docile Cora rides in the back as the pair leave the horrid, charred hell of these Tennessee forests behind.
The Episode Review
The Underground Railroad changes tone slightly, adding a more uneasy, maniacal dread clinging to the recesses of this episode. The charred, hellish landscape of the burned Tennessee works perfectly to encapsulate the mood shift in this series and really lean into the character-driven side of this piece.
Ridgeway in particular, off the back of the previous flashback sequence, now starts to lose control. It’s not until he shows his crazed side at the end that Cora is forced into submission.
The abundance of long shots here only reinforces the long journey these characters are taking – and continue to take. This also allows for a lot to be said through very little dialogue. It’s this classic show-don’t-tell storytelling that makes this episode so effective. Each of the various different campfires act as another chapter in the journey, with the stories told therein speaking volumes about the attitudes and values of our different players.
There’s a much deeper level to a lot of the material here and the juxtaposition of prisoners and slaves alongside little Homer is an ingenious move and one that’s tinged with a bitter taste of irony. He too is a slave in many ways, and he made a choice long ago to align with the devils rather than succumb to their wrath.
With Cora inching ever closer to the hell that awaits her, will she ever be free?