Episode 1 – | Review Score – 4.5/5
Episode 2 – | Review Score – 5/5
Episode 3 – | Review Score – 4/5
Episode 4 – | Review Score – 3.5/5
Episode 5 – | Review Score – 4/5
Episode 6 – | Review Score – 5/5
Episode 7 – | Review Score – 3.5/5
Episode 8 – | Review Score – 4/5
Episode 9 – | Review Score – 5/5
Episode 10 – | Review Score – 4/5
The Underground Railroad is not an easy watch. It’s a harrowing, heartbreaking and oftentimes poignant reminder of the horrors inherent with the slave trade.
With episodes clocking in at upwards of an hour, an abundance of long shots, dreamy fantastical segments and a raw, harsh, societal examination combine to make this a very unusual but very unique small screen treat.
For those unaware, The Underground Railroad is the brainchild of Barry Jenkins, the man responsible for bringing Oscar winning Moonlight to the big screen. Much like that picture, The Underground Railroad is a project oozing with symbolism and thought provoking themes.
All of this is wrapped up in a revisionary interpretation of the actual railroad from this time period. Here, the underground tunnels are reimagined as an actual working railroad, leading to various different hotspots and plantations across America.
At the center of this is young Cora, a woman bubbling with anger and devastation at the situation she’s found herself stuck in. Deep in the heart of Georgia, Cora works the cotton fields on a plantation, overseen by the cruel and sadistic Terrance Randall.
Eventually she has enough and, alongside friend Caesar, the two escape and set out to travel along the railroad. They intend to seek a safe refuge from the oppressive slave trade that threatens to gobble them up again at any moment.
As they set out on their journey, the pair are hunted mercilessly by a bounty hunter called Ridgeway, who’s joined by a young black boy called Homer who’s devoted to Ridgeway’s cause.
What ensues from here is essentially a long-form cat and mouse chase as Cora and Caesar try to evade their captors. Along the way Cora ends up in a variety of different states across the country, including Indiana, South Carolina and Tennessee.
Between these episodes are two interludes which – at first glance anyway – don’t seem to bring an awful lot to the table. However, it’s only upon watching the whole series do you realize the significance of them both.
The first sees a backstory for Ridgeway and his Father, a relationship that becomes integral to where the latter half of the episodes end up. Likewise, the episode titled Fanny Briggs sheds more light on another supporting character we encounter in the show. For spoiler purposes I won’t divulge that here, but suffice to say it’s a nice send-off for this person.
On paper, the story doesn’t have much originality beyond the light bites of fantasy involving the railroad. However, under the surface are kaleidoscopic layers of sophistication and depth that make this such an enthralling watch. Visual motifs and strong themes are explored constantly through this show, with the latter actually evolving and growing across the 10 episodes.
What begins with an examination of desperation and hopelessness soon grows into themes of control, empowerment and love. It’s such a natural progression too and the way Cora’s character grows and evolves across the season is nothing short of masterful. This is long-form storytelling done right.
Much like taking a long 10 mile hike across rolling hills, it’s only upon looking back at the journey you’ve taken do you realize what a long way you’ve come. The same can be said for this show.
Alongside these excellent themes is the musical score which is haunting and orchestrally perfect. The show does such a good job conveying the emotion and tone at any given moment, with memorable and recognizable motifs and musical stings throughout.
This is easily the best soundtrack of the year so far. Props to composer Nicholas Bitrell, and just like his work on Moonlight, the music here is pitch perfect.
As much as I love this show, I do understand a lot of the content here feels tailor-made for those who want to dive deeper and examine every scene and meticulously pick apart the show.
In that respect I can imagine critics will take to this a lot more fondly than the general public. It’s also worth bearing in mind that you need to suspend your disbelief a fair amount with some of the railroad elements. There’s no mention of exactly how the steam engines operate down underground, how they go there or a logical explanation over the timetables they keep.
There’s a fair amount of questions there that never really get answered (unless I missed something of course) but it’s ultimately Cora’s journey that’s the central focus. And what a journey she has.
The Underground Railroad is a well written, thought provoking and oftentimes harrowing journey across 18th century America. It’s a series that travels to some pretty unpleasant places and very rarely comes out with much positivity to show for it.
This artistic expression is undoubtedly unique though, borrowing concepts from Roots and Underground, blending them both together and creating one of the most harrowing miniseries of 2021. It won’t be for everyone but those who plunge in and take to the unique style will surely not be disappointed.