There must be something about Johnny Ray Gill that screams, “I can come back from the dead!” to casting agents. Not that his meaty roles as an executed death-row inmate in Rectify or a lynched slave in Underground are the stuff of everyday character actors. In “Ache,” Gill flips a different switch than we’d seen by way of Rectify’s introspective Kerwin or even the first season of Underground’s dutiful Sam. Reappearing as one of Ernestine’s drug-induced hallucinations, the sacrificial son taunts and eviscerates his mother for believing that romancing their master would keep them safe. He is Ernestine’s mirror in that moment, but also a foreshadow of her full-throated repudiation of new master Matthew, who’s flabbergasted when her teasing vocal performance transforms into a howling hymnal, punctuated with hysterical laughter.
The scene and its implications likewise defy viewers’ expectations. Ernestine is high at Matthew’s house, but also elegantly appointed and seemingly in control. Even as she growls and stomps, you root for her defiance. As she spins out into a more obvious madness, a hopelessness returns, and the cycle she’s created resets when a drunken Hicks hits her violently before weeping and thrusting himself on top of her. Visions of those Ernestine lost, coupled with flashbacks to childhood lessons in holding her own (hello, Angela Bassett!) and the brutal death of her husband, French, offer insight into both her trauma and resolve. And Amirah Vann is devastating throughout, aided by episode director Anthony Hemingway, who makes room for Vann to harness all that pain and shake us into the present after immersing us in Ernestine’s past. We leave her somewhere in between prologue and what’s ahead, having undergone a near-death experience in the waters offshore from the sacred tree.
The cuts back and forth between Ernestine’s resurrection and Rosalee’s struggle aren’t subtle in suggesting a psychic survival connection between the two. These closing images second Donahue’s invoking that “the negro woman has an almost supernatural ability to bear pain,” but they also transcend and humanize what’s ultimately a gross objectification. Donahue means well, naturally, and even tosses Rosalee his canteen upon discovering her in a deteriorated state in the woods. But he also shuffles off back to Patty, both to keep her off Rosalee’s trail and beg off more intimate involvement in her escape. Donahue, like Matthew and so many other white men in Underground — and, one could argue, à la many such men in the present day — first have to determine whether to blaze a path forward or cling to their cultural cronyism.
If much of the hour’s titular ache belonged to Ernestine, then Rosalee experienced its visceral horrors foremost. With Patty and her clan (or, if you prefer, klan) hot on the chase, our “Black Rose” must plug up her own wounds, scavenge for food, fight off leeches, and sense her way through temporary deafness (shooting off a pistol inches from your ear to scar over pierced flesh will do that) while evading and eventually grappling with Jack the bounty hunter.
This is Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Kill Bill episode, aptly capped with her literal emergence from underground, where she’d been laying low while Patty and the boys buried Jack’s sorry corpse. Hemingway spared no jarring effect to drive home Rosalee’s improbable journey, but Smollett-Bell — who was very much pregnant during filming — expresses a remarkable protective instinct in summoning her character’s will to live. What’s bittersweet is that Rosalee’s baby has already absorbed so much hardship before coming into the world, a kind of inborn trauma that untold descendants of slaves have inherited, and that’s still swept under the rug by Americans who’d rather avoid confronting our nation’s original sin.
Daniel, who once again appears in the opening moments, is adamant about dictating his family’s legacy from here on out. He reads the words of Sojourner Truth to his daughter, instilling a message of empowerment that’s in contrast to the unflinching truths Ernestine heard as a girl with no good options of how to survive. Daniel will be a force if and when he crosses paths with Noah or Rosalee, but it’s his daughter who has the potential to be not merely a survivor but an agent of change. Tragically, the same thing could have been said of Clara’s son or daughter too. Rosalee, however, is crystal clear about what the child inside her represents — and she’s dead set on passing down a legacy of how to fight.
• With August, now it’s personal.
• Awesome to hear the underappreciated Alice Smith version of “Back to Black.”
• Ernestine’s breakdown is a wrenching bookend to her and young Rosalee jumping joyfully on the Macons’ sheets.
• Interesting that Patty Cannon was already a nightmarish legend when Rosalee was a child.
• Matthew’s friend Errol is a real dick, huh?
• Between what Clara endured and Ernestine hallucinated, “Ache” offers plenty of food for thought on historical and contemporary “slut-shaming.”
• And how twisted is it that only Patty gets to own her sexuality?
• Harriet Tubman, like the story she tells of her father in this episode, did actually settle in Canada for a time after escaping.
• Is Hicks Patty’s man with the banjo?
• Rosalee’s quest to survive and protect her baby also reminded me of this.
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