One glimpse at the paradoxical factions within today’s progressive movement conveys a timeless truth: People motivated toward similar goals don’t always follow linear paths. For every nonviolent Women’s March, there’s an anarchic anti-Trump counterprotest. One individual’s platform to orate from a podium is another’s opportunity to deface institutions in the name of insurrection. In “Nok Aaut,” we see duly divergent battle lines drawn within the broader, shared mission of abolitionists and runaway slaves.
Some characters, like Georgia and her sewing circle, choose to resist foremost with words and peaceful demonstrations while acquainting themselves with weaponry should push come to shove. But they’ve also allied themselves with John Brown’s boys from Kansas (led by the firebrand Lucas), who prefer to literally beat the bias out of bigots and backwards politicians. Elizabeth finds herself torn between ideologies, as the wounds of John’s assassination are too fresh to salve with speeches and signs. She’s riveted by Lucas’s noble vengeance — not to mention his five o’clock shadow and bedroom eyes. It confirms what she’d already determined on that bench across from the courthouse with Georgia a couple episodes back: The window for reasoning with unreasonable men has slammed shut. The only way forward is war.
Up north in Philadelphia, Cato has his own clean slate in mind. Of all Underground’s freed men and women and runaways, his focus is broadest and most volatile. He’s close in spirit to John Brown’s cultural bonfire, but stoked by hurt and rage and utter lack of sentiment for liberal or conservative America. He’s sent a chain of captured slaves north to Canada for a reason, the same reason why Harriet Tubman’s father and so many railroad passengers refused to stop until they cleared the border: They can’t feel truly liberated until they’re outside of the very nation that declared itself land of the free.
It’s also why Cato spent so many months abroad in Europe with his new sweetheart, Devi (Rana Roy). Though after a whirlwind courtship and engagement — including her introducing him to the underground sport of bare-knuckle boxing — Cato appears to realize that he’s still far from his own man, and that newfound wealth afforded an illusion of control and acceptance without any real closure. By the time he sits across from Noah at a bourgeoisie restaurant for an overdue tête-à-tête, Cato is hardened in the knowledge that “money can buy a lot of strong, powerful, armed friends,” though not a sense that you’re where you belong. The two exchange provocations over lunch and into the evening, getting personal — Noah about Cato’s wife and daughter and Cato, in turn, about Rosalee and the Macon 7 who didn’t make it. Of course, they also spar philosophically over what means justify the ends of freedom. It was inevitable that they’d eventually come to blows, just as the sewing circle’s rally was headed irreconcilably toward a melee. And though compelled through radically different circumstances, both Cato and Elizabeth find themselves bloodied and solidified in their cause.
After being booted from Cato’s manor, Noah finds himself delivered to William Still’s doorstep, a first sign that he and Rosalee are starting to circle the same orbit. (Rosalee, at present, is convalescing at the sewing circle’s HQ, having somehow crept her way through its network of tunnels.) Now that Noah’s had time to stop running, he’s tormented by the notion that Cato is right — that he’s selfish and anything but heroic, despite Mr. Still’s claims otherwise. “I wouldn’t change a thing,” Noah says with startling honesty about the lives lost from Georgia to this point, so long as he was still breathing and Rosalee was within reach.
He and so many others will be haunted by guilt and impossible choices, but William implores him to appreciate that by simply giving Moses, Henry, and the others a choice, he’d made them freer than they’d ever been. It’s enough to make you wonder whether Daniel — emboldened by his self-taught literacy, but leery of what knowledge will do to disenchant those unburdened by how small and cruel the world really is — will choose to lead others into revolt. Though with Kansas bleeding and the railroad snaking its way, a historic civil conflict may soon force their hand.
• “Nok Aaut” mostly takes a step back from Ernestine and Rosalee’s harrowing experiences, which is honestly a needed breather.
• It’s a revelation watching Alano Miller articulate what lies beneath the two sides of Cato’s face — one scarred and bitter, the other soft and loving.
• Also, Cato would have been a charming humorist in another life. How long could Noah’s beard grow next time?
• That was a nice swerve with Lucas’s fable about the man and his boy.
• As this episode reminds, gerrymandering has — in some form or fashion — been a menace for nearly 200 years.
• “Being treated less than is not an American invention,” Devi says. But as Cato knows, we sure have refined it.
• It’s great to see Chris Chalk, a.k.a. William Still, back onscreen. Another casting coup by this show.
• In some scenes, I admittedly still get lost as to what time and place this show’s taking place. Just me?
• Veteran actress Salli Richardson-Whitfield can now add Underground alongside Queen Sugar to her recent, growing directorial résumé.
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