By Abbey White
From pop-up procedural extras to galactic ‘Big Bads’, one thing TV has never been short on is black villains. I mulled over the implications of this during Underground’s first season and found myself coming back to it as I re-watched in anticipation of season two’s March 8th premier. The truth of Underground—WGN’s gripping and subversive take on the underground railroad—is that it’s unapologetically black at a time when America is unapologetically anti-black. I assumed a creative work so steeped in the black identity would want to free itself of the trope chains of black villainy, but as I discovered, Underground didn’t. Instead, it proved, and will hopefully continue to prove in season two, why in a narrative so rife with complex and conflicted black heroes, it needs its black villains to be the same.
Several of the series’ antagonists match common character archetypes. They aren’t all inherently discriminatory, but that didn’t stop me from recoiling at the thought of distressed, enslaved black people being framed as revenge-driven, amoral murderers. And while I’m fully aware that my expectation of zero bad (black) people is unrealistic, there are tangible consequences to having so few casting calls for black heroes like The Flash’s Wally West amid the flood of calls for black “thugs,” or in Underground’s case, uncle toms.
In fact, not only do negative representations create a negative understanding of self in black Americans, but antagonism towards them from white Americans. Blacks in America are 2.5 times more likely to be shot and killed by police officers than whites, while of the 4,216 hate crime victims targeted based on race/ethnicity/ancestry, around 52 percent were attacked as a result of “anti-black or African American bias.” In a country that once proclaimed to be “post-racial,” black people have been disproportionately targeted. What’s even worse, many have blamed the victims for their deaths, their killing chalked up to being a result of their innate aggression or wrongdoing. It’s that rhetoric, as well as data and news reports surrounding the killings of people like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Alton Sterling, that tell us it’s not farfetched to believe that some of those deaths happen as a result of racist stereotypes. Black people are dying under the guise of being “bad guys,” innately villainous.
The stereotype that blacks are an oppositional force that needs to be handled is a perception rooted in slavery, the very era Underground is entrenched in. It’s a dangerous notion that encourages thinking of an entire race as something to be dealt with, not people with motivations, emotions, and morals. An inability to obey should lead to the non-person being expelled or defeated. And whether it was a conscious or unconscious effort, Underground tackled these conceptions through its black heroes, but more importantly, its villains during the first season.
The series main black antagonist, Cato, addressed it as early as his first line. With Noah—one-half of the series’ heroic duo—on his knees, brandishing iron inches from his face, the smug-faced overseer Cato sneers, “It only takes one bad n***** to spoil them all.” It’s a disturbing scene that positions Cato as an abrasive, venomous villain, one who views the ideas of free will and autonomous thinking among black people as a threat to the social hierarchy. The hierarchy doesn’t absolve him, but certainly puts Cato one step above Noah. Once the viewer acknowledges that the man saying it so closely resembles the man it’s being wielded against, however, the intricate house of cards Underground built in part through its black villains suddenly becomes very clear.
“One bad n*****” directly references Noah’s actions and Cato’s embracing of suppressor mentality. But both characters’ season-long arcs see them, again and again, make the hard choice, ultimately defying our expectations of who the “bad” man is. Dramatic context and cultural racism frame Noah as the bad guy for daring to dissent, but viewer morality sees Cato as the true antagonist. In the heart-racing introduction to both characters, Noah is being threatened for planting the seeds of revolution. Really, he’s being punished for fighting for his inalienable rights. Meanwhile, Cato is retaliating against a man who acknowledges he’s settling for scraps of his own humanity.
Through this interaction, Underground establishes who it wants us to believe are the bad guys before systematically unraveling that assumption. In the case of these two men, we eventually uncover that Cato was once as fervent about freedom as Noah. Not soon after, we watch Cato make Noah’s freedom run possible. When faced with whether to punish several slaves, the overseer instead sets fire to the plantation, giving them all time to flee. The show then flips the script in the latter half of the season with Noah, when they are yet again faced with the prospect of freedom. As Cato hangs by his ankles, the slave catchers literally on their heels, Noah must choose whether to help the wounded Cato or continue his run. Noah, who has worked so hard to fight and protect his fellow runners, leaves Cato to die.
Underground hammers down on this affecting twist in one of Rose and Noah’s final moments of the season. Lying in his arms, Rose chokes out, “The things we done to get here. Ain’t neither one of us come out clean on the other side of that river.” Rose is right in that even the series’ protagonists have betrayed the notion of the perfect hero. Noah’s response, though, highlights why the show’s specific approach to character development—particularly antagonist development—is so important, and how a centuries old fight is still resonant today.
“It’s cause we just tryin’ to survive,” Noah says. “Freedom, it got to mean more than that, it got to be more than that. It ain’t about if we deserve it. It’s ours. They keep killing us so we forget that.”
Ultimately Noah’s line alludes to Cato’s own acceptance and Noah’s understanding of moral context. It’s a reference to Rose’s mother, Ernestine, and her choice to kill a friend to protect her own daughter as we watched in solemn horror. It happens again, with her decision to kill her master and the father of her children, as we watched in grim satisfaction. It’s about Josey, a man desperate to hold someone accountable for the sale of his wife. His desperation means he willingly accepts the consequences of murdering a white man. It’s about all the black people who died for and killed each other, and the show’s refusal to minimize a single act by casting it through a lens of judgment or guilt. It’s an entire show saying that black people’s goodness doesn’t rest in the eyes of a white moral consciousness.
That line reveals the true battle Underground’s characters faced, and will more than likely face again. Cato, Noah, Rose, Ernestine, and the rest of this series’ affecting cast of “heroes and villains” are survivors not of the worst kind, but of the only kind. They are guilty, heavy and human in a world that forces their hand. They play the power game because playing means choosing life, and that means making not just questionable, but unforgivable decisions in the name of survival.
In our small screen stories, villains’ motivations aren’t treated as equal to that of our heroes’, especially black ones. But unlike other shows, Underground has succeeded in its effective cultural commentary through its compelling narrative; collection of complex, groundbreaking characters; and providing all black people an agency they have long been denied. These characters are not just overseers, housemaids, runners, or traitors to their own. They are people who represent the line black people still walk, of whether to concede or defy to stay alive.
Although the series asks for you to look past preconceived notions about who these characters are, it doesn’t ask for your empathy. Through its characters and their struggles, and by its bold refusal to make this story about anything other than the complexity of black people, Underground demands it. This applies to its heroes and its villains. Most of all, it demands empathy for all the black people we label as “bad,” and the constant expectation that they must be “good,” even in the face of violent oppression, in order to deserve their humanity.
Underground airs Wednesdays at 10/9C on WGN America.