Since its premiere last month, WGN America’s thrilling drama “Underground” has told the story of a group of slaves determined to escape from a Georgia plantation. On Wednesday, the show zeroed in on the youngest members of the cast, showing the added power that a series can have when it shifts its perspective.
The result was a particularly heartbreaking episode, titled “Cradle,” that explored the repercussions of being born into the institution of slavery. In a Twitter Q&A on Wednesday, one fan of the show asked creators Misha Green and Joe Pokaski what they would need to prepare for the episode. Green and Pokaski each held up a bottle of wine.
Telling the story through the eyes of children brings a jolt to the series, and slavery narratives in general, as children, both black and white, have a unique viewpoint that allows them to question the slavery system and struggle to process circumstances beyond their control.
One of the kids is James (Maceo Smedley, in a standout performance), a slave who spent his early childhood in the “the big house,” where he became close friends with the master’s son, T.R. (Toby Nichols). But at the beginning of the episode, he is sent out into the cotton fields for the first time.
James’s mother, Ernestine, and brother, Sam, get him ready for his first day on the fields — putting salve on his small hands to prevent calluses and reminding him not to show his emotions.
“You got to pretend everything OK, even when it ain’t,” Sam reminds him.
“I never had to do that with T.R., and he white,” James says.
James learns very quickly what is at stake. After a day of picking cotton until his hands are left bloody, he still hasn’t picked enough. At the last minute, Sam insists on swapping bags with his little brother and gets whipped for not making weight. The next day, James proudly makes weight with his own bag — a bittersweet moment for his mother and brother, who hoped in vain to protect him from a life that resembled their own.
Similarly, T.R.’s father starts to teach him the duties he will inherit when he’s the plantation master. T.R. tells James that his father told him they’re no longer allowed to see each other.
“He also said I’ll be in charge one day, which means I can do whatever I want. I can be whoever I want,” T.R. tells James. “When I’m in charge, I’ma make things different ’cause I can make things different, make em better.” James remains stone-faced, but his voice cracks a little: “You really think so?”
Both T.R. and James appear to recognize their naivete in this moment, and it’s gut-wrenching. Their friendship represented something pure — and colorblind. Previous episodes have hinted at the pair slowly coming to understand their divergent paths, but “Cradle” marks an official turning point: They realize that a slave cannot be friends with his master’s son.
Other “Cradle” story lines revolve around the children in the Macon 7, a group of runaways, including Boo (Darielle Stewart), a child who fled the plantation with her father, Moses, and later split off from the group, and Henry (Renwick Scott), a teenager who doesn’t know his parents and longs for a family of his own.
The episode also delves further into the story of slave catcher August Pullman (Christopher Meloni) and his son, Ben (Brady Permenter), who has struggled to understand his father’s job even as he has been taking on the same morally questionable work.
The episode is a testament to the acting talent of its young stars, but it also thrives on exploring the vulnerability of children coming to grips with the harsh reality of their existence. And by focusing on how children learn their roles, “Underground” shows how the whole system of slavery — and white supremacy, generally — can stay alive for generations.
“Underground” premiered last month to almost universally good reviews. The ratings have been strong as well — the series’s first episode drew 1.4 million viewers and set a record for WGN America with 3.5 million viewers total after delayed viewing.
There’s no word yet on whether the series will be renewed for a second season, although fans are hopeful and the producers seem optimistic. Green and Pokaski, who were asked to weigh in on news that Harriet Tubman will become the new face of the $20 bill, told Wall Street Journal reporter Paul Vigna that the abolitionist could factor into a possible second season.
“I don’t think you tell a story about the Underground Railroad without touching on its Superman,” Pokaski said on Twitter.