Review of the Underground Railroad Chapter 2: South Carolina

A Black man and woman dance together
Thuso Mbedu as CORA and Aaron Pierre as Caesar

For viewers who felt undone by the violence of the first episode of The Underground Railroad, episode 2 provides a small degree of relief. The events that occur are just as unsettling mentally, if not worse, but the events are relatively free from physical violence and take a look at a more subtle form of racism and oppression: the stripping away of a person's identity and culture. This episode begins as Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) examines the slave quarters to see if he can find evidence of where Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and Caesar (Aaron Pierre) have run off to.

Indeed, Cora and Caesar have taken up residence at a place called Griffin, South Carolina, a city of progress, with skyscrapers looming over the sidewalks. People of color are free to walk on the same streets as the white people. All seems harmonious and a big improvement over life on the plantation. But there are a few red flags. For one thing, Cora and Caesar take on assumed names and now go by "Bessie" and "Christian." While the name change might be due to the pair needing to hide that they are runaways, the names seem very bland and white; did their new hosts insist the names be picked from a particular list? In addition, the clothing and hairstyle everyone wears seem like carbon copies of the way the white residents look. The unspoken rule seems to be that everyone must adopt the white fashions, erasing all sense of Black culture.

A Black boy and white man sit at a bar together
[L-R] Chase Dillon as HOMER and Joel Edgerton as RIDGEWAY

The bigger red flag comes in the form of vocational opportunities. Men work as hard as slaves, supervised by white overseers. While Caesar can read, he is assigned back breaking labor instead of a job that recognizes his abilities. No one considered his educational status and just assigned him to an uneducated task. Cora, for her part, works in a bizarre museum, where white residents bring their children to learn what it was like on a slave plantation, as if this were some relic of the past. The story of the Black slave is interpreted through white eyes, too. While Cora is longer a slave like before, she must act the role as one. There are window displays where actors pick cotton and even a slavemaster who carries a whip. During one disturbing moment, Cora overhears the supervisor explaining to a new trainee how to handle the whip more enthusiastically to get into the role, cracking the whip as he yells verbal abuses. The PTSD on Cora's face shows the toll this job has.

But there are moments of light. Cora and Caesar dream that this might be a new life for them. Cora's yellow dress shows the optimism she feels, and the music dances and lilts, revealing the hope in Cora's heart. The track "Bessie" can be found at the bottom of this review. South Carolina seems like a dream, and the music and costumes in this episode bring that out perfectly.

A black man and a white man stand together
[L-R] Aaron Pierre as CAESAR and Will Poulter as SAM 

Things seem like they take a turn for the better when Caesar's abilities to read and write are noticed by Dr. Campbell (Scott Poythress) who hires Caesar on the spot to help him with a special project. It's in the doctor's employ that Caesar becomes aware of the truth about Griffin. At the same time Cora learns what happens to the women of the quarter. The trek to South Carolina parallels many of the horrors that took place in 1850s America, mimicking medical experiments done on members of the African American community.

Meanwhile Ridgeway continues to hunt for the pair, accompanied by Homer (Chase Dillon). Homer is one of the more intriguing characters of the show -- a Black boy that Ridgeway seems to value despite his race. In the first episode, Homer often looks upon the activities done by slavemasters and the atrocities done to enslaved people with a cryptic look on his face. I can only assume we will learn more about Homer. It's not clear what Homer thinks about slavery. When he witnesses people that look like him being beaten or treated like animals, does he identify with them or see himself as separate? Homer is the privileged pet of a slavecatcher who does his job with great zeal. Does this Stockholm-esque relationship have a psychological toll on young Homer? Only time will tell.

Will Poulter shows up as Sam, the stationmaster of Griffin Place. Mbedu continues to shine in her roles. She has a way of capturing so much fear, even in stillness. And the sound design during these moments captures the fugue state she goes into sometimes when she gets clues that things aren't as good as they seem. This episode leaves Cora and Caesar in a very dire state. Where will they end up next?

Overall thoughts: This episode has a lovely production value, with gorgeous costumes, set pieces, and jewel-toned colors that really pop on the screen. The song choices were inspired, from the Bessie track attached to the operatic music in the interlude after the dance. The storytelling continues to build and give us more to consider about Cora, Ridgeway, Homer, and Caesar.  

Scenes to watch for: Cora and Caesar dancing, Homer before he enters the museum, Cora watching the whip reenactment.

Release info: Watch on Prime Video