Ethan Hawke delivers what might be the best small-screen performance of the year as John Brown in “Meet the Lord”, getting The Good Lord Bird off to a striking, complicated start.
This recap of The Good Lord Bird episode 1, “Meet the Lord”, contains spoilers.
2020 has been quite a year, terrifying in ways both predictable and not, but it has been a surprisingly great one for male actors in their mid-late 40s playing endlessly compelling and slightly deranged fellas in high-profile television shows. Just this weekend, Jude Law spent twelve straight hours digging graves, pulling boats, and being drowned for the pleasure of pagan gods, and now we can add Ethan Hawke’s noisy, expressive portrayal of John Brown to the list. Less than five minutes into “Meet the Lord”, the excellent premiere episode of Showtime’s The Good Lord Bird, Hawke rises from a barber’s chair and becomes large enough to consume the entire show in his spit-speckled half-trimmed whiskers. It’s a towering performance in every sense.
“My name is Osawatomie John Brown, captain of the Potawatomi Rifles, and I am here with the Lord’s blessing to free every coloured person in this territory.” It’s an introduction and a mission statement all in one; a wild declaration of intent for the infamous abolitionist who will eventually hang for leading the 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry. The Good Lord Bird, which was created by Hawke himself alongside Mark Richard and is adapted from James McBride’s award-winning novel, makes no secret of this fact – the first we see of Hawke he’s in the hangman’s noose as Henry, aka Henrietta, aka Little Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson), narrates how Brown was hung for being a traitor and tends to divide opinion, which is putting things rather mildly, as we’ll see.
It’s from Onion’s perspective that we see Hawke become John Brown; swallow his indignation, swell with his fanaticism, and belch the fire that’ll help ignite the Civil War. Onion spends almost the entirety of “Meet the Lord” in a dress having been misgendered by Brown but freed from enslavement nonetheless; he’s a fiction but stands for something quite real. “All of this is true,” reads an opening title card, “most of it happened.” The message is clearly that any artistic licence that has been taken is in service to a broader point. Hawke makes the point so loudly that you can’t miss it.
Onion falls into Brown’s care when his father is killed during the opening shootout in Dutch’s Tavern. He’s quickly taken under his wing and introduced to his four sons, John Jr. (Nick Eversman), Owen (Beau Knapp), Salmon (Ellar Coltrane), and the kindly, illiterate, and quite obviously intellectually challenged Frederick (Duke Davis Roberts), who introduces Onion to the titular black-and-white feathered Good Lord Bird and gradually to the concept of freedom, since it takes Onion a while to realize he hasn’t simply been transferred from one master to another. But being free isn’t easy, and neither is being an associate of Brown, whose convictions quickly make him an enemy of former ally Reverend Martin and indeed Dutch Henry himself, who Brown convinces himself he must kill as revenge for Onion’s father.
It’s this crusade that helps to remind us why Brown is a difficult historical figure to talk about and side with since he rightly considers slavery to be an infernal institution but also believes that justifies he and his men hacking the head from one of Dutch Henry’s associates for complicity – an act that neither Onion nor Brown’s sons seem particularly keen on. In fact, it sends Onion running, and on his travels, he meets the wildly charismatic Bob (Hubert Point-Du Jour), an enslaved man who nonetheless returns him to Brown. Before the battle against Dutch Henry is even properly underway, Brown becomes embroiled in another, this one with Captain Pate (Grainger Hines), who, as a hostage, Brown attempts to trade for two of his captured sons with Lieutenant J.E.B. Stuart (Wyatt Russell). But Brown believes that it’s okay to lie on the Bible to those who support slavery, which leads to more commotion, and within that commotion, Frederick is shot dead by the Reverend Martin.
That’s where “Meet the Lord” leaves things, which is perhaps just as well since that’s an awful lot to get through in just one episode. In truth, so much happens in such close proximity to everything else that it’s sometimes difficult to keep track of who’s fighting who, and sometimes even why, especially since Brown is so deliberately coy with his motivations and fluid with his justifications. But the constant is Hawke’s demented performance as Brown, which is equal parts terrifying and hysterical, full of wonderfully quotable lines – “Charge it to the lord, heathen!” – and sometimes bizarre, sometimes provocative ideas. It really is an amazing portrayal, and The Good Lord Bird fully supports him in his eccentricity. We’re to believe that this man is at once both disgusted at the injustices perpetrated by his country and yet so enduringly enamoured by its beauty that his final words as the bag goes over his head are in admiration of it. And somehow, we do. This show is quite something.
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