“A Wicked Plot” sidelines John Brown to hone in on Onion’s predicament as he learns the hard way that not taking a side isn’t an option.
This recap of The Good Lord Bird Season 1 Episode 2, “A Wicked Plot”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
The first thing you notice about The Good Lord Bird episode 2, “A Wicked Plot”, is that Ethan Hawke’s John Brown isn’t in it. Not at first, anyway. About forty minutes into a forty-five-minute episode he finally arrives, bringing all the intensity and eccentricity of the premiere with him. It’s a reminder of what an amazing presence Hawke is in this show, and of what an odd show it can be when he is present. But it’s also a reminder of how some parts of Onion’s story, and the stories of the people, enslaved and otherwise, that he meets, work better without him.
Brown’s arrival shifts the tone from escalating horror to absurdist comedy. It’s a sharp transition. He grips Onion in the middle of a shootout and interrogates him about his recent activities in Brown’s absence. Have they been godly? Has he co-mingled with anyone in a fleshly way? Has he been reading the bible at all? He barks at his sons to supply the relevant scripture while they’re under fire. It’s enough to make you forget that just a few minutes prior Onion – and by extension, the audience – had watched an enslaved woman be hung from a gallows the slaves themselves had built.
Moments later, Brown splatters a redshirt, Chase (Steve Zahn), with a cannon. It’s a bloody and outlandish bit of catharsis, mostly in service of a joke that Onion then cracks about the division of Chase’s body mimicking that of the country. With Brown, even the violence is ridiculous. But for most of “A Wicked Plot”, which is set almost entirely at the Pikesville Hotel, there’s nothing ridiculous about the enslaved people confined to pens, or the w****s who’ll sacrifice them and eventually herself for a jangling bag of change, or the preacher who swears off preaching after one public conversation exposes his hypocrisy. There are precious few jokes to be made about all of that.
The Good Lord Bird understands this about itself. It knows when to cast Brown as a liberator or a madman; when to hone in on those he cannot save rather than those he’s able to. In Brown’s absence, Onion is forced to navigate a world much less black-and-white than the one Brown sees. He meets people who can’t simply be divided by their skin color or their politics. He is forced to save himself by risking others, and in a way to betray himself by leveraging his own slight privilege. “A Wicked Plot” draws plenty of attention to Onion’s lighter skin. When he’s first accosted by Chase, he pretends to own the darker-skinned Bob, and it’s that ruse – refusing to listen when Bob informs him that “trimming” doesn’t always mean cutting hair – that lands them both in Pikesville.
Shortly after that arrival, Onion falls in with Pie (Natasha Marc), a beautiful but self-serving prostitute who he’s immediately entranced by. When she discovers that Onion is in fact male, she agrees to keep his secret if he teaches her to read and write. This, like the bag of money under her bed, is part of what one assumes is an eventual escape plan. But the life Pie wants to escape from is a great deal better than that of the enslaved people she’s willing to sacrifice in order to preserve it. And if the slaves revolt, her cushy circumstances will go down in flames with the rest of the Pikesville Hotel.
Onion doesn’t immediately grasp these stakes. He recognizes he has some power in being light-skinned, in pretending to be a girl, in having literacy skills that he can barter with. But he doesn’t realize that he can’t offer those skills to everyone when their goals are ultimately at odds. Sibonia (Crystal Lee Brown), one of the pen slaves who pretends to be “feeble-minded” so as to better scheme against her oppressors, wants Onion to write a message for her, and Onion revealing this information to Pie leads to Pie, in turn, revealing the information of the revolt plot. Onion mistakenly believed that all people of color with united in a shared purpose, the way Brown was single-minded in his quest to free all people of color. But it isn’t that simple, and in learning this lesson, Onion has to witness Sibonia pay its price.
But she doesn’t go down without a fight. Her trial would have condemned her whatever she said, and she knows that, so instead of remaining silent she turns the tables on the white folk who expected her to be cowed and fearful. She accepts blame gladly. She is forthright about how she would have butchered the town’s residents in her escape – she wouldn’t have felt good about doing it, but she would have done it. By speaking with strength and intelligence she challenges the misconception that enslaved people are ignorant and uncivilized and uncultured. She redirects the local preacher’s all-too-convenient verses back at him, insisting that it was he and his wife who told her that, in the eyes of God, they’re all equal. When he prays for her, he also prays for the white man, just in case they’re wrong. He knows at that moment that they are. And he’s getting a head start on his salvation.
Sibonia hangs for her crimes. But Onion sees she had committed no crime at all beyond desiring freedom that was taken from her, and he sees his own responsibility in her death. It only took keeping his head down for him to see that not choosing a side is impossible. After waiting for an entire episode for Brown to arrive, nobody is happier to see him than Onion. He might be nuttier than a squirrel’s turd, by Onion’s own admission, but at that moment, he was glad of it. I doubt we’ll see him be so indecisive again.
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