“Smells Like Bear” is a small-scale TV masterclass led by a virtuosic performance from Ethan Hawke.
This recap of The Good Lord Bird episode 4, “Smells Like Bear”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
All throughout The Good Lord Bird, there has been a contradiction. On the one hand, there is John Brown, nutcase abolitionist with a direct line to the voice of God, whose only instruction seems to be dismantling the infernal institution of slavery by any means necessary. On the other hand, there’s Onion, a fiction, a former slave whom Brown has ostensibly freed but who has nonetheless seen more violence, cold, and starvation since then than he ever did as a slave. “Smells Like Bear” addresses this contradiction directly; that the white man, even in all his good intentions, can’t ever speak of Black pain.
The problem is that all Brown wants to do is speak. He and Onion are travelling across America speechifying for donations, and a part of encouraging well-to-do white folks to part with their money is to use Onion as a prop, an example of Black people being starved and deprived in chains, despite the fact that Onion experienced none of that during his enslavement. Brown doesn’t recognize what he’s doing here, or at least doesn’t recognize what’s harmful about it. After a calamitous stop in Pennsylvania, where Hugh Forbes cons Brown out of $1700 that he was all too eager to hand over, they arrive in Canada, where Onion could be legitimately free and chooses instead to be, essentially, Brown’s assistant.
There’s no wonder Onion gets annoyed about this. And there’s no surprise how well the show works when he does, when Brown’s ideology is challenged in this way; he’s unequivocally on the side of moral good, but he’s driven by genuinely unhinged devotion to a deity. He is genuinely sympathetic to the abolitionist cause, genuinely furious at the pro-slavers and the government’s endorsement of them, but his crusade is, at least in part, self-serving. In many ways it’s a coping mechanism, a way to handle the grief he has experienced in his own family, and he’s so singularly driven that he doesn’t recognize the grief he is causing Onion by dragging him along with him, exploiting his Black skin.
This is all articulated better in “Smells Like Bear” that it has been anywhere else. It’s written with an overflow of humanity and performed, especially by Hawke, with incredible finesse. The scene depicting this crucial speech goes on for ages, and it escalates the whole time, constantly chambering a new verbal zinger to be creatively fired by this fierce orator, the heads of free Black men excitedly nodding in agreement. It’s as much a rallying cry for the audience as it is for them, a call to arms vouched for by none other than Harriet Tubman (Zainab Jah). For the first time, Brown’s campaign is being endorsed by the people for whom he has always claimed to speak but historically failed to radicalise. For the first time, he recognizes his charisma isn’t the only weapon these people need.
Hence the plan to raid the armoury at Harper’s Ferry, flee into the mountains and arm the enslaved people with pilfered guns. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of history will know that this doesn’t go as well as Brown and Tubman think it can, but anyone watching this episode can see why one would be committed to it.
Anyone watching this episode would also be hard pressed to deny the sheer quality of it, both in terms of writing and how every scene is staged to maximise each joke, irony, and point being made, either obviously or by proxy, to the extent that almost every scene is layered with rich details you might only catch on a second pass. The inevitability of Brown’s failure isn’t a dramatic device so much as a long-form gag, an underscoring of all the show’s points about his brazen commitment to a cause he’s maybe too insane to contend with properly.
This recap of The Good Lord Bird episode 4, “Smells Like Bear”. For more recaps, reviews, and original features covering the world of entertainment, why not follow us on Twitter and like our Facebook page?
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.