“Jesus Is Walkin'” is a comedy of errors as John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry never even has the chance to get going.
This recap of The Good Lord Bird episode 6, “Jesus Is Walkin'”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
The secret weapon of The Good Lord Bird has always been that we know how it ends. At various times throughout the stellar first season, the inevitability of John Brown’s failure has been the punchline to jokes, the building blocks of suspense, and the ironic inversion of most dramatic narratives that position victory at the end of a long, winding road. Here in the penultimate episode, “Jesus Is Walkin’”, the fact that Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry resulted not in the emancipation of America’s enslaved people but Brown’s own death is played as an eccentric, deeply felt tragedy, a ticking clock morbidly sweeping Brown’s precious remaining minutes away.
We’re to understand, I think, that despite Brown losing this battle, he ultimately won the war. None of the show’s characters should know this, and they do a great job of pretending they don’t, but it’s baked into the story’s firmament. We know that, ultimately, abolition occurs, that the fight takes much longer than planned but ultimately results in a victory for moral good. At several points this week, Brown or his modest ragtag army or both are considered mad, and indeed they exhibit all the symptoms, but the show’s brilliance is, among other things, that we know their deeply unpopular belief that slavery should be abolished is as sane as it gets.
But a reasonable viewpoint that everyone – almost, anyway – in “Jesus Is Walkin’” seems to share is that Brown isn’t going to make it. “You fighting for the coloreds?” a man asks him at one point. “It’s about time somebody did. We’ll bring flowers to your funeral.” The cause is seen as worthwhile by some, illogical by others, and impossible by all. The sense is that only a man as verifiably crazy as Brown would believe otherwise, but also that his fanaticism, while it also in part led to his failure, was directly responsible for what his fight did manage to accomplish. He was bonkers, and because he was bonkers, the world is a better place.
The Good Lord Bird has always played up Brown’s eccentricities for laughs. Ethan Hawke has doubled down on that aspect more than any other, delivering a thoroughly, brilliantly demented performance throughout, and he turns it up a notch here, even after seeming to play as broad as it was possible to before. What’s clever about this episode is that his Shakespearean grandiosity and nutcase illogicality aren’t just throwaway gags, but one Jenga block after another being raggedly pulled from his plan. It begins when Onion is too late on delivering the titular password, which isn’t strictly Brown’s fault but results in the death of the Railman and a train full of potential Black soldiers being spirited away. But it continues all the way through, with little jokes at Brown’s idiocy, such as his willingness to release hostages based solely on their claims that they can cook his army breakfast.
The whole thing is a joke in itself, really, at least until it isn’t. “Jesus Is Walkin’” doesn’t reimagine Harpers Ferry as a pitched battle but as a battle that barely even got going, with Brown and his men spending most of their time hiding in the armory and bellowing things through the door. Even the admission that Jason mistakenly shot the Railman, making the first casualty of the fight for emancipation a Black man, is played as a kind of aw-shucks admission of two children to a parent they’re terrified of. But there’s no reason to be terrified of Brown, really, which is ultimately what makes his so-called raid so ridiculous. He cares so much about the lives of his hostages, and especially the life of Onion, that he can’t even begin to launch what might resemble a legitimate attack.
The extent of his counters to being surrounded and trapped in the armory is sending John Jr. to hold the bridge over the Potomac, their only escape route, while Cook, Onion, and Bob go to recruit more fighters from Colonel Lewis Washington’s house, leading to a welcome reunion with Coachman Jim, now thoroughly emboldened, and his pathetic, weak-chinned “master”. In any other show, the arrival of the Coachman and Washington at the Harpers Ferry armory would be the moment when things started to go the way of the heroes, but not in this one. It’s only the moment where negotiations break down and things get even worse. It all ends with another of Brown’s sons dying in his arms as he weeps at the injustice of it all. “Die like a man,” he instructs him, while repeatedly kissing his forehead. And he does. Thank goodness we know what for.
Thanks for reading our recap of The Good Lord Bird episode 6, “Jesus Is Walkin'”. For more recaps, reviews, and original features covering the world of entertainment, why not follow us on Twitter and like our Facebook page?