“Chapter 1: Georgia” embraces some aspects of traditional slave narratives only to free itself from them later — a blistering opening chapter.
This recap of The Underground Railroad episode 1, “Chapter 1: Georgia”, contains spoilers.
The premiere of Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of The Underground Railroad opens with such a perplexing, oddly powerful flurry of images — entrails in the dirt, bloodied hatchets, time running both forwards and in reverse — that to attempt to recap it seems fruitless. Just as the show overall seems to defy classification in the way it warps and subverts traditional slave narratives, the way it simply unfolds seems resistant to traditional criticism. Often throughout “Chapter 1: Georgia”, characters stop what they’re doing to stare directly at the camera. Often, too, flashes forwards, backwards, and sideways through time will occur without warning or clear intention. The episode runs over an hour, and throughout much of that time, it resembles a prettier version of many other films and shows set on or around a pre-Civil War plantation. But it never lets you believe that illusion for long.
Set mostly within that Georgia cotton plantation, The Underground Railroad episode 1 introduces us to a slave named Caesar (Aaron Pierre) who implores the show’s protagonist, Cora (Thuso Mbedu), to flee north with him. We’re to understand some things about both of them. Caesar was once free, and it’s implied he’s gay, though perhaps he simply refuses “to be bred like cattle” before the watchful eye of his sadistic master, Terrance Randall (Benjamin Walker). Cora feels attached to the plantation she was born on and the people she’d be leaving behind if she fled, even if her mother, Mabel, left years ago, leaving her daughter behind. The disappearance of Mabel is a failure that haunts slave catcher Ridgeway (a drawling, whiskey-soaked Joel Edgerton), whose associate, Homer, is a young Black boy. We meet the pair of them, too, and understand, even before Cora and Caesar flee, that they’ll be their pursuers, almost mythical figures following their route on a railroad made literal by Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning source material.
Cora and Caeser don’t make it out until the very end of “Chapter 1: Georgia”, and it takes a great deal of suffering for Cora to decide to join him. She herself is flogged. An escapee named Big Anthony (Elijah Everett) is brought back by Ridgeway to be whipped and burned alive as an example, while moneyed white men and women merrily eat, drink, and dance in the flickering light of the flames. It is a brutal stretch of nonetheless exquisite filmmaking, an introduction not just to the sadism of men like Randall and Ridgeway but to the ideologies that they use to justify their brutality; an objection by one Mr. Churchill (Mark Ashworth), who is struggling to enjoy his dinner while the flesh is being torn from a man’s bones just behind him, is met by a long explanation from Randall of the vast differences between a man and a n*gger.
There’s no wonder, then, that Caesar and Cora decide to leave, in a tense sequence that finds them roaming the quiet fields with an attention-grabbing tag-along named Lovey (Zsane Jhe) who almost gets all of them captured. Cora separates one of her attackers from his consciousness with a hatchet, and a little later, Caesar’s contact on the railroad, Fletcher (Sean Bridgers), informs her that he might never wake up. The Underground Railroad episode 1 ends, then, not just with Caesar and Cora boarding a train that’ll take them away, but with countless angry white men behind them who’ll surely follow. Freedom remains a long way away.