“Chapter 3: North Carolina” only puts Cora in a worse predicament than the one she just escaped.
This recap of The Underground Railroad episode 3, “Chapter 3: North Carolina”, contains spoilers.
“You’re a long way from Georgia,” says Ellis to Cora as he leaves her alone in one of the Underground Railroad’s tunnels, “You must be made of tough stuff.” Indeed. But will that do as a justification for the system of salvation leaving her alone to fend for herself after discovering that the last haven they dropped her off at proved to be just as dangerous as the Georgia cotton plantation she fled from? Cora has scarcely met the nearest station agent, Martin (Damon Herriman), before she’s told that the station is closed and he isn’t accepting any more passengers. Her insistence that he’s duty-bound to aid her motivates him to give her passage, but his remark that she should have stayed in Griffin only reads as ominous given what happened there. She insists on going with Martin rather than remaining alone in the tunnels; he reiterates that while he won’t be her master, she will need to obey him, which isn’t much different.
The Freedom Trail, a stretch of road flanked by trees from which dead Black men and women hang, is a warning that North Carolina, in stark contrast to its more southerly equivalent, has completely outlawed Black people, slaves and otherwise. The Underground Railroad episode 3 is careful to linger on this horrific visual, bodies swaying in the night.
The tension in “Chapter 3: North Carolina” is palpable, since there isn’t even the illusion of sanctuary here. Martin’s wife, Ethel (Lily Rabe), declares, “You just got us all killed,” when she discovers Cora in their home. She’s to stay in a crawlspace above the attic, accessible only through a false ceiling built by Martin’s father. Up there, Grace (Mychal-Bella Bowman), a young girl who has been occupying those stooped quarters for months, tells Cora where the chamber pot is and which floorboards are dangerously creaky.
Ethel, who sleeps in a single bed and not with her husband, calls Cora downstairs to reluctantly feed her — “I figured a n*gger’s gotta eat” — and warn her of an Irish girl, Fiona (Lucy Faust), who comes by now and again — “They’re all liars,” she says of the Irish — and her daughter and son-in-law, who’re also due a visit. Nobody can hear Cora upstairs, lest they all be killed and used to decorate the Freedom Trail. When Cora asks how long it’ll take Martin and Ethel to get her out of there, Ethel slaps and berates her. This is salvation?
Everyone in town — including Martin and Ethel — attends a church service conducted by a man named Jamison (David Wilson Barnes), whose ministrations concern the pure whiteness of North Carolina and the ridiculousness of the South’s uplifting initiatives. The execution of a Black woman, Louisa (Elizabeth Youman), found in the hold of a steamship, makes for the centerpiece of the sermon. “I should have told you about that,” says Grace to Cora, both of whom are watching through a peephole in the attic. How many executions has she seen from that vantage? How many more are to come?
Jamison attends dinner at Martin’s home in The Underground Railroad episode 3, and is keen to offend his “delicate ears” — Ethel’s words — with talk of North Carolina being as God intended America to be; pure, is the word he chooses, though I, and presumably Martin, could think of several others. Their daughter, Jane (Meg Heus), has obvious sympathy for Fiona, who is a slave and is treated as such, the Irish having been brought in to replace the outlawed Blacks, lest the North Carolinians be forced to do anything for themselves.
A month turns into longer, and Cora comes on sick, and Martin still can’t bring himself to confront his predicament with anything even resembling a backbone. As ever, he turns the blame on Cora for not listening to his pleas that she didn’t come with him but invites her to bathe while he and Ethel attend a book culling, the burning of sinful texts that they rebuke in the name of the Lord. Perhaps they should have burned the Bible itself, from which Ethel reads to a worsening Cora to justify their treatment of anyone perceived as other. “You are damned,” she tells Cora. “I see… the wicked in you girl. In your kind.” Does the fact Ethel obviously believes this nonsense make her more or less despicable? It’s difficult to say.
Martin himself comes down with a pox, giving Ethel more and more control of the household. He’s sat outside when Jamison arrives with Ridgeway, insisting the slave catcher gets a look in each house. Martin makes a scene by heaving and retching all over Ridgeway to give Ethel time to hide Cora and Grace, who she’s tutoring in the ways of the lord upstairs. The peephole in the attic does not go unnoticed by Homer, who enters the property to find Ethel frantically rushing the girls into the attic. He once again sees Cora. Ethel can do nothing to quell the commotion outside, which is only exacerbated by Fiona’s accusations, and driven into a frenzy when Cora herself appears at the door, alone. The crowd demand that Ethel and Martin be hung, that North Carolina be cleansed. Ridgeway asks Martin how “it” got there, and he stammers, “The railroad,” prompting him to take Martin with him. Ethel is left behind to the mercy of the mob, and a lantern is tossed against the house, setting the whole place ablaze. Flames lick the outside of the attic, Grace presumably still inside, as Cora screams back in the direction of the inferno.
Martin takes Ridgeway to the railroad, the entrance to which he damned with dynamite. Martin is hysterical, Cora is distraught, and Ridgeway is furious. Homer, in his undergarments with a lantern, descends into the tunnels through a small gap in the rubble but finds nothing but more of the same, tracks leading nowhere. Martin is executed. And when Cora asks Ridgeway how he found her, he responds that he didn’t. He believes, truly, that she found him.