The Underground Railroad episode 4 recap – “Chapter 4: The Great Spirit”

By Jonathon Wilson
Published: May 14, 2021 (Last updated: December 3, 2023)
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The Underground Railroad episode 4 recap - "Chapter 4: The Great Spirit"


“Chapter 4: The Great Spirit” delves into one character’s backstory in a shorter, more singularly focused episode.

This recap of The Underground Railroad episode 4, “Chapter 4: The Great Spirit”, contains spoilers.

What drives a man to become a single-minded hunter of runaway slaves? “Chapter 4: The Great Spirit” attempts to find out by unpacking the past of Ridgeway, who, after his success in the previous episode, has presumably earned some backstory. We meet a younger version of him regaling his dead mother with a story of the first time he saw his own blood; the spirit he found when confronted with it, and that he subsequently lost. His father hires freedmen, which has led to rumors in the community that he is demented. “Iron is iron,” the senior tells the junior, insisting that the titular great spirit flows through everything, connects us all. Ridgeway doesn’t feel the spirit in him, but his father insists he will. “All things in due time.”

Ridgeway’s family are smiths; he himself isn’t a very good one. Between his high self-expectations at work and the whole matter of his absent spirit, the young Ridgeway is putting undue pressure on himself to be someone or at least something that he might not ever be. Others have similar concerns. Mack, a young Black boy who works under Ridgeway’s father, wants to see the Great Spirit for himself; Ridgeway finds him with a book of matches in the woods, dropping lit ones into the well in the hopes the spirit will see them fall to the very bottom. Perplexingly, Ridgeway convinces him to jump into the well and remains unmoved by his echoing calls for help. He emerges with a broken leg, but the spirit apparently within him.

Ridgeway Snr, like his son, communes with the spirit of the dead matriarch, pondering if he’s the right person to teach their son, who has anger in him, to allow the Spirit to come to him, not to reach out and try to squeeze it in his hands. At what cost will that lesson be learned, if it is ever learned at all? In town, Ridgeway, after trying and failing to buy a coat on his father’s store credit, spots a slave catcher named Chandler on the hunt for a runaway and offers to help him, being that he knows that land so well. Is this his first encounter with such a man, or has he been fascinated with the profession for longer? It’s hard to say. Either way, there’s a sense of admiration in Ridgeway’s eyes that we have never seen in the gaze he levels at his father. In the woods with the patrollers, Ridgeway finds the slave trying to shush his infant son, and clubs him from behind with a thick tree branch. But in the eyes of the man’s son, Ridgeway sees something. “When they’re little like that, it’s easy to forget the difference,” Chandler tells him. He plans to sell “it” off, a pronoun that Ridgeway takes issue with. But not enough to refuse Chandler’s payment, which he uses to buy that coat he wanted.

Emboldened by his experiences in The Underground Railroad episode 4, Ridgeway suggests to his father that perhaps now is the time to buy a few slaves, a more cost-efficient way to meet orders than hiring freedmen. Perhaps this, he suggests, is the real great spirit. “If you’re supposed to be free, you’re free. And if you’re in chains, you’re a n*gger”. Ridgeway rounds on Annie, who works for his father, whose cooking he is eating at that very moment, asking her what she thinks of the slaves who have not earned their freedom, who flee from their duties to their masters. Throughout the conversation, the camera takes in Annie’s expression, and hers alone. She doesn’t seem particularly free to me.

That night, Ridgeway tries to give his father the coat he bought, but a man like him has no use for such finery. He’s unmoved when Ridgeway says he already has a coat just like it. “Well look at you, son. Two coats. That’s a mighty fine thing.” It’s such a fearsomely patronizing remark that Ridgeway has no choice but to walk away in disgrace, fancy coat and all.

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