“Chapter 5: Tennessee – Exodus” tells a slow and brutal story of desperation against the backdrop of a scorched landscape.
This recap of The Underground Railroad episode 5, “Chapter 5: Tennessee – Exodus”, contains spoilers.
The earth of Tennessee is black and scorched; smoke clogs the air and the wiry remains of trees burn like beacons in the smog. Cora, shackled, staggers alongside Ridgeway’s carriage. When they sit to eat, Ridgeway explains that this was once Cherokee land, baked black by an errant fork of lightning. Once the fires start, they stop when they feel like it and not before. In the night, Homer borrows the pistol of Ridgeway’s associate, Boseman (Kraig Dane), to make quiet gunshot noises with it; the first even remotely childlike behavior we’ve seen him exhibit. When he readies himself for bed, though, he shackles himself to the cot. For comfort? Security? Who knows. Jasper (Calvin Leon Smith), another slave caught by Ridgeway and Boseman, sings quietly to himself through the night.
Ridgeway regales Cora with the story of how he found her quite accidentally in North Carolina, but her sass about his unearned reputation backfires when he recounts in excruciating detail the state he last saw Lovey in when he left the Randall plantation; hung in a gallows and hooked through the ribcage, twitching there, alive but barely, for two days.
At the first opportunity, Boseman tries to rape Cora, and he’s only stopped by a returning Ridgeway. At her first opportunity, Cora tries to flee, only to be quickly caught, her little pouch of okra confiscated. Ridgeway examines it by firelight, admiring the toughness of the plant — a fitting characteristic for anything to have on the Trail of Tears and Death, a landscape so bare and ruined as to be almost post-apocalyptic, and evidently too harsh for a drunk Boseman. Homer reveals to Ridgeway that it was him who unfastened Cora’s shackles, indecency on his mind, and Ridgeway, after Boseman tries to antagonize him about the Great Spirit, shoots him dead. Jasper sings all the while.
In a striking scene, Cora begins speaking to a sleeping Jasper, but soon enough turns to the camera, to address her mother, then Lovey, then Caesar, then Grace — she’s being filmed from above, so the implication is she’s speaking to the sky, but you can make no mistake she’s addressing the audience, fixing us with her gaze. It’s a moving enough speech to loosen Jasper’s tongue, who tells her he’s a picker from Florida who made it as far as Tennessee before being caught looking for food in someone’s pantry. Doesn’t seem to have touched any of it since — why would he eat himself back to good health only for a bloody homecoming? “We’re crawling in a bowl of ashes,” he says, “and what’s left when it’s all gone? Just a dark powder for the wind to take.” Cora thinks his sentiments mean he has given up, but he considers himself to be free.
Ridgeway explains more of Homer’s background to Cora in The Underground Railroad episode 5 while they roam the wreckage of a camp devastated by yellow fever. He bought the boy from a butcher in Atlanta for five dollars — something about his disposition appealed. But the thought of owning a slave did not, so he drew up emancipation papers the next day. Homer, though, always came back, always followed him. Chaining himself up at night is the only way he can get himself to sleep. Homer questions all this wreckage being torched by lightning, but Ridgeway admits that was a tall tale. Instead, homesteaders set the land afire to try and clear it. This, reveals Ridgeway, is where he’s from, something that I don’t think was made clear in the previous episode. Jasper uses this history lesson to try and flee, but Ridgeway catches him. “He gonna look at you, and see what you’ve done,” Jasper repeats, as Ridgeway pictures his father, staring directly to the camera, a fleeting glimpse of which we got in the opening montage of the very first episode.
A powerful scene occurs later in “Chapter 5: Tennessee – The Exodus”, when Ridgeway, after showing some compassion in trusting Homer with more responsibility — including the keys for the shackles — begins to come undone, incensed by Jasper’s determined insolence, which Cora is beginning to emulate. Furious with Jasper, Ridgeway drags the shirt from his emaciated body, shouting to himself all the while about watching the cold take him. The sight of Jasper’s stick-thin frame is striking. Ridgeway’s demented muttering is eerie. This is a man coming apart at the seams, though perhaps he never fit neatly together.
While Ridgeway and Homer are distracted by a raccoon, Cora makes another run for it, shackles and all this time. Ridgeway leaves Homer with Jasper and gives chase. She finds a body of water and attempts to drown herself in it, and as she lowers into the murky depths, Jasper pants his last few breaths in close-up. Ridgeway is able to pull Cora from the water and punch the brackish fluid from her lungs. Since she seems ready to die, though, Ridgeway chains her to Jasper’s staring corpse, leaving her to meet her own reflection in his open eyes. Ridgeway mocks her crying and pleading in the quiet of the night.
After a meal, Ridgeway and Homer leave Jasper’s body behind, splayed out on the ground. His song plays over the closing credits.