Joel Edgerton is tremendous in “Chapter 6: Tennessee – Proverbs”, during which Ridgeway confronts his past and his demons.
This recap of The Underground Railroad episode 6, “Chapter 6: Tennessee – Proverbs”, contains spoilers.
Ridgeway’s backstory episode, not to mention the explicit mention of him being from Tennessee in the previous chapter, led to “Chapter 6: Tennessee – Proverbs” as surely as the scorched woodland trail they navigated to get back to the old family homestead, where Ridgeway, Homer, and Cora arrive to be greeted by an older, limping Mack. It suddenly makes sense why Ridgeway insisted she be “unfettered” upon their arrival; given what we know about his apparently still-living father, Ridgeway bringing a bound slave onto the property probably wouldn’t go down too well.
Watching Ridgeway roam the homestead is like watching a ghost rattle around the house it used to haunt. He visits his mother’s grave and uselessly clangs a hammer on an anvil and yanks tools from hooks, tossing them aside half in disgust, half as though he isn’t quite sure how they work. Cora is cleaned up and made to look presentable and paraded through town. In a no-account little saloon, Ridgeway explains to Cora that he’s here to pay his respects to a father who has one foot firmly in death’s door, at least if his own observations are anything to go by. He also lays out his feelings on manifest destiny, the “American imperative” to lift up the lesser races, and if not lift up then subjugate, and if not subjugate then exterminate. This idea dominates Ridgeway’s view on everything, from his profession to his particular grievance against Cora’s mother, whose escape and continued eluding of him he sees as a personal insult, a direct challenge to the validity of the imperative in which he believes so strongly. He is, in other words, absolutely deranged.
One of the more striking moments in The Underground Railroad episode 6 is a conversation between Ridgeway and Cora through a barn door, during which a drunk Ridgeway tells her what supposedly happened to Caesar in South Carolina, torn apart by the very same folks who insisted they were nothing like those other whites. Joel Edgerton is phenomenal here, halfway between drunk and insane, explaining how they “plucked those blue eyes right out of his head.” Cora, eventually, says nothing, just covers her mouth with her hand as she sobs, alone now in every way that matters.
Ridgeway, very drunk by this point, takes Cora to see his father, who does indeed seem to be on his deathbed. Ridgeway pushes him to admit that there was never any such thing as the Great Spirit, his lack of connection to which he has obviously nursed his entire life. Here he is begging for absolution in a roundabout way; if there was never a Great Spirit in the first place, then he was never unworthy of its embrace. The only words Ridgeway’s father speaks are regret at not having done more to shape the boy into the man. Those become his final words. Cora, having now seen perhaps one death too many, begins to wail and sob, as choking sounds in the distance interrupt them. Ridgeway shackles her to a bed and pulls the door closed, repeating again and again that it isn’t fair for his father not to have claimed he made it all up. With Ridgeway, it seems like the body of a man grew around the boy, but the boy never got loose.
In the night, armed Black men sneak into the house and free Cora, shackling Ridgeway to the bed in her place. One of them is named Royal, and Cora returns to the house with him to finish Ridgeway off, since she knows that as long as he draws breath, she’ll always be running. Mack, though, won’t let them in — this is a house in mourning of a great man. He does, though, assure them that Ridgeway will never leave the house.
Royal, Samson, and Red take Cora back to the railroad, where they toast old and new friends with the station’s striking murals behind them. Gus, the station master, requests her testimony, and she eagerly decorates the page with her latest experiences. When the train chugs and whistles into the station, they all board together, leaving Ridgeway and their problems behind.
Though not too far behind, of course. Mack sits at Ridgeway’s bedside and listens to him monologue for quite some time about his relationship with his father, the difference between love and admiration, the Great Spirit. Edgerton is, once again, tremendous here — “Chapter 6: Tennessee – Proverbs” has really been a showcase for him. When Ridgeway has finished, Mack asks him if he has paid his respects, and he claims he has, asking only for a final whiskey, for old times’ sake, before the end. Mack, shuffling on the bad leg that was ruined in the well incident that Ridgeway claims to have always felt guilty for, goes to fetch him one. The Underground Railroad episode 6 is careful to highlight what a labor this is for him, physically, and probably emotionally. While he’s busying himself with a candle and some matches, Homer shoots him dead. Upstairs, he sits on the bed beside Ridgeway, and both of them share the whiskey.