(This article contains spoilers for the finale of “The Underground Railroad” on Amazon Prime Video)
Throughout the ten episodes of Barry Jenkins’s “The Underground Railroad” on Amazon, Cora (Thuso Mbedu) often thinks about her mother, Mabel.
Mabel (Sheila Atim) is out of the picture before the series begins. As the story goes, she ran away from the Randall plantation where she and Cora had spent their whole lives when Cora was young. And she got away, apparently — the slave catcher Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) says Mabel was the only slave who’s run away from Randall that he wasn’t able to catch.
In this way, Mabel drives much of the action in “The Underground Railroad.” Cora has some bitterness toward her mother for leaving her behind, and that bitterness does help sustain her at times during her arduous journey around the American South and beyond. And Ridgeway keeps up his pursuit through everything out of pride — Cora is a reminder of his past failure to catch Mabel.
The punchline comes in the final episode of the series: Mabel did not use the Underground Railroad to escape. She didn’t even run away, not really. Shellshocked after a particularly horrendous day on the plantation, she just kinda ran off into the swamp because it was all just too much — and then, just as she was about to head back, she was bitten by a snake and died. Her body fell into the mire, and nobody ever found her.
It’s a heartbreaking payoff, not just because of how it recontextualizes Cora’s story but also because Mabel’s death was an enormous tragedy. A large portion of the finale episode is spent with Mabel just before her death, and we see that she was a hugely compassionate person, skilled at navigating the incredibly fraught social dynamics of the plantation — and using that skill to try to help her fellow slaves whenever she can. The plantation was no doubt a worse place without her.
There’s a lot to consider with this story beat. But “The Underground Railroad” novel by Colson Whitehead, which is the basis for the Amazon series, already explored this in more depth than the series. That’s by the nature of the two formats — a book can go places that a TV show or movie cannot. And the stuff we’re about to discuss would be difficult to translate in any case since it involves information that none of the characters on the show have.
The “Underground Railroad” novel begins by telling the story of Cora’s grandmother Ajarry. Ajarry lived in Africa until raiders captured everyone in her village and sold them to slavers. We then get a brief accounting of her journey to America, and then eventually to the Randall plantation. But there’s a detail in there that I’ve never been able to get out of my head.
Ajarry is separated from her family at the port of Ouidah in Benin — Ajarry sold to English slavers, and her family sold to Portuguese ones. Here’s how Whitehead described Ajarry’s attempt to look on the bright side:
“For the rest of her life she imagined her cousins worked for kind and generous masters up north, engaged in more forgiving trades than her own, weaving or spinning, nothing in the field. In her stories, Isay and Sideoo and the rest somehow bought their way out of bondage and lived as free men and women in the City of Pennsylvania, a place she had overheard two white men discuss ones. These fantasies gave Ajarry comfort when her burdens were such to splinter her into a thousand pieces.”
But these fantasies did not resemble reality. Whitehead explains the truth that Ajarry never learned: Everyone on that ship died of plague before it reached the New World.
While Barry Jenkins’s version of “The Underground Railroad” does successfully communicate this same thing, I wanted to highlight this additional information from the book just to drive the point home. Slaves, subjected to any and every possible indignity, had to do something — anything — to maintain their spirits. This is what passed as a flight of fancy for a lot of slaves, who knew their chances at any sort of actually decent life were extraordinarily low. Imagining that somebody they cared about might be doing OK is the next best thing, and would perhaps have given them some small hope for themselves too.
It’s a devastating thing to ponder, given the way Whitehead kinda uses Ajarry’s and Mabel’s stories as a frame for Cora’s tale.
But, of course, both the novel and TV versions of “The Underground Railroad” don’t end on this note. After the massacre at Valentine, Cora makes her way through an unused railway tunnel, and manages to escape once more, this time heading west. Those Black folks who came before her, who bled and died at the hands of white men, who sacrificed so much to build these tunnels, who gave Cora an opportunity to have any sort of hope at all — they accomplished what they set out to do.
No, they didn’t save everybody, or even close to everybody. But they saved enough that a glimmer of aspiration lived on.