(Warning: This story, which was first published May 14, contains spoilers through Episode 2 of Amazon Prime Video’s “The Underground Railroad.”)
Barry Jenkins’ TV adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s historical fiction novel “The Underground Railroad” launched Friday on Amazon Prime Video. With 10 episodes’ worth of runaway slaves Cora (Thuso Mbedu) and Caesar’s (Aaron Pierre) journey on the show’s literal Underground Railroad ahead of viewers, TheWrap’s going to take our coverage station by station. First up are Episodes 1 and 2, titled “Georgia” and “South Carolina,” respectively.
In the series premiere, Caesar and Cora escape the Georgia plantation where they have been enslaved, after Caesar — who was raised in in a kinder, but by no means perfect, world in Virginia — tells Cora he knows of a safety network that can help them run away. Cora is apprehensive, having been abandoned by her mother, Mabel, who ran away to freedom when Cora was a child, but does decide to take that leap with Caesar. This very quickly leads to the death of Cora’s best friend and Cora inadvertently murdering a boy trying to bring her back to the plantation, but Caesar and Cora do make it onto the railroad en route to South Carolina.
“I think, ultimately, everyone will have their own perspective on Caesar’s part in her journey. For me, personally, I really believe that Cora already had everything within her to make that escape and to pursue liberation and freedom,” Pierre told TheWrap. “I think Caesar is one of many catalysts, and I think what he did was just maybe add to the flame that was already burning inside her of wanting to explore the possibility of escaping and seeking true freedom and true liberation and life as maybe it’s supposed to be lived. And where Caesar gets his own sort of motivation to escape that nightmare of their reality is he has an understanding of what life is like outside already from when he was in Virginia. And I think that would never leave somebody. Once you once you have seen or heard or felt freedom in some sort of capacity, I think that will never leave you. And you will always pursue that because you know that is available. But I think he just has a real determination for true liberation and freedom like Cora does.”
Episode 2 opens with Cora and Caesar living totally different lives, with completely different names, clothing and mannerisms, as they have become somewhat at ease in their new home in South Carolina. And just as the two are deciding that maybe they don’t need to go any further on the Underground Railroad, that maybe this community they have landed in where white people are trying to “better” freed Black people through lessons and jobs is the best possible outcome for them, they learn the dark truth at work here: Black men are being experimented on and Black women are being sterilized by the very people claiming to be helping them.
“Embodying Caesar, I found filming South Carolina largely very eerie and unsettling,” Pierre said. “Somewhere that had presented one face to you, which was one of welcoming and acceptance and understanding and possibility — but there were all of these other terrifying dimensions to that exact same place. And that ultimately for me means that the things that were presented at face value were never true. I think that was a really eerie experience and a really unsettling experience. And I think towards the end of that episode, the audience will hopefully feel what those characters are feeling of it all sort of landing in their minds and in their bodies of where they are. And, actually, they haven’t gotten that far away at all from where they started their journey. It’s just made itself up in a different way, in a different costume. And that’s really worrying. There’s a scene where they are in Sam’s house. And I think that’s the moment where the audience will maybe understand how petrified they are and how much they need to leave this place.”
By the end of “South Carolina,” Cora has managed to get down to the Underground Railroad so she and Caesar can move on to another station, but the slave catcher Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) has caught up to Caesar. Cora is forced to decide whether to go back for Caesar, a choice that will surely mean neither of them make it to freedom, or go it alone. Caesar then appears to her in a vision, giving her signal she needs that it’s OK to continue.
Will Cora — and viewers — see Caesar again? Pierre isn’t telling.
“I think what Barry did so beautifully was that, although we do lose Caesar physically just then, we don’t lose Caesar spiritually. And I think although Cora and Caesar may part ways at a certain point during the journey, he never leaves Cora in spirit,” Pierre said. “And I think he’s a feeling of home and he’s a feeling of possibility for her, I’d like to believe. And I think the audience will feel it initially that he’s not there in body, but then they will understand that he’s there in spirit and is actually present during her journey and in different ways.”
Readers who have come this far still have eight more episodes of “The Underground Railroad” to watch, so check back with TheWrap throughout your journey for more coverage.
“The Underground Railroad” is streaming now on Amazon Prime Video.