Originally published on thegenynot.com | 6 May 2016
Underground’s episode 9 was stuffed with flesh and fantasy in bloody, gory excess. Perhaps we’ve become comfortably accustomed to this routine of mixing gore with pleasure. Nevertheless, these electrifying scenes are always convincing enough to leave us feeling awkward and grappling for any crumble of sanity and poise we might have left by the end of it.
After last week’s emotional roller coaster, we open to Rosalee in chains. She’s curled up (like contraband) in the back of a wagon. Patty Cannon’s gang of goons manhandle her into a slaughterhouse. Rosalee ditches the “white woman’s dress” (which is laced with a substance significantly more sinister than silk and buttons) and tosses it into the fire. This slaughterhouse is just gory enough to make all of the scenes that follow creepy. Any efforts the characters make to preserve their sanity in this environment are useless against the real nemesis here: a hallucinogen called Jimson weed (datura stramonium), otherwise known as Devil’s snare.
True to its name, Devil’s snare induces a spell that blurs the lines between reality and the imaginary. While Devil’s snare had been used for various reasons in traditional medicine—including as an anesthesia to render patients unconscious—according to Alfredo Lopez Austin’s book, Mexico’s Indigenous Past, “old inhabitants of Central and Southern California” ingested datura “to commune with deities through visions.” To be sure, it is precisely this hallucinogenic potency that the creators of Underground intend to probe.
As the fumes choke the atmosphere, the situation turns bizarre and oddly revelatory. Rosalee confronts her father.
Tom: “Four fingers, two cubes. You remember don’t you?” Rosalee: “Yes massa.” Tom: “Well get to it.”
Rosalee is back in her old crimson garbs, her sartorial chains. If there was any ambiguity surrounding the paternity of Ernestine’s two youngest children, it was cleared up here. “You are my daughter!” Tom “imaginarily” scolds Rosalee. “And there is no freedom for you!” Rosalee argues back at her father. “You let him do this to me! You let him do it over and over ‘til my arms were torn; and you just sat there!” Her more than dozen scars are her biggest demon because they not only evoke memories of the overseer Bill, but they are also a reminder that her father was a nonchalant participant in the traumatic event. The culmination to this hallucination is brutal when Rosalee stabs Ben in the stomach.
Kelisha Graves is a scholar of Africana Studies, her work focuses on African American intellectual history, African American philosophy and the philosophy of education. She also writes on black film. You can follow her on Twitter at @KelishaGraves