SPOILER ALERT: This story contains details of tonight’s Underground Season 1 finale.
With a lot of blood, cunning, bravery and vengeance, Season 1 of Underground came to an end tonight. In more ways that one, it has been a very successful run for the Misha Green and Joe Pokaski-created series about the 19th century Underground Railroad that sought to sprint Southern slaves to freedom. On a sheer ratings level, the John Legend EP’d show broke original series records for WGN America when it debuted on March 9.
On another level, Underground tonight saw the Macon 7’s persevering race for freedom reach its culmination, triumphant for some like Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Rosalee, but not for others like the Aldis Hodge-played Noah, who has ended up behind bars – for now. Adding to that drama, the first season finale also saw the death of new Georgia Senator and plantation owner Tom Macon (Reed Diamond) at the mourning hands of his head house slave and long time mistress Ernestine (Amirah Vann), who then suffers another terrible fate herself, plus the jailing of slave hunter August Pullman (Christopher Meloni) and the reveal that Cato (Alano Miller) is alive. Ending it all was a true jaw-dropper in the fictional appearance of real-life abolitionist hero Harriet Tubman in the very last scene of Wednesday’s show.
Renewed for a second season on April 25, Underground is expected back next year with Green and Pokaski opening the writers’ room for the next cycle tomorrow. Before then the EPs, who’ve said that they have seasons and seasons of stories to tell based on their extensive research, chatted with me about the decision to bring Tubman into their tale, changes and consistencies for Season 2 and building multi-generational strong female characters like Rosalee and Ernestine.
DEADLINE: That was quite the ending with a real life American icon showing up – was it always part of your plan to end this season with Harriet Tubman?
POKASKI: Always since like three years ago, right, Misha?
GREEN: Yes, we always planned to end Season 1 with the words “My name is Harriet.”
DEADLINE: Will the acclaimed abolitionist become a regular character in Season 2 or, with her face hidden in that final scene, is this more of cameo for historical context?
GREEN: She’s definitely going to be a character that’s going to be coming in and out of our series, for sure.
POKASKI: We don’t want to spoil too much, but the analogy we’ve been using is, you can’t tell the story of the Justice League without touching on Superman.
DEADLINE: Speaking of story and real people, Joe, you once said that the extensive research you guys did for Underground has given you seasons and seasons of stories from slave diaries, Library of Congress material and more. I know you guys mapped things out for a potential five seasons so how is Season 2 going to differ from Season 1 with the introduction of the likes of Harriet Tubman?
POKASKI: Misha and I wanted to make sure we kept Season 1 personal, so it was about this group of seven slaves who want to be free. The whole idea within Season 2 is that now we can look at the Underground Railroad more as a network and the first integrated Civil Rights Movement in America. We want to explore the structure of it a little better in the next season, so our world, hopefully it’s going to get a little bigger. And in getting, bigger, there are so many stories all over the place to tell.
— jurnee smollett (@jurneesmollett) May 12, 2016
DEADLINE: Rosalee’s decision near the end of the finale to return to slave holding areas to help others use the Underground Railroad to freedom obviously means the Jurnee Smollett-Bell-portrayed character will be a big part of Season 2, how will other characters from Season 1 like the jailed Noah and the about to be sold Ernestine fit into the bigger plan in the new season?
POKASKI: We’re going to see a lot of our characters return and we’re going to see them in an entirely different context than we saw them before. Without spoiling too much, I think Season 2 is a little bit of beware of what you wish for or this what do you do with it?
GREEN: Also there’s the question of what is owed to those who are left behind. I think that when Rosalee comes to that decision that she’s going back, I think that was important for us to get to that point from a person who didn’t want to run to a person who’s now going back to become a part of the underground.
DEADLINE: Was that plotline of her return based on a true story?
GREEN: It’s basically in the research. It’s what Harriet Tubman did every time she went back and got her family. It’s what so many others did who were part of the Underground in going back in. We took the angle of those running, those chasing, those who are opening up their house to help, the people left behind, but we really haven’t seen what it is to be a conductor on the Underground, and that really excited us for Season 2.
DEADLINE: With that in mind, did the finale achieve what you guys wanted to end the first season and going forward…
POKASKI: For us it’s all about character and the completion of the character arc. Rosalee is probably the best example of this. Here’s a woman at the beginning that had not stepped foot off the plantation she was born on, and watching her over 10 episodes turn into a superhero. Everybody kind of had that arc. John Hawkes started as a man who found tension between what is right and what he believes to do in the law then kind of had to release that tension to some degree.
DEADLINE: The two of you wrote almost every episode of Season 1, which makes sense as you sought to establish the voice and tone of Underground, but are you going to keep up that pace next year?
POKASKI: (Laughs) I think we’re going to write as many as we can. I don’t think we’ll ever be at a point where we’re not writing a lot of them, but we’re getting a slightly bigger writers room. So we’re hoping to just get some more voices in there, into the series, which I think we’ll benefit from.
GREEN: Definitely. I think that we were trying to navigate a very fine line and really try to shape what we wanted this show to be in its first season, which was bold in the storytelling, and the visuals, and the music. I think that we succeeded in Season 1, and we’re excited about bringing in these new voices and seeing what they have to say and how they interpret this time period.
DEADLINE: One very interesting interpretation that you did in Season 1 was the seventh episode “Cradle,” which looked at the world from the perspective of four children on the series. It was such a different approach, in a show full of different approaches. Why did you decide to do that episode like that?
GREEN: We had talked about, from the beginning, that we really wanted to do a show all from the children’s perspective because it feels like this time period hasn’t really been explored through children before.
So we said from the start we wanted to do that and then we got around to writing it and it evolved. Each child had their own little act and we tried to make those stories special. We tried to bring in the children’s choir, and I think in Season 2 we want a few more “Cradles” and a couple more episodes like that where it’s a little bit of departure, but it still is a part of our world.
DEADLINE: So much of Underground was also an exploration of female roles during slavery and, in that, strong characters such as Rosalee and her mother and head house slave Ernestine were deftly revealed. The arc for Amirah Vann’s character was remarkable from who she was in Episode 1 to have her in the finale kill her master, lover and father of Rosalee and James and not long afterward, see her about to be sold off by the widowed Suzanna…
POKASKI: With Ernestine and Rosalee we wanted to tell the story of two generations of women, and, as you said, we really wanted our show to feature really strong powerful women. We got a little bit of pushback as to whether or not staying on the plantation would be an interesting story, but obviously it became one of our most compelling stories.
What we did with Ernestine, was she was always trying to play within the system, play within the system and then she broke down, and Amirah Vann played every beat so well that she finally had to rebel. She finally understood the rebellion that Noah and that Rosalee learned about before.
GREEN: And to explore, too, the differences because Rosalee’s rebellion and Ernestine’s rebellion are two different types of rebellion. Her rebellion is still within a system, and I think that is why ultimately at the end of the season we see her sold to another plantation because she’s still working within the system as opposed to breaking out of the system like The Macon 7 did.
DEADLINE: On breaking out, the debut of Underground set a new all-time ratings record for a WGN America original series when it launched on March 9. How did that feel for you and how has it continued over the season with the strong social media response you’ve had?
GREEN: You know it felt amazing. Then our fans tuning in every week and tweeting with us I think that has been the most exciting and unexpected week to week. Having these conversations continue from Wednesday to Wednesday has just been so fun to engage in.
DEADLINE: People really seem to see it as their show, there’s such a high level of connection…
POKASKI: That’s awesome. It is. It is their show. These Wednesday nights, I have to say, have been really amazing. You know, there’s certain things that Misha and I thought were just between us or these subtle moments that only we recognized. But not one has gotten by without our fans recognizing what we and our amazing cast were trying to do, which is amazing.
— Underground (@UndergroundWGN) May 12, 2016