Be advised that episodes 9 and 10 contain disturbing images, including massacre violence, suicide, and infanticide.
The final episodes of The Underground Railroad are the most harrowing of the series as Cora (Thuso Mbedu) once again tries to establish a life outside slavery. Royal (William Jackson Harper), who freed her at the end of the sixth episode, brings Cora to Indiana, where a settlement of free Black people lives on Valentine Farm, a successful vineyard run by John Valentine (Peter de Jersey). Cora wants to settle down with Royal, but not everyone on Valentine Farm is so welcoming. Her runaway and fugitive status puts everyone at risk, especially as the people of Valentine Farm are debating whether or not to make a deal with the local white population, for the benefit of all, or to move further west. Episode eight, “Indiana Autumn” (written by Jacqueline Hoyt), is the dreamiest of all of Barry Jenkins’ episodes so far, with an extended dream sequence in which Cora visits a Grand Central Station-like stop on the underground railroad and is reunited with the ghost of Caesar (Aaron Pierre).
Like everywhere else Cora has been, Valentine Farm is a study in contrast with white society. John Valentine dreams of moving further from white society and establishing a place truly for Black folks, away from white influence and threat. But another citizen on the farm, Mingo (Chukwudi Iwuji), would prefer to stay and build a business with their white neighbors. Valentine Farm represents a pinnacle of Black excellence first teased in South Carolina, but here a truly free Black community is thriving on the fruits—literally, as they harvest grapes for wine—of their own labor and ingenuity. This is, of course, a threat too great to be borne by the resident white population, and in episode nine, “Indiana Winter” (written by Barry Jenkins), a dramatic dueling sermon between Mingo and John comes to a tragic end when a white posse attacks the farm. When asked why they had to attack Valentine Farm, the posse leader says, “A whole farm full of men like [John Valentine]? That’s just too many.” It is a single-line devastation, a read on 400 years of white supremacist behavior that has sought to undercut and impede Black success at every turn. Never mind that partnering with the vineyard, which is said repeatedly to make a very fine wine, could have made EVERYONE rich. White supremacy isn’t about best interests, it’s just about supremacy, full stop.
“Indiana Winter” is one of the finest single episodes of television in recent memory, and maybe ever. It answers the dreamy lyricism of “Indiana Autumn” with brutal reality, but Jenkins never stops hitting grace notes of beauty and hope even in the lowest moments of the story. These two episodes are also the most heavily peppered with “The Gaze”, the fourth-wall breaking moments Jenkins sprinkles throughout The Underground Railroad in which characters stand as if posed for a painting and stare directly down camera (Jenkins released a 50-minute compilation of these shots on Vimeo). These cinematic portraits usually highlight secondary and background characters, including one group shot of the citizens of Valentine Farm. Everywhere Cora has gone, she has been asked to “give testimony”, to tell her story as she progresses along the railroad. These moments of “The Gaze” are also a testimony, portraits commemorating lives too much written out of history—not recreations but remembrances. By inserting “The Gaze” into The Underground Railroad, Jenkins is not just restoring humanity to characters frequently abused for spectacle on film, he’s restoring lives to history and art history.
Meanwhile, large adult failson Arnold Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) bumbles into Valentine Farm and has his final confrontation with Cora. He began the series a fearsome figure, a bogeyman, the slave catcher who never fails. He ends the series a pathetic echo of the posturing he achieved early on. The farther he travels from Georgia, the more ridiculous and ineffective he becomes, as if cannot survive outside the environment of slavery. Even after he’s been critically injured by Cora, he dictates his pompous thoughts to Homer (Chase W. Dillon), as if anyone other than Homer will ever care what he had to say. There is humanity, though, in the image of Homer weeping over Ridgeway, the only father he has ever known. It is Homer’s humanity, though, not Ridgeway’s, that is brought to the fore in that scene, the humanity of a child left alone in an inhospitable world. Homer, in some ways the most terrifying figure in series, is also just a scared kid.
The final episode, “Mabel” (written by Jenkins and Hoyt), brings The Underground Railroad full circle. We flashback to Cora’s childhood in Georgia, when her mother, Mabel (Sheila Atim), was still with her. Mabel is the one that got away, the only runaway to evade Ridgeway, but here we learn the truth—Mabel died. A fellow enslaved woman, Polly (Abigail Achiri), delivered her third stillborn child, then was forced to act as wet nurse to twins taken from another enslaved woman at a different plantation. Mabel worries about Polly’s state of mind, but the men around her, from the overseer to Polly’s partner, Moses (Sam Malone), shrug Mabel off. But she was right, Polly is not well, and she kills the babies and herself. Jenkins does not make a meal of the tragedy, using the edges of the frame and extremely quick cuts to telegraph what happened, but it is still abundantly clear what has taken place. Forced to clean up the blood, Mabel snaps and runs, only coming to in the middle of a swamp when she remembers that she has left Cora behind. Before she can return, she is bitten by a snake.
In the first episode, Caesar wanted to escape with Cora because he believed her to be lucky since her mother successfully escaped, but Cora says she has none of that luck. In truth, neither did Mabel, who only escaped in the way that Jasper escaped in Tennessee. And in the end, it was not luck that sent Cora on a journey west, it was her determination. You know who was lucky? Arnold Ridgeway, who kept tripping over Cora as she moved north, and ultimately that “luck” killed him. Chance has little role in The Underground Railroad. This is a world of deliberate structure, one built specifically to keep one side down and the other up. Slavery did not thrive because of chance, but because of the will—political will, social will, economic will, ill will—of millions of white people ensuring their status at the expense of their fellow human beings. What endures even in that crushing system is hope, the thing that, despite everything she’s been through, never quite leaves Cora.
At each new place she finds herself, Cora hopes for a new beginning, and while true safety is never guaranteed—even the West will have its oppressions and dangers—Cora keeps going. She never gives up, never surrenders to hopelessness. Far from a symbol of hope, the okra seeds she carries from Georgia are the final millstone she must put down before beginning anew in the West. Cora can only fully embrace hope once she has put down that last vestige of her former self. Cora has been left and had to leave so many behind on her journey, but she is not travelling alone, as she is accompanied by Molly (Kylee D. Allen), a child from Valentine Farm, and Ollie (Troy Anthony Hogan), the “sometimes kind” wagon-driver who picks them up. And somewhere, there is Grace, on her own path to freedom after learning of the railroad from Cora. The Underground Railroad does not offer a utopian escape from the racism and systemic oppression Cora found everywhere she went. From history we can imagine that this magic-infused West will be equally complicated, too. Yet hope remains that “complicated” does not preclude “better”, that Cora will find a place to stop and rest at last. The Underground Railroad is a hard watch, for sure, but it is not bereft of hope.
Witness “The Gaze” here: