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‘The Good Lord Bird’ episode six: ‘Jesus is Walkin’

Everything goes wrong, and quickly

Well, Mister Fred was right. John Brown’s plan to take over the Harpers Ferry armory was indeed cockamamie and full of errors, forced and unforced.

In Jesus is Walkin’, whatever divine luck got Brown (Ethan Hawke) to Virginia appears to be running low. Let’s take stock: Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson) forgets to relay the password, “Jesus is walkin’,” to Brown, and hops off the wagon carrying the Brown women to safety to sprint back to Harpers Ferry to correct his error, where matters quickly worsen. Brown’s son Owen shoots The Rail Man, which means Brown no longer has a conduit for the enslaved people who were supposed to join his fight and take over the armory. This causes him to be holed up in the engine house of Harpers Ferry with a small group of his own men and some local white people they’ve taken as hostages, one of whom he trades in exchange for breakfast for his men — Brown’s raid of Harpers Ferry commences in remarkably civil fashion.

Bob (Hubert Point-Du Jour, left) and Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson, right) try to round up Black slaves for the raid on Harpers Ferry in The Good Lord Bird.

William Gray/Showtime

Onion can’t stand telling his mentor and caretaker that he’s failed, so he, Cook (Rafael Casal) and Bob (Hubert Point-Du Jour) improvise, heading to the Washington plantation where Onion first stopped in search of Negroes — and where the Coachman (Victor Williams) told him off.

Despite how much has gone wrong, Brown’s presence in Virginia and word of his mission has shifted attitudes. The punctilious Coachman has had enough of his master, Colonel Washington (a descendant of President/General George, played by Brooks Ashmanskas), and with Cook’s help, the two men take over the Washington plantation and devise a new plan. They’ll arm Washington’s slaves, and get back into the engine house by turning their hostage, Washington, into a negotiator and pawn. Basically, Brown wants to hold Washington and his slaves in the engine house, and in return, he’s willing to start releasing white hostages.

Without reinforcements, Brown and his crew are too small to carry out the rest of his plan, escaping from the rear of the armory and into the Blue Ridge Mountains. Even for a man of Brown’s faith and luck, the odds of escaping alive are dwindling. After being released and learning of Brown’s intentions, one elderly and sickly white hostage praises Brown, then tells him, “I’ll bring flowers to your funeral.”

Brown makes sure that his daughters are ushered to safety. He rages when he sees that Onion, his good luck charm, is with him in the engine house. “SHE’S SUPPOSED TO BE HIVING MORE BEES … SHE’S SUPPOSED TO BE SAFE,” Brown bellows, assuming the wild-eyed, crazed form that he takes during battles. Brown, with his singular focus on liberating Negroes, still hasn’t realized that Onion is male. His righteousness creates blind spots, especially regarding his mortality. The look Hawke makes after the hostage mentions his funeral is one of a man who hasn’t really considered that his gambit might actually lead to death. Surely God will provide, right? Maybe not.

Federal troops arrive after Brown’s negotiations with local officials go nowhere. The men in the engine house are surrounded. Brown releases a white hostage in good faith, flanked by Cook and his son, John Jr. (Nick Eversman). Though their hands are aloft and Cook brandishes a white flag, the feds mow them down anyway. Brown raised his sons to take over the family business of abolition, yet remained naive about what that would mean for them, even after Kansas Redshirts murdered his son, Fred.

It’s when Brown screams, “Why would they do that?” while holding his dying namesake that the unspoken battle within the Brown family becomes clear. The Brown brothers — Fred, Owen, John Jr. — were born into their father’s abolitionist project and were subject to its fatal stakes before they could even consent. To be a son of Brown is to be a target, a prize for slavers looking for a bounty. To be a son of Brown is to swallow the urge to wonder aloud why he seems to care more about the life of an orphaned mulatto than his own sons. The conflict is written all over the face of Owen Brown (Beau Knapp) when he informs Cook and Onion that he won’t be joining them at the engine house, knowing that joining the raid almost certainly means death.

Is it divine grace that’s protected Brown for this long, his own whiteness, or both?

With John Jr.’s life extinguished right before his eyes, Brown is finally forced to consider the cost of his faith — and his hubris. His sons, especially Owen, have already been doing it. Brown’s zealotry presents only difficult options for Owen, who is faced with choosing between his faith — in his father, in God — or his life.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.