‘The Good Lord Bird’ episode two: ‘A Wicked Plot’
Bob and Onion head to Pikesville, Missouri, and the life-or-death stakes become clearer
The Good Lord Bird is filled with terrific lines, brought to life by the sober-but-never-boring line reading of Joshua Caleb Johnson, who plays Onion, the series’ narrator. But one of my favorites comes at the end of episode one, because it offers a thematic bridge connecting the first hour of the miniseries to its second.
“Slavery was a poisonous snake,” Onion explains, after John Brown (Ethan Hawke) and his sons find that one of the Brown boys, Frederick (Duke Davis Roberts), has been murdered in the woods. “Everybody knew that. But freedom? The kind that was being offered? With no home and no food and not a friend in the world? That snake was just as poisonous. One snake pointed north, one pointed south, and they both bit the n—-r.”
I didn’t write a review for episode one (Meet the Lord), so let’s reverse a bit before digging into A Wicked Plot. Some background on what’s happening in Kansas with Brown and his sons: “Bleeding Kansas,” as the territory was known before it entered the Union, got its name because of the violence that took place in the 1850s. “Redshirts” wanted Kansas to enter the Union as a slave state. Abolitionists, also known as “free-staters,” wanted otherwise. Proponents of both flooded the territory to vote in local elections that would decide Kansas’ fate. The whole enterprise was pockmarked with corruption and ballot fraud, with slaveholding white people riding in from neighboring Missouri to cast ballots in favor of bondage.
Upon settling in Kansas, two of Brown’s sons, Jason and John Jr., were targeted by those who wanted to expand slavery, and their farms were burned to the ground. So Brown, backed by his volunteer army, the Pottawatomie Rifles, comes to fetch his sons, which is how he winds up in Dutch Henry’s tavern, riding off with Onion, who is valued at $1,200, when the show’s first episode opens.
With Frederick dead, and everyone in the Pottawatomie Rifles operating under the assumption that Onion is a girl, Brown’s remaining sons squabble over who will keep watch over her while the captain, as Brown is known, goes off in search of his next fight. The Brown sons, who see Onion as more burden than anything else, decide to ride off, instructing Onion and another formerly enslaved man Brown’s army has freed, Bob (Hubert Point-Du Jour), to stay put until the return.
Of course they don’t.
Bob and Onion, still dubious of the merry band of white people going around slitting the throats of slavers with broadswords, decide to set out on their own and encounter trouble in the form of a Redshirt named Chase (Steve Zahn, playing yet another expertly crafted dimwit), who’s got lady britches on the brain.
The exchange is illustrative of the levity that holds The Gold Lord Bird together through tragedy and violence. “You part colored or just a white girl with a dirty face?” Chase inquires when he and his men encounter Bob and Onion. Onion, still in a dress, and having described himself as a “tragic mulatto” who owns Bob, confidently informs Chase that he’s in the business of selling trims (as in hair trims). One semantic misunderstanding later, Bob and Onion find themselves being accompanied to a whorehouse in Pikesville, Missouri. As much as Onion’s light skin offers some safety, it also holds a dangerous appeal when it’s covered in a dress, as no one regards Black women’s bodies as their own in antebellum America.
It’s there that the Trojan horse approach of The Good Lord Bird becomes clear: Hawke may be its liver-spotted, spittle-flinging, Bible-verse screeching draw, but the story belongs to Onion, who is learning how to improvise in order to stay alive. This time, the challenge is for Onion to keep working in the town brothel without anyone finding out he’s actually a boy in a dress.
He finds help in the form of his first crush, a Black prostitute named Pie (as in “sweet as”), played by Natasha Marc. The whorehouse has a pen, where Black people who aren’t selling sex are imprisoned like hogs, and that’s where Bob ends up.
Desperate to learn what’s happened to Bob, Onion cuts a deal with a woman in the pen. He’ll forge a bill of sale and free papers for Sibonia (Crystal Lee Brown) in exchange for information about Bob’s whereabouts. But when Pie gets wind of the plot, little Miss All Skinfolk Ain’t Kinfolk blows the whistle to one of her most loyal white patrons, and Sibonia hangs.
Besides its clever humor, The Good Lord Bird maintains its wirewalking tone with expert music supervision. There’s its opening theme, Mahalia Jackson’s version of “Come On Children Let’s Sing,” that demands one clap along, but it’s held afloat by aural choices that are just as important as the words they accompany. Take, for instance, the day Sibonia is hanged, in the town square for all to see, after refusing to name any of the co-conspirators in her plot to steal away. As her body jerks in the noose, and the other enslaved people in the pen watch in horror, Nina Simone’s “I Shall Be Released” provides the backdrop.
Onion’s caught in a merciless purgatory somewhere between freedom and enslavement. He lives in a world that’s constantly telling him he should look out for himself, and only himself, but he knows something of what it means to be in bondage, and the center will not hold. The entire state of Missouri is quaking in anticipation of bloodshed over slavery. Pie, too selfish, helpless or both to give much thought to those stuck in the pen, sells them out, only to meet her own pyrotechnic end when Brown’s men ride on Pikesville.
Onion has a choice: freedom for all, or simply himself. He tried to do right by Bob, the closest thing he has to a friend, and it cost Sibonia her life. The slavery conflicts in Kansas and Missouri are a microcosm of the dynamics of the Civil War that’s yet to come. Brown isn’t just an abolitionist cult leader or a catalyst for an inevitable war. In The Good Lord Bird, he’s practically a prophet.
And so, when the captain rides into Pikesville, guns blazing and cannon firing, it’s clear that, as Onion says, the country is divided in half. Who then, will remember to consider the fate of the Negro, caught in a no-man’s-land in the middle?
Well, good children, thank heavens for Frederick Douglass.