The Good Lord Bird, the new Showtime limited series, aired its first episode “Meet the Lord” on Sunday. The show is a modernist take on the story of John Brown’s rebellion and a look at the nature of Black experience in America. Along the way, it attempts to recon with both “white savior” figures, like Brown, and the intense and lasting devastation caused by the institution of slavery. All of this plays out while, of course, the viewer is still grappling with the current realities we face on both issues of race, and everything else. “Meet the Lord” is also funny, exhilarating, and overall pretty excellent television.
The show opens with a flash forward to Brown’s execution. (Spoilers for real life will most likely abound both in the show and in these recaps.) We see a wild-eyed Brown (Ethan Hawke) delivering one last sermon as he is hitched to the gallows, spewing, spitting, and looking every bit the unhinged John Brown of history books. (At least the history books we had in Georgia.) All while we are treated to the voiceover of Henry “Onion” Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson), a fictional character who will serve as the main character, narrator, and centering presence for the rest of the show.
Onion’s narration is a huge part of “Meet the Lord” and provides the framing for what are essentially a series of vignettes about the “Bleeding Kansas” raids and the early activities Brown undertook before his infamous raid on Harper’s Ferry that would be the most lasting historical legacy. (And the source of the capture and execution that likely will be the first and last images of this show.)
There is a formal experimentational aspect to the entire proceeding. The look and feel of the scenes themselves strive for maximum realism—it is a dirty, harsh and horrible place and time to live for slaves and rebels and white farmers alike. Yet the editing, the effects, and the score create a much more surrealistic experience. Everything shifts at times into a dreamlike state with both the world within the show and even Onion’s narration caught up in the near mythological madness of it all. All of this effortlessly stems from the mind of episode director (and series co-producer) Albert Hughes.
Hughes, along with his twin brother Allen, directed Menace 2 Society, one of the seminal films on the modern Black American experience, and then, perhaps partially due to undue expectations, their careers took long and winding paths through many other projects with a wide range of critical and audience reaction. Both Hughes brothers had done some work on television but with this project Albert, producing along with Jason Blum’s Blumhouse productions and Hawke, seems to be fully going his own way. “Meet the Lord” is the only episode of the mini-series directed by Hughes but he definitely uses his gifts to effectively put his stamp on the series from the start. Hughes’s direction allows for stylistic flourish and big bombastic moments, along with some rather key and intense character moments I’ll get back to in a moment, but at its heart the episode is all about setting up a series of big lasting questions of the Black experience.
This was also the premise of James McBride’s novel, The Good Lord Bird, upon which the television show is based. The novel, published in 2013, also follows the fictional Henry Shackleford as he has a series of adventures alongside and due to his association with John Brown. Key to the novel is a sense of humor and adventure that is apparent throughout “Meet the Lord.” The idea of the novel is that it is in essence a Black take on Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Though the story is much more violent and quite a bit sadder, there is certainly a good deal to unpack about that. This is the story that Ethan Hawke and the writer Mark Richard decided to adapt into a televised mini-series event. (An event that Showtime finally decided to air after two delays, even though the show was completed pre-COVID.) It seems at the heart of the tale is a coming of age story for Henry, a comedic take on the Black experience just prior to the Civil War, and a far, far, wider take than the tale of just one man.
And yet that one man is central to everything. To the people who care about history John Brown is a super complicated figure. To this day there are questions about his tactics, his motivations, his sanity, and for some even the worthiness of his cause. He definitely took up arms against the government and was cruel and violent and not just a little bit unhinged. And yet, his radical anti-abolitionist actions, his interest in what is right over what is acceptable, and his basic sense of righteousness are all laudable. Of course there are also questions about whether his movement was good or bad for the enslaved people he was nominally trying to free as well, such is the problem of thinking yourself not just a “white-savior” but in many ways as a second coming of “The Savior.”
After the flash forward to his execution, “Meet the Lord” jumps backwards to the moment when Henry met the ostensible “Lord”, John Brown. There are a bunch of men in an old western tavern/barbershop and Henry is with his father who is giving a shave to a man in shadows. We know this man is John Brown, not just because he has Hawke’s voice but because we have seen TV before. But still the tension is played out. The man starts quoting bible verses and very obviously attempting to ferment a sense of insurrection in Henry’s father, which does him no favors with any of the many white men settled around the room. When “Dutch” Sherman (David Morse) comes in and starts to verbally assault the man in shadows he finally stands into the light to reveal Ethan Hawke’s face, but he still tries to lie and convince the people that he is someone else.
Once he finally does reveal his identity, two things happen: violence breaks out all over, despite Brown really trying to avoid it in this instance, and the camera cuts become all hectic and jumpy and effectively show the state of Brown’s mind. For Brown has one goal, one calling, and nothing else will get in the way of his God-given mission. Sherman tries to shoot Brown and the gun backfires. This act of Providence plays across Brown’s face. You can tell already he is both completely unhinged with no sense of personal danger and that he feels that absolutely nothing can stop him because God will literally save him. There is a bit of shock on his face but it almost instantly becomes a look of “of course, why should I have even been worried!” Things get worse and worse though. Henry’s father is killed, and Henry and Brown barely escape.
As things settle down and they get back to Brown’s camp, some other key themes and characters get introduced. Back at Sherman’s, Brown mistook Henry’s name for “Henrietta” and had no time, interest, nor ability, to be corrected. Brown thinks Henry is a girl, which, based on the things I know about the rest of the show and the book, will play an important thematic role in the series as a whole, but in this episode is more set up than anything else. We also meet the rest of Brown’s crew which is primarily several of his sons (the real world John Brown had 21 children, I doubt they will all be in the show, but a handful are definitely major characters). Owen (Beau Knapp) is set up as the practical one and the one most likely to challenge his father. John Jr. and Salmon seem to be the quiet types, who aren’t sure if they are really in for this fight. While Frederic (Duke Davis Roberts) is childlike and gentle, and takes an instant liking to “Henrietta”, who gains his “Little Onion” nickname by eating a months old onion Brown intended to give him as a good luck charm. After the onion incident Brown also gives “Onion” a feather—the feather of theme and foreshadowing.
After getting introduced to the camp (and being given a dress that was purchased for Brown’s daughter) Henry is integrated into life in the camp. During this vignette, Henry as the narrator starts to give some indication that he is starting to enjoy the perks of being thought of as a girl, but once again it doesn’t go very far. We are introduced to the titular “Good Lord Bird” as well. As Frederic points out the majestic black and white feathered bird to Henry and talks about how amazing they are and how lucky they are, Henry gives his lucky feather to Frederic. I have no idea how faithful to our real history the show will be but it definitely seems that there are at least some “fixed points.” Brown’s raid and death are definitely one and this is going to be Chekov’s feather for another of them.
Before we get to the end though, there are a few more key scenes. The men are joined by “Reverend” Martin who winds up in a huge argument with Brown about Henry being a part of the group and displays his disgusting nature before leaving, with all of his men, in a disgruntled huff. Certainly that won’t be a long term problem for Brown’s crew, right? Brown, after a marathon praying session (it seems all of his praying sessions are marathon, but this one was still a doozy), decides that he should have killed Sherman and leads the men back.
On the way, they stop at a homestead where one of the men from the tavern lives with his family. Brown interrogates the guy and tries to get the location of Sherman out of him and most of all tries to get him to renounce slavery. When he doesn’t, we reach the complicated part of the action, for the viewer, for Henry, and for history’s view of John Brown. Brown and his men take the man out to the back and Brown executes the man by beheading. An old world justice from the thundering hand of God’s will on earth, sent to help deliver an entire people from bondage? Or a terrorist murderer? The complicated thing, which the show is definitely up to the task of grappling with so far is… Brown is really both. Brown shouts, “Do we mean to start a war?” And it is clear that he does, anyone who is in any way connected to slavery is the enemy, and the penalty for them all is death. The institution of slavery was really bad enough to be a reason for active violent resistance, and also…he is an unhinged madman. Henry, and two of Brown’s sons, definitely think this and they run away into the night.
Henry meets up with Bob (Hubert Point-Du Jour), another slave, and they travel together (and meet an always welcome Keith David for some wisdom) looking to reunite with Brown and head to freedom. The “coward” Bob winds up leaving because he is afraid to come to Brown, only to be brought back later by force after Brown attacks his owner. This sets up another of the contradictions inherent in Brown, and in all attempts at being a white savior figure: the actual life and wishes of the Black people he purports to be working for are at best secondary. Henry is “Henrietta” and can’t even tell Brown that he is actually a man. Bob does not want to fight in this war, he wants to reunite with his family. Yes, both ultimately want freedom, but as Henry says in narration: “But freedom, the kind that was bein’ offered, with no home, no food, and not a friend in the world? That snake was just as poisonous.” Their needs are subsumed by Brown’s, and for all of his talk of righteousness and retribution for justice, Brown is also driven by some baser but still true to life instincts.
Brown’s sons who ran away the same night Onion did turn out to have been captured by Captain Pate (Grainger Hines) and Brown abandons his initial plan to push further into slave territory to free more slaves to instead follow Pate’s soldiers for days on end and attempt to rescue his sons. When they finally find Pate, whose men outnumber Brown’s 5 to 1, Owen tries to suggest strategy but Brown decides to pray. By the time he has finished praying another group of anti-slavery zealots have come, given away their position, and been massacred by Pate. But Brown still has “God” or at least “The Good Lord Bird” on his side, and his attempt at the same ill-fated frontal assault leads to Pate being captured. Pate had already handed off the Brown sons, but Brown out maneuvers J.E.B. Stuart in a battle of lies, and ultimately his sons are back with the group. All is well. Until it isn’t.
The Good Lord Bird is killed. Frederic and Henry are out hunting and accidentally shoot and kill the bird, which is omen of doom. Almost instantly the Reverend Martin and his crew return and kill Frederic. The death dooms the group, as the other sons want to give up the battle or at least give their brother a proper funeral and repose. The death of his son only refocuses Brown though, and you can see the intensity in Hawke’s eyes grow greater and greater as he rails on how he has to fight for justice, not revenge, and how this shows even more that the people who do this to an entire race have to be reckoned with. It’s a grand moment for Hawke and another layer of complexity for Brown. He really is a freedom fighter, and in this moment at least he has decided that the right way to move on is alone. He heads off, dissolving on camera like a ghost. Henry says, “And with that. He was gone. I wouldn’t see him again for a very long time.”
But we only have to wait one week. And I for one can’t wait to see what other depths the creative team have in store for us with this fascinating story and great performances. (Several of the most anticipated performers also haven’t shown up yet.) Hawke’s Brown is the perfect blend of stirring and unsettling and so was “Meet the Lord.”