What happens when a passion project created by a performer as a showcase for their talents takes a decidedly different step? Is an episode of a show about John Brown still the same show when Brown himself doesn’t show up until the final minutes? Can an episode about the growth of the actual main character still be a divergent side quest? Can the most riveting character of an entire series actually be a woman from the second episode with about five total minutes of screen time before her death? The second episode of Showtime’s The Good Lord Bird “A Wicked Plot” decided to take on all of those questions and much more, and the answers speak volumes about the fascinating little project.
The plot and action of the episode are really quite simple, but I think the script, written by Mark Richard and Erika L. Johnson, is a great showcase for the non-Brown characters. It is great to imagine Ethan Hawke pitching this great showcase series for his talents and then quickly shifting into an episode like this one, where his character doesn’t show up until the final act. The action picks up immediately after the end of “Meet the Lord.” Owen and the rest of the Brown boys head out to tie up some loose ends, but they leave Onion and Bob behind. Pointedly, Owen asks them to stay put and says that he will be back for them after he does some recognizance.
Neither Bob nor Onion wants to wait though, with it being very obvious that they both don’t really even believe Owen would come back for them. They take off on their own but soon encounter a group of “red-shirts” (basically pro slavery vigilantes). The group’s leader, or at least their loudest member, is a man named Chase (Steve Zahn) who winds up cajoling an overly idealistic Onion into heading with them to the slave trading town of Pikesville, Missouri.
Once they get to Pikesville, things go south pretty quickly. Due to some misperceptions about terminology, Chase thinks Onion is a prostitute and takes him to the local brothel where it turns out he has been a regular with one of the women. That prostitute, a woman named Pie (Natasha Marc), winds up taking in Onion after she discovers he is a male. Onion, while trying to find and help out Bob, winds up becoming embroiled in an insurrection led by a woman named Sibonia (Crystal Lee Brown). The insurrection is outed to the local judge by Pie and nine slaves, including Sibonia, are hanged. At the end of the episode, John Brown and his vengeful group of men come to the town and enact “the lord’s justice on it” with Chase, Pie, and the judge among the many dead at the end.
Each of the plot threads exists to establish the characters more than anything else. The most fascinating aspect of “A Wicked Plot” to me is that it takes time away from being a showcase for Ethan Hawke’s Brown and instead really makes an effort to focus intensely on a whole different set of characters, including several who will only appear in this one episode.
With Brown away for the majority, obviously there is a great deal more time to spend with our erstwhile narrator, Henry “Onion” Shakleford, but there is also a really interesting set of dualities explored among the supporting cast. So for the rest of this recap I want to focus on each of the characters cast into the spotlight and how I think they resonate on the themes of the episode, the other spotlighted characters, the show itself, and the way the show is commenting on both our history and our difficult present.
Onion as a character is still a bit of a cypher. Despite the narration it is difficult to really get a handle on what is going through his head most of the time. But this episode definitely gives him a significant arc. He remains extremely naïve at the beginning of the episode, which has pretty significant consequences for both Bob and himself. As time goes on though, it is obvious that he is getting harder and harsher, and more radicalized. He is both infatuated with Pie and disgusted by her behavior. He is both afraid to take action and yet unwilling to sit back when there is a chance to save Bob.
I’m also still not entirely sure where I stand on Johnson’s performance. There are definitely some high points, particularly in his reactions to Hawke’s Brown and I love the tone setting narration. But in an episode like this one where Hawke is mostly absent and Johnson needs to take up the slack I’m not completely sold yet. Johnson has to play the calming center with the extremes of Hawke’s portrayal of Brown exploding all around him (and if you have seen the trailers you also know that there is another fireball of charisma coming) and I do think he is playing the right notes, I just think I want to see him do more and to be more central to the show.
Onion’s choices have also been extremely frustrating, I am not entirely certain I buy why he insists on following Brown, or going with Chase, instead of listening to Bob. It seems as though his inaction and simply moving along with the actions of the white characters is part of the point of the show, as he has to learn to break free of that enslaved person mindset. And by the end of the episode he seems to actually be ready to fight with Brown. I guess that’s what happens when your first real crush turns out to be a horrible, greed and avarice driven queen of immorality.
Speaking of Pie, I always find it interesting when a trope is turned on its head and The Good Lord Bird definitely did that with the “hooker with a heart of gold” cliché. When Pie discovers Onion’s secret and agrees to help him in exchange for him teaching her to read it seems like there would be two possible outcomes: either she would die tragically or she would wind up joining the Brown boys. For a bit she seems kind and open-hearted, and she is definitely popular and well liked by some people. It just turns out that is because in order to survive she has given herself entirely over to baser instincts.
From the beginning she tries to keep Onion away from Bob and the other slaves who are penned up outside. Her life is “better” even in the horrible world and with the horrible desires of white men taken out on her because at least she gets to think she has some control over it. And that desire to keep her own control overwhelms whatever “heart of gold” qualities she may have once had. Instead it turns out that she is driven by actual gold, and in a dramatic flair when the Brown boys are raiding the town at the end of the episode instead of escaping to freedom with Onion she goes back for her money and ends up engulfed in a fiery inferno of her own making.
Natasha Marc plays Pie with a great sense of fun and enthusiasm throughout. The viewer can understand why Onion was so immediately infatuated with her and why she is so popular with the Judge and all the important men of the town. But Marc’s portrayal is never sunny, the darkness that shows itself when Pie turns in Sibonia and the conspirators is there in every scene too. Pie is determined to push through the life that she has been given, but she has no empathy left, and that lack of empathy and respect for the other people of color she meets colors the character in many ways. It turns out that she wasn’t who Onion wanted her to be, but she was who she thought she had to be.
The heart of the episode though belongs to Sibonia. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a complex and fully realized character with so little screen time before. Sibonia is calculated, every move she makes is a balance of risks and rewards. For herself, for her sister, for her fellow slaves, and ultimately for everyone everywhere. Sibonia’s ploy to get free is a bit confusing, but the story isn’t about that. Sibonia’s story is in the storm behind Crystal Lee Brown’s eyes as she waits on the gallows and in the steel in her voice as she confronts the Judge and the Preacher during her supposed “trial.” Brown’s portrayal of Sibonia is pure iron, unbendable, defiant, and incredibly compelling.
The white people of the town’s reaction to Sibonia’s insurrection attempt is very telling. They, including the so-called “enlightened” ones like the preacher, fall immediately into brutal violence, show trials and general horribleness. Sibonia calls the preacher out for it, and you can tell in his reactions and his final prayer for her that he knows she is right. He is complicit in the lasting dehumanization of an entire people, and no amount of acting nice and friendly with slaves with his wife, no amount of preaching words he doesn’t live, will change anything.
Sibonia is pointed and direct, “I would have killed you and your wife first,” she says, directing a gaze that goes through him. The death of Sibonia and her co-conspirators is a reminder that no matter how violent Brown and his crew get, the actual institutional violence of white society is much deeper and more incipient. As Onion watches Sibonia hang it definitely seems as though something starts to change within him.
Most of the citizens of the town are either presented as fully complicit like the madam of the hotel where Pie and Onion work or the judge who frequents Pie’s room and who is responsible for the hangings. But the character who brought Onion and Bob to Pikesville is somewhat different and more complicated. Steve Zahn’s Chase starts off as purely comedic, taken in by Onion’s (accidental) dirty talk and pouring out his heart to the young man he thinks is a woman. Interestingly, though Chase is a “red-shirt” and brags of how he “killed John Brown” among many other sins, his views on race are complicated by his relationship with Pie.
He seems obsessed, obviously frequenting her room more often than he can afford (he brings Onion to the madam in part to make up for the $9 debt he owes to Pie). As the episode progresses Chase seems to open up more and more to Onion and eventually, after Pie turns his marriage proposal down, he offers to free Onion to live with him at at his farm. Chase seems both unable and unwilling to see the contradictions between his love and lust and the way his actions demean both Pie and Onion. Of course, once he finally does meet John Brown he gets much more literally torn apart.
In an episode like this, the viewer is primed the whole time for the central character to return to the stage, and when John Brown finally shows up in this one he does not disappoint. Brown’s particular form of justice and indignation feels very cathartic with all the things we have seen about this town. And once again Hawke gets to play the juiciest of parts, as he gets to give his inspirational speech this time while staring down a cannon. The time without Brown on screen has done its job, for the viewers and for Onion alike. We now need him back—we want the destruction, we want the deliverance. And for just five minutes, we all get it.
After the destruction of Pikesville, the episode ends with Brown’s “army” now reunited with their “good luck charm” Onion, and “soldier in training” Bob, heading off, not into the sunset, but toward a church. The religious imagery, and Brown’s ever present notion of himself as the capital S “Savior” continue to move the story forward and now we all have to be ready for whatever vengeance tomorrow will bring.
All images courtesy of Showtime