“Last Words,” the seventh, and final, episode of The Good Lord Bird, spends most of its time on quieter moments while allowing us to revel one last time in the performances of the two leads. The attack on the armory in Harpers Ferry that had already gone badly in “Jesus is Walkin’” fades away into myth leaving only the “old man” and the “onion” behind to process what happened. The show was built as a showcase for Ethan Hawke’s portrayal of John Brown, and it certainly remained that until the end. And yet, the real revelation was in Joshua Caleb Johnson’s performance as Henry “Onion” Shackleford.
In the beginning of the series, Onion was completely out of his element and Johnson’s performance matched that disquieted feeling so well that it was sometimes hard to tell if it was great acting or if he was actually overwhelmed. It only took an episode or two to show that it was in fact great acting that made Onion so compelling. This was Onion’s story after all, starting with the death of his biological father and ending with the death of his spiritual father. Throughout it all Onion has become more and more proactive, emotionally connected, and captivating, and Johnson’s performance has followed along as well.
For the entire season Johnson has most often been in scenes with, and playing opposite, the absolute inferno that is Hawke’s John Brown. They have one final, long and intimate, scene together in “Last Words”. In this dark and atmospheric scene, Onion and the viewer are finally invited to look past the loud screaming and the gun play and to see what really makes Brown tick. Hawke plays the scene quietly and with an openness and generosity that are every bit as compelling as his scenery chewing in the earlier episodes. The revelations are actually pretty surprising. First, Brown is definitely not crazy and knew everything he was doing. But even more importantly Brown, Onion, and the show creators definitely view him as unquestionably heroic.
Of course that leads to more questions as well. What does it mean to take up arms for what you think is right? How can vicious violence and “dirty fighting” (as Brown puts it) be justified? It is a question the show has been attempting to shine a light on, and is probably part of the reason the show had a rocky post-production journey to the screen. It is definitely the case that the real life John Brown saw slavery as the great injustice in the world and his mission became to end it. His methods, his motivations, and the ultimate judgement on whether he was successful can and should be debated for the rest of time. For The Good Lord Bird the answer is clear, when the world is as wicked as ours the only sane thing to do is tear it apart.
All of that comes to a head in “Last Words”. Series co-creators Mark Richard and Ethan Hawke wrote the script and it really seems to highlight many of the things that they created this series to spotlight. By doing all of this, John Brown now has the ear of every prominent abolitionist. Even the people who would not engage with him before, or who ultimately cast him aside, have come around to listen as he makes his final pleas.
Daveed Diggs has one final cameo as Frederick Douglass to open the episode and he drives this home with his usual majestic aplomb. It is by Brown making this sacrifice and bringing these people to the cause, he notes, that the entire course of history will be affected. Douglass is, as would be expected in his presentation in this series, a bit upset that the glory is not his. But he sees it nonetheless.
The end of “Jesus is Walkin’” left no doubt that the raid on Harpers Ferry would be a complete disaster. It was a loss from the moment that Brown refused to leave when they had the chance. “Last Words” simply fills in the rest of the details. Onion and a few others manage to escape by mixing in with the hostages and slipping out the back. They have to talk their way past the soldiers and convince them they aren’t Brown’s men. There is a great moment when Jeb Stuart and Onion come face to face and Jeb agrees to let Onion go. As Onion says in voiceover, he will forever be unsure whether Jeb actually didn’t recognize him or whether he took pity. It is a great little moment of ambiguity that lends a bit of interest to the Stuart character.
Before he leaves, Onion takes one last look back at the old man. Brown and the remaining freedom fighters all charge out the front of the building in a last charge moment. The screen fades to white as the guns start to blaze as if it is the end of the story. And it is the end in some ways. It is the end for all of the men other than Brown, somehow he is the only one to survive the charge. This is also the end for the legendary version of John Brown, the snarling revolutionary we have come to know so well over the course of the series. When we see him again later in the episode it will be a different man we meet, the Brown who knows that while the battle at Harpers Ferry may have been lost, the war is still to be won.
Onion is not the only one to survive though. When he escapes he goes back to the farmhouse and finds that both Bob and Owen are there. I am once again a bit confused as to why Bob is there. I guess he couldn’t figure out what else to do after leaping from the carriage last week? In any case his presence allows him to impart some last wisdom on Onion and to praise him for his bravery. Henry Pont-Du Jour definitely had less to do than some of the other standouts over the course of the series but it was nice to get these last moments with the character. He goes off in the end (inside a coffin) to freedom and, hopefully, to reunite with his family.
Owen also leaves to reunite with his family. Even with Jason and John Jr. dead, and his father soon to follow, he has many other siblings and family members to which he can return. He finally learns that Onion is actually a man and it seems for a moment that it will be a bad look for the character, that he will have a less than acceptable reaction, but he doesn’t.
Instead, Beau Knapp gives the character a look of quiet realization that he knew something was different all along. “I guess that explains what was up with you and Annie,” he says and then he smiles and says that Onion should bring her something sweet if he pays her a call. It is sweet, hopeful, and romantic and Joshua Caleb Johnson’s hopeful and bashful reaction really sells the whole scene.
Onion finally gets a job giving “trims” in a barber shop and some time seems to pass before word comes, John Brown will be executed the next day. It is this moment that Onion finally takes things upon himself to make his own destiny. Everyone says he should go away, head up north and live his life, but he can’t do that. He has to actually return to see the “old man” one last time both to say goodbye and to be sure there were no lingering secrets between them. That leads to the jailhouse scene that I mentioned earlier.
Onion and Brown are both at their most open. Onion admits that he is not a woman and, fascinatingly, Brown both indicates that he knew and that he didn’t care. It is Brown’s contention that it does not matter what a person wears, what they look like, or how they present themselves. What matters to him is in what is in their hearts. This moment of realization and intuitive thinking on Brown’s part was really a surprise.
It seemed his mission and feelings were far less rational and were driven by his faith and could have led him down a different path. Also a surprise was Brown’s admitting to his many mistakes. Such as not leaving the armory when he could and saving his men and so much more. Brown knows he will die at the gallows, but also that his cause will not die with him. Onion will keep the spark lit and the sacrifices of the others will fan the flames until the whole country explodes and the wickedness of slavery is driven out.
The lives and deaths of Brown’s followers remain important throughout. For the last time we are presented with the static video portraits of the Black characters. Each character gets a moment to be seen, to be understood as a human being, complete and true. Throughout “Last Words” there are moments like this as Michael Nankin’s direction returns to the heavily atmospheric and surrealist filmmaking from earlier in the series. It drives home the point well—these people are essential, these lives and all the lives of Black people, including those who are still being harmed, dismissed, and killed today, matter. James McBride’s novel tried to take on a lot of this and the show definitely took it even further. The series may be historical fiction but is very clear that it is a commentary on current issues too.
As John Brown is on the gallows we are given what Onion believes to be his last words (the narration notes that no one knows his actual last words), which were also among the first words of the series. “What a beautiful country,” Brown whispers before he dies. And beautiful the country is, not because it is special, not because there is no evil here, but because of those people who live and fight and die to make the beauty seen. But the series doesn’t end quite there, the last scene is of Onion packing up a bible and his things and riding a horse off into the sunset. And just as it became clear that his was Onion’s show, it is also clear that while this series was created as a vehicle for Ethan Hawke, it turned into a showcase for Joshua Caleb Johnson. Through it all The Good Lord Bird was also a fascinating peek at a singular historical figure and an exceptional commentary of how far we still have to go.