Season 2 of WGN America’s “Underground” is about to reach its halfway point, and now is the perfect time to discuss the importance of Bokeem Woodbine’s Daniel.
Woodbine may not have a huge role in the series — at least, as yet — but his performance as the educated slave Daniel has proven to be an integral part of the story executive producers Misha Green and Joe Pokaski have set out to tell.
The historical landscape has expanded exponentially, what with the inclusion of Harriet Tubman (Aisha Hinds) and Frederick Douglass (John Legend), but we can’t lose sight of the fact that at its core, “Underground” is a work of dramatic fiction. This is where Daniel comes in: Acting as a narrator of sorts, his life experiences help to inform the theme of each new episode — adding some historical accuracy to the subject matter, hearkening back to the everyday heroes of the time.
Take “Contraband’s” opening scene, for example: In Episode 1’s first few moments, Daniel is secretly teaching himself to read — and it pays off! That victory gets shot down in Episode 2 once he realizes simply sharing a written message of love with his wife and child could get him killed, as literacy is illegal for slaves. Love and death end up being two topics explored in the episode, as we watch Elizabeth (Jessica De Gouw) mourn the shocking death of her husband, John (Marc Blucas).
Episode 3 is a harsh struggle for survival — pitting Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) against the elements as Ernestine (Amirah Vann) spirals out of control. Daniel’s opening scene paves the way as he reads Sojourner Truth’s empowering words to his young daughter. That scene provides a powerful dynamic, setting up the theme of female empowerment that plays out in one of the show’s most visceral episodes yet.
As Daniel begins to buckle under the pressure of his newfound literacy, Episode 4 gives Noah (Aldis Hodge) a rude awakening as he reunites with former Macon 7 slave-turned-plantation owner, Cato (Alano Miller). This knowledge proves to almost break Noah, just as literacy almost breaks Daniel:
“All the words — they gave voice to feelings I never told nobody, not even my Bette,” Daniel tells fellow slave, Bo. “I’m crushing under the weight of the knowledge. It opens up the world to you — and shows you how small the one they got us chained to is.”
With each new episode, Daniel’s experience grows, giving some uniquely grounded context to the struggles our heroes face week in and week out. We’re unsure if Daniel will ever meet Rosalee, Noah, Cato and the rest — but he doesn’t really need to. His legacy speaks volumes on its own.
“Underground” Season 2 airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on WGN America.