Television shows often hide actresses’ pregnancies. Some shows have, for better or for worse, written them into the narrative. But no show has written in a pregnancy quite like WGN’s “Underground.”
The drama revolves around a group of slaves, dubbed the Macon 7, who escape from their Georgia plantation. The second season, which premiered on March 8, finds Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) working with famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman (Aisha Hinds) to help fugitive slaves find freedom through the Underground Railroad.
Rosalee is also trying to reunite with her mother, Ernestine, and younger brother, James, who were sent to other plantations, and find her way back to Noah, the blacksmith who organized the Macon 7’s escape. Rosalee and Noah fell in love last season but were separated when Noah was captured and sent to prison.
In this week’s episode, Rosalee treks through a dangerous stretch of woods in hopes of reaching a ferry that will smuggle her across the river. As instructed by Harriet, she stuffs her blouse with turkey feathers to protect her skin from the buckshot bullets of slave catchers, including the notorious Patty Cannon.
Rosalee reaches the river but is shot by Patty. She manages to swim to dry land, where she is forced to remove the bullet and sterilize her own wound. In the episode’s final moments, Rosalee removes her blouse, revealing an added urgency to her mission: She is pregnant.
The scene makes a powerful statement. Rosalee is struggling to protect her unborn child from the very system that separated her from her own mother. It’s the same system that forced Ernestine to see James sent away from her and to watch her eldest son, Sam, meet an untimely death at the hands of a lynch mob.
But Rosalee is bravest in that last moment, when we see her cradling her pregnant stomach. She is claiming agency, however tentative, over her own body at a time when she and her baby are considered property.
Rosalee’s pregnancy isn’t a complete shock if you follow Smollett-Bell in real life. The actress and her husband, musician Josiah Bell, welcomed their first child in November. But “Underground” made no mention of Rosalee’s pregnancy in last week’s premiere, so it was unclear whether it would make its way into the story. Smollett-Bell has talked about filming the show while pregnant — an especially demanding task considering the number of action scenes and the fact that the show’s actors do many of their own stunts.
“I think it’s the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life,” Smollett-Bell recently told Variety. “Being pregnant the entire season, we were racing against the clock to finish. I wasn’t able to have the normal comfort zone. I had to let go of my crutches. It really made me grow as an artist.”
But Rosalee’s pregnancy also makes sense in terms of the character’s evolution. In Season 1, Rosalee was shy and relatively sheltered, having spent most of her life working in the big house on the plantation. This season, she’s fearless.
Karyn Wagner, the costume designer for “Underground,” said the character’s pregnancy fit with a theme the show established early on: hiding in plain sight. The escaped slaves must constantly evade catchers, but one of the few advantages they have is that most people don’t know what they look like. And Rosalee has already taken to wearing baggier men’s clothing for her work on the Underground Railroad.
“It gave us a great opportunity to show something completely different than we did last season and sort of take the next step for Rosalee’s character in taking charge of her own destiny,” said Wagner, whose other credits include AMC’s “Preacher,” NBC’s beloved “Friday Night Lights” and the 1997 film “Eve’s Bayou,” which starred a young Smollett-Bell.
Wagner read the script for Wednesday’s episode at the same time that the cast did. “You could hear everybody gasping” when they realized that Rosalee was pregnant.
“Rosalee’s game is tough before (the reveal) because she’s taken on this challenge to get her family back together. She’s helping Harriet,” Wagner said. “ Now we know the other pressures that she’s been under. It’s an incredibly exciting moment, dramatically.”
Where to watch
“Underground” is on WGN. New episodes air at 9 p.m. Wednesdays.