As much as this mini-series is about John Brown, the real central character is Henry “Onion” Shackleford, who apparently can pass for a white person or a girl without too much effort. Then again, that might be because most of the people he keeps running into are kinda stupid and short-sighted.
If anything, this second episode demonstrates how much of a raw force of nature John Brown seems to be. Brown isn’t in much of this one. He rode off after the death of his simple-minded son Frederick, and as this episode starts, the rest of Brown’s sons and followers are dispersing because, well, they don’t seem to know what to do without John Brown, even if as seen at the end of the episode, he is the sort of person who will grill them on Bible verses in the middle of a shoot-out.
At no point did this mini-series suggest John Brown was right in the head.
The net result is Brown’s sons don’t really know what to do with either Onion or fellow former slave Bob. Those two are on their own, trying to get to a free city only to be diverted and sent to a slave city, and that means Bob is working in the sawmill and Onion can somehow pass for Bob’s owner and work in the local saloon/brothel, partially under the tutelage of a Black woman named Pie. Pie is a popular prostitute who is really attached to her earnings. Onion does teach her to read, but he has a hard time getting out to the pen to talk to Bob. Especially because one man really takes a shining to Onion out there.
Now, there wouldn’t be much of an episode if Onion just hung around the inn all day. He does attempt to get to Bob, and a slave woman will help if he can get her some paper so they can plan a revolt. Onion can write, but he doesn’t have any paper. Pie knows where the paper is, but she won’t help because…well, she just doesn’t like those people. Instead, Pie tells the white folks and after a one-sided trial where the only real success is the accused slave made the white preacher realize he was on the wrong side of history, there’s to be an execution of 9 slaves. Only two of them were actually connected to the potential rebellion.
That hanging scene probably epitomizes this series in so many ways. As the first woman hangs, there’s a few crowd shots, showing sleeping children, gleeful women, and a lot of other reactions where arguable none of them were appropriate for a hanging.
And then John Brown comes roaring back into the story, spitting literal fire and maybe even some brimstone since he and his boys have their own canon. Onion is “rescued,” so is Bob, and Pie, well, she went back for her earnings inside a burning building and done got blown up good. About the only thing Onion accomplished was to keep that preacher guy alive by vouching for him as Brown killed pretty much everyone in his path.
Point is, it is really hard to stay out of John Brown’s orbit once he pulls you in.