If there’s been a common idea to The Good Lord Bird in execution, it seems that the idea is John Brown, crazy as he is, is more likely to be successful by accident than anything else. Onion routinely speaks of him, especially at the beginning of the mini-series, as something of a fool. He’s a compelling fool that Onion can’t help but follow, fighting as Brown is for a good cause, but he’s still something of a screw-up. The end result is The Good Lord Bird plays as much as a comedy as anything else.
I think that ended with this episode.
Now, to be fair, the episode does start off the way every other episode has gone: Brown is screwing up, but everyone else seems to be a screw-up, so maybe it isn’t so bad. Brown and his men have successfully captured Harper’s Ferry. They have hostages. What can go wrong?
Starting with Onion not getting back to tell John’s son Jason the password, everything. Particularly as the first casualty is a free black man, the same one who would have helped Brown’s people had Jason known the password. It doesn’t help that it was Brown’s people who killed him.
From there, it’s the usual comedy or errors for anything involving Ol’ John Brown. His people keep taking hostages, more than he can safely tend to or feed. Negotiations with outsiders don’t always go well or are all that effective. For example, Brown is told by an older man that his sick brother is in there, and when Brown offers to let that man go, three old men among the hostages stand up. Brown somehow manages to shame the two liars with the story of King Solomon almost chopping a baby in two in order to determine who the child’s mother was, a trick I saw Batman try once in a comic book and it didn’t work, like, at all, but it somehow works for Brown even if the man released to his brother just seems to have a mild stomachache.
Now, Onion and some other men do manage to slip away to recruit more slaves, and they manage to get…exactly one. Jim, the coachman for a Colonel Washington (George’s great-grandnephew apparently) goes back with a scheme to sneak past by exchanging the Colonel for Brown’s other hostages, something the Colonel agrees to very reluctantly. Except Onion was supposed to stay outside and find more recruits, but that doesn’t work out, and a good chunk of Brown’s people are dead by the time they get back. Oh, and federal troops are on the way.
By the by, Jim doesn’t say much when he gets into the armory with Brown’s people, but that actor does a magnificent job of showing a man slowly realizing just how screwed over he is. That comes when he realizes 1) Brown doesn’t have a massive army of followers as promised, 2) Brown does not realize Onion is a boy, and 3) Brown refuses in his loudest, most spit-flyin’ tones to honor the hostage trade agreement. This is not going to go the way Jim was told it would, and he more or less knows it.
So, really, this is more or less what I have come to expect from the generally irreverent tone of The Good Lord Bird…until the last five minutes or so. When the federal troops arrive, Brown agrees to release a hostage. He sends out a woman with two of his men, one of them Jason. And once the woman is safely behind the troops, they open fire on Brown’s two people, despite the white handkerchief. One dies immediately, but Jason gets back into the building with a nasty would to his stomach, only to die in his father’s arms. That moment is played with all the gravity it deserves, and I don’t think I have really seen anything like it in this mini-series up until now. Maybe back in the first episode when Brown’s most harmless son was killed by rivals, but even then, it didn’t last as John Brown was nowhere to be seen at that moment, and all it did was fire up John Brown to do more. Here, he’s hurting, and he may finally be getting it into his head just how much he underestimated what he was doing. Maybe if he had waited. Maybe if he had put more thought into it. Maybe if he had more than just being on the right side of history, something he didn’t know at the time. It doesn’t really matter because with only one episode left, John Brown is a doomed man.