This The Good Lord Bird review contains spoilers.
The Good Lord Bird Episode 2
During several moments of tonight’s The Good Lord Bird, my mind was whisked back to thoughts of My Fair Lady—or at least George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. In those texts, two confirmed old bachelors in Edwardian England think it is their privilege, if not duty, to remake a poor flower girl into their perfect image. It’s a tale of possessive manipulation and outright obliviousness. And it’s given a distinctly American flavor in the first few hours of Ethan Hawke’s Good Lord Bird.
Like those earlier plays, here is a story where privileged white men, even well-intentioned Old John Brown, think it their right to remake Onion into the type of lady they see fit, all too blind by even their rosy colored racism to ask “her” opinion, or realize that she’s actually a boy. The element was pervasive last week when Onion was under Brown’s alleged care, and it’s even more apparent this week when he is absent from it. For like Eliza Doolittle, Onion can only realize a sense of self without the overbearing male presence in “her” life. But the problem is that as soon as John’s gone, another white man seeks to take his place for even more racially uncomfortable implications.
Thus how we meet Steve Zahn’s Chase. Played by the ever welcome character actor, Zahn brings his typical good humor to this redshirted Kansas shit-kicker. However, there’s an obvious menace when he prances into the episode riding a pony with a leering gaze at the self-claimed mulatto young woman by Bob’s side.
See, when the Brown boys left them alone, Bob had the clarity of mind to try to high tail it to Lawrence where they might be treated as actually free, as opposed to indentured appendages to John Brown’s overinflated sense of virtue. As Bob deduces, Brown’s sons are on “white man’s business,” and it won’t directly benefit these two Black men’s well-being. Unfortunately, the dress draws the scuzzy attention of Chase, a man who proudly will wear the uniform of Pro-Slavery Bushwhacker, even if I doubt he’s ever actually fought their battles. After all, his biggest boasted accomplishments are lies about having gunned down Old John Brown.
Yet despite being a proponent of slavery, or perhaps because of it, he lusts for Onion as another lighter skinned, apparent young woman he can immediately slide into the physical ownership of. She presents herself as another’s property, but Black women’s bodies are viewed as virgin territory for many a white racist to claim.
Chase attempts this, even as he spins tales to Onion about how he also one day might marry the Black prostitute with a supposed heart of gold named Pie. A white racist—or almost any 19th century white American, really—marrying a Woman of Color is as dishonest as the picture Chase paints of Pie.
Played intelligently by Natasha Marc as the sweet mistress of Pikesville, Pie is a Black woman who has survived as well as she has in part because of luck of her beauty and also because of her utilitarian cunning. Literally named after her sexual appeal in the small town, Pie understands how white men view her and she uses that against them—and those she deems untrustworthy around her.
When we first meet her, it’s in a vignette of The Good Lord Bird’s unique blend of folksy and deconstructive humor. There is an irony to Jacob, the real lad beneath Onion’s bonnet, being forced to apprentice at a brothel with the first woman he fancies. But there’s also a knowing eye roll that Pie is the first person to figure out inside of five minutes with Onion that she is not what she appears. Pie seems to take Onion under her wing in return for tutelage—all the better for him since, as she points out, white devils like Chase would castrate him before a lynching due to his lying about his gender, and thereby seeing white women in various states of undress, as well as white men as fools. But as Pie’s first inclination was betrayal, Onion’s initial smittenness, and our amusement at the comedy of manners unspooling inside that brothel, shouldn’t blind any to what was really going on.
Last week Onion was asked to figure out how to survive in a precarious situation by going along with white people and playing whatever role they imagined for him; this week among other People of Color, and slaves at that, Onion is asked to find his own voice and be more forthright in the choices he makes.
As just a child, he understandably fails miserably when he’s asked to use his letter-writing ability to help Sibonia (Crystal Lee Brown), a slave itching to start a revolution; it also brings him to unthinkingly reveal her planning to Pie, who in turn sells Sibonia out to the white clients of Pikesville. And why not? From her vantage, Pie can continue to use the nominal power her namesake provides her to live in a boudoir, as opposed to a cage outside. But it is also condemning others to be free.
The ambiguity The Good Lord Bird so comfortably flirts with is refreshing in the age of black and white morality in our television and pop culture. While the morality of slavery is urgently black and white, which is to say good and evil, the decisions and inner-motivations of individuals is messy, sometimes contradictory, and often ruefully shortsighted. The murkiness of human nature cannot be reduced to a tweet, a third act good deed, or in the case of Onion one naively bad mistake.
In the best scene of the episode, Sibonia is interrogated by the local judge who offers his jurisprudence by threatening to have her teeth pulled out one by one if she doesn’t implicate more names than the already nine Black faces they’ve gathered up for the slaughter. Brown’s acting against that malevolence is good, but what she brings next to the local milquetoast preacher (Alex Sharp), who asks why she would raise a hand against him and his wife when they were so good to her, is extraordinary.
Her delivery of Sibonia’s cold assessment that she’d kill Sharp’s minister first, if for no other reason than to encourage others to be merciless with far more explicitly cruel members of this Pro-slavery community, is poignant and, if from my own white vantage, initially unsettling. But it can’t be judged; not when the good minister acknowledges the wickedness of slavery, if only tacitly, yet sits by in a community that would sell her husband and children, one by one, and would see her hanged for wanting to be free. The ambiguity in her choices, perhaps even a little bit like Old John Brown’s, do not have an easy moral reading. But they ring true when she asserts, “Sometimes a sparrow got to fly wild for it to be set free.”
In this context, Onion learns some hard lessons the way Huck Finn might’ve when he came across the feuding Grangerfords and Shepardsons. In the previous episode, I worried we didn’t really get to know Onion, just what he’d do to survive. This week we met the boy, who still is forced to play the games of white folk like Chase, but also as the even less surefooted lad who might know his letters, but not how to be honest with Black folks who want to use them. His indecisiveness leads to Pie having the ability to betray Sibonia; but also gives him the temperament to go back and save Bob when the shooting starts.
The actual climax of the episode is arguably when Sibonia and her failed conspirators are hanged. The scene certainly pauses long enough for Onion to consider all the faces around him, those laughing and jeering, and those maybe guilty or regretful, like weak mealy-mouthed Chase. But the ones that matter are those up on the gallows with their leader, about to follow her up one last hill.
It makes the actual denouement where Ethan Hawke’s swaggering John Brown finally returns to the screen guns-blazing oh, so satisfying. Like an immense wave of giddy relief, we have Hawke’s sweltering performance once again take center stage. It was the highlight of last week, but its absence gave needed dimensionality to Onion, and depth to The Good Lord Bird. So its late return at the eleventh hour plays almost like a just dessert: Here’s wacky and wild Hawke stopping to interrogate Onion on whether she’s been violated, or sold her virginity to a devil of a man.
How happy it is to hear him debate scripture while firing off bullets, and driving even a coward like Chase crazy enough to run headlong into Old John Brown’s cannon.
“In that moment, just like the rest of the country, Chase was the body in half,” muses Onion’s devastating voiceover narration. That it was, Onion. That it was. And that type of precise use of sardonic dialogue and line-delivery, as well as the grace of looking beneath America’s Better Angels in this crazy moment in history, is what made “The Wicked Plot” a wicked delight.