This review contains spoilers.
If the first episode of The Long Song was about the little rebellions against hierarchy, then the second episode is all about the hierarchy itself. Finding herself free, July (Tamara Lawrance) has an encounter with another former slave who is now a white man’s wife and is keen to remind July that she may have her liberty, but she hasn’t exactly progressed as far as her position in the world goes. The new overseer Robert Goodwin (Jack Lowden) has good intentions and clearly has an eye for July so she courts his affections, much to the chagrin of her mistress, Caroline Mortimer (Hayley Atwell). However, the slaves’ liberty brings its own problems to Amity plantation and July’s plan might not go as smoothly as she thinks.
Lowden’s conflicted performance moves to centre stage here as a man with good intentions who is forced to wrestle with a system that is founded on centuries of prejudice. Lowden is excellent in this capacity, having Goodwin stand tall and proud at the beginning, only to physically shrink as Goodwin’s principles clash with his reality. Writer Sarah Williams and director Mahalia Belo initially establish Goodwin as a shining golden-haired, blue-eyed beacon of a new age; he thanks the former slaves who serve him and makes a point of paying them wages and granting them low rants. But as the crop ripens, Goodwin’s intentions are slowly peeled back to reveal a man riddled with hypocrisy as his commitment to this new equal age only goes so far.
His relationship with July is key to this. He refuses to sleep with her at first because he doesn’t want to be the kind of overseer who takes advantage of his workers, like former and very deceased overseer Tam Dewar. But he’s quite happy to marry Caroline under false pretences and sleep with July as his “true wife” without batting an eyelid. Not only that, but he ascends from an overseer to a master of a plantation. Like July, he has ambitions to climb the social ladder, but he already has a head start as a white man in that respect. His ascension is honourable on the surface, but the wry narration cuts in again to point out just how well he does out of this manoeuvre.
The power dynamics of July and Caroline’s fractious relationship shift constantly through this episode. A patriarchal system like 19th century society will always place women in competition with each other in this way, leaving them to grasp at any shred of power they can get their hands on. The competition between July and Caroline carries not only a social difference, but a racial one as well and in parallel to our own era, some white women will do just about anything to keep their position in the hierarchy. Atwell gives Caroline all the maturity of a spoiled toddler and she is a woman who is so convinced of her own superiority that she manages to feel desperately inferior all the time. In contrast, July is much more assured, but crucially operating from a position of extreme disadvantage.
The skill in Lawrance’s portrayal of July is that you’re never quite sure of how much she buys into the relationship with Goodwin. She manipulates his affections at the beginning, but clearly comes to love her ever-so-slightly loftier status and possibly even Goodwin too. Just as Lowden shows Goodwin’s deterioration, so too does Lawrance demonstrate that July begins to lose her carefully gathered control of the situation around her. The system is too rigid, too well-rooted to change as soon as the slaves were granted their freedom.
That doesn’t mean they don’t stop fighting against it though. In one of the most powerful scenes of the two episodes so far, the use of music as a form of protest is utilised beautifully during the scene in which Goodwin tries to coax his workers into seven working days over Christmas. The steady escalation of the scene and the excellent ensemble performance return the audience to the tension that dominated the first episode. The world might be changing, but it will still be a fight to dismantle the hierarchy that still governs Jamaica.
Read Becky’s review of the previous episode here.