Spoilers are ahead. In Barry Jenkins' The Underground Railroad, viewers are ushered into an alternate reality in which the aforementioned railroad isn't just a metaphor but an actual network of operating vehicles, whisking enslaved people and allies through secret tunnels to their freedom. The Amazon Prime original mostly stays true to the eponymous Colson Whitehead novel it was adapted from, but Jenkins touches it up with some important changes throughout to bring the story to life. The most striking adjustment being its climactic, slightly altered ending. In Whitehead’s work, his protagonist finds herself all alone at the end of the road, but Jenkins’ finale creates a world in which she is able to be part of something much bigger.
Initially set in the Antebellum South, The Underground Railroad follows the winding, heart-pounding journey of a young Black woman named Cora (Thuso Mbedu) through the United States via the literal railroad. Her odyssey, at times, is beautiful, punctuated with the gentle euphoria of youthful romance and the innocent flutterings of first love. Other moments, it's devastatingly marked by the vicious anti-Black brutality that American chattel slavery is best known for. All the while, slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) is at her back, but in the final two chapters, Cora is forced to confront her pursuer head-on.
After being chased all the way to the hideaway of Valentine Farm, an idyllic and intimate community of Black people living as freely as they can in Indiana, Cora is ultimately apprehended by Ridgeway during a racist attack on her new home. As the residents of Valentine Farm are being murdered in cold blood — including her new love interest Royal (William Jackson Harper) — Ridgeway forces Cora to show him the way to the local stop of the Underground Railroad. There, she learns of all of the dastardly deeds that he committed on his warpath to her.
Furious and heartbroken, Cora begins to show Ridgeway into the tunnel, but she makes a snap judgement as they descend underground. In an instant, she pulls him down, and they both fall several feet to the ground. Inside of the tunnel, Cora faces an injured Ridgeway, overwhelmed by the weight of her past and her mother's legacy. There, she shoots him three times, severing their cursed tie forever before heading back to Valentine Farm to see if anyone survived the massacre.
As it depicts the violence wrought upon the farm, episode 10 also takes time to demystify the legend of Cora's mother Mable (Sheila Atim). For all of Cora's life, she's believed that her mom heartlessly abandoned her, but that wasn't at all the truth. In reality, Mabel was a devoted parent to her child, but her heart was broken because of the realities of living as an enslaved person in the violent state of Georgia.
In addition to being the daughter of a woman who was amongst the last of the enslaved community to have been born in West Africa, Mabel's wounds from experiencing abuse and violence daily take a toll on her fraught mental state. After a particular tortuous encounter results in the gruesome murder/death by suicide of her friend and two newborn babies, the woman reaches her wits end, fleeing into the same swampy, dangerous woods that her own child would enter almost a decade later. In a daze, Mabel moves forward as if possessed before coming to her senses; she can't leave her daughter behind. But before she can turn back, Mabel is bitten by a poisonous snake and falls to her death, her body hidden in plain sight under the murky backwoods waters.
Present day, Cora has briefly returned to Valentine Farm only to find the siege still taking place. In the midst of the fight, she spies a young girl named Molly hiding from the violence. Knowing that she can't leave the child to be slain, Cora rescues Molly — a poignant foil to her mother's inability to save her — and together, they flee to the nearest local stop of the railroad. There, the pair operate a handcart to the end of the railroad's line, where they emerge to find an abandoned farm and a friendly-looking Black man on a wagon. He's headed west and invites Cora and Molly along, and without hesitation, the three set off on another adventure.
After everything that we endured while watching The Underground Railroad, its final scene might feel quietly devastating simply because we know that the next leg of Cora's journey west won't be a smooth one by any means; she will likely be on the run for the rest of her life. But for the actress who plays Cora, our protagonist's final moments on screen inspire hope, not despair. In Thuso Mbedu's mind, the next chapter would see Cora stepping into her role as a leader and a revolutionary.
"Even as she's going west, I think Cora knows that she owes it to herself and to everyone that she's lost along the way to eventually make it up north, to go as far north as she can," Mbedu mused in a Zoom conversation with Refinery29. "Because she realises that so many people helped her to get to where she is on her journey. Life has taught her that being north is ultimately where her freedom is — she can't afford to settle for anything less than what she originally intended."
"She also had that conversation with Royal where she questioned the worth of the railroad if only special people could access it," Mbedu pointed out. "Although she's not one who sits and plans to help people, Cora definitely has a protective instinct because she knows what it's like to be without a protector. So I think Cora would for sure play an active role within the Underground Railroad to help more people escape north to find freedom."
We probably won't ever get to see if Mbedu's speculation (which also includes a cheeky hypothesis that Cora is now pregnant after her night of passion with Royal) about the character comes to pass because The Underground Railroad is a one-season project taken from a completed story. Yet, even knowing that the antebellum era would continue for slavery before anti-Blackness would take the form of the Jim Crow era and the institutional racism we face today, her optimism about Cora's uncertain future is inspiring because it is absolutely in line with the ever-present resilience and communal spirit of Black America.
Though the Amazon Prime series doesn't shy away from telling a story of suffering, Jenkins also makes sure to paint a full picture of the people living in that time and remind us that the vivid dreams of the ancestors didn't die even as they themselves perished; their legacy would outlive them for generations to come.
All 10 episodes of The Underground Railroad are now available for streaming, only on Amazon Prime.