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‘The Good Lord Bird’ episode five: ‘Hiving the Bees’

Onion is drawing closer to manhood and it’s getting difficult to hide that he’s not a girl

The closer we draw to his inevitable fate, the more The Good Lord Bird starts to feel like Titanic — history has already revealed John Brown’s ending, and yet we find ourselves hoping against hope that the story will be miraculously different.

Spoiler alert: It is not. Brown (Ethan Hawke) definitely dies after the raid he leads on Harpers Ferry, even in the most charming and irreverent version of the story.

But we’re not there yet, which means that episode five, Hiving the Bees, is more concerned with foreshadowing the various things that could go wrong. It’s not quite a comedy of errors, but it has its moments.

Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson, right) has developed an attraction to Annie Brown (Maya Hawke, left), who teaches him Shakespeare and Emerson.

William Gray/SHOWTIME

From the moment Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson) and John Cook (Rafael Casal) arrive in Harpers Ferry to find and rent a house to serve as the base for the raid, it’s clear that this will be another ragtag Brown mission, as Brown’s deputies remain the worst at following instructions.

Funded by money from Elizabeth A. Gloucester, “the richest Black woman in America,” Cook and Onion are charged with finding a house that’s set far back from the road and is relatively close to the Harpers Ferry armory. But Cook is more of a skirt-chaser than a scout, so the men end up parking the Brown base in a house that’s the opposite of ideal. At least it’s close to a married woman who’s eager to cheat on her husband and the nosy sister-in-law, Mrs. Huffmaster (Patricia French, whose voice gets deeper and scratchier with contempt with each interaction she has with her neighbors), who keeps sniffing around for her.

Meanwhile, Onion is drawing closer to manhood and it’s getting difficult to hide the fact that he’s not a girl. A faint mustache is beginning to make its way across his top lip. For the second straight episode, Brown has broached the topic of Onion’s menses and what to do about them. And Onion, poor dear, has discovered that his hormones are indeed in working order, and has developed an attraction to Brown’s daughter, Annie (played by Hawke’s real-life daughter, Maya), who teaches him Shakespeare and Emerson.

If anything, this episode raises questions about the limits of love, devotion and their usefulness. Both Annie and Brown are undeniably devoted to Onion, but neither of them can see that Henrietta is actually Henry, a point that gets more pronounced every time Onion meets a new Black person who clocks him immediately. Both the Coachman (Victor Williams), a plantation slave, and the Rail Man (Orlando Jones), a rail porter, are important figures on Virginia’s Underground Railroad. They know a boy in a dress as soon as they see one.

But devotion is a tricky thing. Like Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs), both the Coachman and the Rail Man can spot the obvious deficiencies in Brown’s plan. Unlike Douglass, the Coachman and the Rail Man assent to participating in it anyway. So does Douglass’ body man, Broadnax (McKinley Belcher III). Douglass bows out, citing a sense of pragmatism. “You are a fanatic. I am a realist,” Douglass tells Brown at their last meeting. The Rail Man agrees to traffic Black people from Washington, Baltimore, and Maryland’s Eastern Shore to Harpers Ferry to join Brown’s raid. Brown, he says, picked a terrible town for rounding up as many Black people as possible (i.e., “hiving the bees”), given that most of the Black people in Harpers Ferry are enslaved women and children, not men.

Brown isn’t enslaved people’s best man, but he is their best shot. Maybe Douglass can’t fully see it because he’s got too much to lose. The episode opens with Douglass once again preening — this time it’s in preparation for a photograph, his weapon of choice, besides speechmaking. “Captured likenesses of individuals will be the great equalizer of our culture … this new invention will portray the Black man’s humanity and slavery’s inhumanity.”

Maybe the Douglass of The Good Lord Bird thinks himself as just too cute to die in a hailstorm of bullets. “I am enamored with the device,” Douglass says of the camera. “And the device is enamored of me.”

But for Onion, the time to claim his true identity draws nearer with each sprouting of upper lip peach fuzz. Finally ready to be a man, Onion bares his chest and, with next to nothing to lose, starts running toward danger.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.