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‘The Good Lord Bird’ episode four: ‘Smells Like Bear’

John Brown shifts from pedestal-bound leader to co-conspirator

What happens when the folks who are supposed to be the protectors of justice are the ones actively impeding it?

Smells like revolution is afoot.

Episode four of Showtime’s The Good Lord Bird, Smells Like Bear, offers some calm and contemplation before an inevitable storm.

With John Brown (Ethan Hawke) now sought after by federal agents of the James Buchanan administration, it’s time to shift gears and start raising some cash, so he starts barnstorming the way Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs) instructed him.

While Douglass had a way with the podium that left people starstruck and moon-eyed, Brown, true to form, is more erratic. Brown is effective enough at raising money from white folks — donating money to his righteous anti-slavery zealotry is perhaps the easiest way to quell the abolitionist conscience.

Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson) once again finds himself playing a dubious role in Brown’s campaign, having hopped off a train to wander on foot through Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Mountains.

Harriet Tubman (Zainab Jah, left, standing) and John Brown (Ethan Hawke, left, seated) face free Black people willing to join Brown’s cause in The Good Lord Bird.

William Gray/Showtime

This time, he’s living evidence of the evils of slavery, dispatched to work the aisles and pews, collection hat in hand, as Brown gives fundraising speeches to raise money for his plan to liberate the enslaved people of Harpers Ferry and have them join his quest. Onion becomes a living, breathing slave narrative, although a somewhat inconvenient one. Much of the chaos that Onion has encountered in his life occurred after he met Brown, not before, and again, Onion is pondering whether to continue with the Captain, as he calls Brown. Life with the Captain only seems to be getting more dangerous. Onion’s eyes grow wide as he realizes that his liberator is instructing him to draw upon and fire at federal agents if he and Brown encounter them.

“Except for Frederick Douglass, seems like everybody got to make a speech about the Negro except the Negro,” Onion observes.

Onion confronts Brown with an enumeration of the unexpected consequences Onion’s experienced since his father got caught in the crossfire between the well-meaning Brown and the tavern proprietor Dutch Henry (David Morse), who owned Onion and his father. The truth of the barbarism of slavery isn’t one that Onion has fully lived, which presents some challenges for the testimony Brown wants him to give.

“Dutch ain’t never whipped me, and fed me good,” Onion says. “Never been cold before sleeping in the woods with you and the boys. And I ain’t never been shot at till I met you. Truth be told, I ain’t seen a person murdered till I met you.”

Once again, Onion is facing down the realities of America’s two poisonous snakes, slavery and freedom, and the internal battle that Brown’s presence in his life has inspired. He’s free to run away and do his own thing, but should he?

Enter Harriet Tubman.

When Onion and Brown travel to Canada to convince Black people who have absconded north to return to the States in order to free their enslaved brothers and sisters, Brown finds himself facing a more skeptical audience than white abolitionists. Just as it did with Douglass, the matter of his plan, or lack thereof, provides a hurdle for those contemplating pledging fealty to this wild-haired white man. A solemn Tubman (Zainab Jah) provides Brown with the authority and credibility he lacks, vouching for his (still secret) plan to disrupt slavery with some slave-stealing of his own.

Even Tubman’s words of faith aren’t enough to convince Onion, allowing us to see the throughline of The Good Lord Bird, which is that decisions to fight something as incontrovertibly evil as slavery come down to recognizing individual truths, ones that Brown has often sprinted past in his quest for full liberation. The most tender scene in this series thus far takes place when Brown owns up to his faults and issues “a long-overdue apology.”

“You’re living a life without choice,” Brown says. “I come along and thrust freedom upon you without giving you a deciding vote in which way your life road went. I’m no better than Dutch Henry.”

Recognizing that he’s been infantilizing Onion, Brown tries to course-correct and offers Onion the thing for which Brown has been fighting and killing for: self-determination. It’s an act of humility and faith, and it offers the two things Brown will surely need if he is to accomplish his goals: true loyalty and trust.

It’s the moment when Brown shifts from pedestal-bound leader to true co-conspirator. And truly, how often does that happen?

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.