On October 4, 2020, The Good Lord Bird, a 7-part miniseries about the life of abolitionist John Brown—based on the award-winning novel of the same name by James McBride—premiered on Showtime. We enlisted historian Megan Kate Nelson to watch and review the series, episode by episode. We’ll publish her takes below, as each episode airs. Episode Five: “Hiving the Bees” (aired November 1, 2020) “Hiving the Bees” is the first of a three-episode finale arc of The Good Lord Bird. John Cook (Rafael Casal) and Onion arrive in Harpers Ferry, tasked with renting a farm and establishing a headquarters for the raid on the arsenal (Cook) and recruiting enslaved men and women to their cause (Onion). The episode creates all the backstory for how and why the raid (which will take place in episode six) turned out the way it did. It also depicts the creation of one interracial friendship, and the destruction of another. The Harpers Ferry plan goes awry almost immediately.
Cook is a loose-lipped Lothario, and his tendency to reveal John Brown’s plans at the local tavern and his affair with the neighbor’s wife bring the nosy Mrs. Huffmaster (Patricia French) to the farmhouse door. She is there looking for her sister-in-law, but she quickly becomes suspicious about what exactly her new neighbors are up to. Onion isn’t much better at “hiving the bees” (recruiting followers). His first clumsy attempts—offering to teach the enslaved people in the area to read—just terrify them, and they avoid Onion whenever he comes around.
The Underground Railroad is active in the area, coordinated by the Coachman (Victor Williams) and the Rail Man (Orlando Jones), but Onion does not know the passwords. Like all of the black folks in The Good Lord Bird thus far, the enslaved and freed people of Harpers Ferry immediately see Onion for exactly what he is, while he continues to fool every white person he meets. But no one understands who Onion is as a person. “Even though I was living a lie, it come to me this way,” Onion declares in a voiceover. “Nobody sees the real you. Nobody knows who you are on the inside. You are judged on the outside. Mulatto, colored, Black. It don’t matter. You’re just a Negro to the world.”
In this episode, however, Onion meets someone he thinks might see who he is on the inside. When Brown and the rest of the gang arrive at the farm, Brown’s daughter Annie (Maya Hawke) is with them. Brown tasks her with continuing Onion’s education, and together they discuss literature and enact one of Shakespeare’s plays (“As You Like It,” which has a female protagonist who dresses as a man) for the gang, who hide upstairs during the day to avoid detection. Maya Hawke, who is the daughter of Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, will be familiar to those of you who have seen the third season of Stranger Things. Her Annie is easy-going and open-hearted. She is the opposite of Pie (Natasha Marc) in almost every respect, and you can see why Onion falls in love with her (for real this time). It makes sense, then, that he would reveal his true identity to Annie at the end of the episode.
But Onion must run off after his declaration—“I’m a man, and I love you, Annie Brown!”—because he has forgotten to tell her father the password he must give to the Rail Man to set the Harpers Ferry raid in motion. Brown has been forced move up the date of the raid (disobeying Harriet Tubman’s order that once he settles on a date he must not change it) because Mrs. Huffmaster has taken her suspicions to the sheriff. This disastrous news follows another dispiriting moment for Brown: Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs) abandons him in his moment of need. In the final meeting between the two men, Brown drops to his knees and begs Douglass to take part in the raid.
“If we work together, we can achieve the impossible,” he pleads. “Come with me, Frederick. I will defend you with my life. When we strike, the bees will swarm. But they won’t swarm for me. They’ll swarm for love. And they’ll swarm for you.” Douglass helps Brown to his feet, and says he cannot do it. He will fight to win the battle against slavery, but he will not martyr himself. The Emperor (Quentin Plair), who is with him, is disgusted. He leaves Douglass in order to join Brown’s band. Hawke and Diggs, once again, play well off of one another in this scene.
Brown’s anguish is palpable, as is Douglass’ lack of it. “Frederick had wronged the old man something terrible,” Onion says. Douglass was no revolutionary, it turned out. “He was a speechifying parlor man.” Brown and Douglass shake hands when they part, their friendship is over. Douglass’ betrayal, along with the changed date of the raid and Onion’s incompetence as a recruiter, are bad omens. Despite the lightness that the Onion-Annie friendship brought to the episode, it was strange to watch at this particular moment in time, in these final days before the 2020 presidential election. We are teetering on the edge of a similarly momentous event. There are bad omens aplenty, but also a sense of hope, and of the moral justice of the fight. Megan Kate Nelson is a historian and writer. She is the author, most recently, of The Three-Cornered War: The Union, the Confederacy, and Native Peoples in the Fight for the West (Scribner, 2020).
Other articles in this series:
Review of Episode One: “Meet the Lord”
Review of Episode Two: “A Wicked Plot”
Review of Episode Three: “Mr. Fred”
Review of Episode Four: “Smells Like Bear”
Review of Episode Six: “Jesus Is Walkin'”
Review of Episode Seven: “Last Words”