Too often, period pieces about the making of America treat the past with undue dignity, turning the raucousness and rambunctiousness of a two-and-a-quarter-century pageant of personalities into a chamber piece. American history is serious, sure, but it’s also giddy and strange, and too few entertainments treat it that way. It’s perhaps likely that the character of John Brown — the abolitionist who believed himself possessed by the spirit of the Lord and whose 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry may just have kicked off the Civil War — would tend to resist this sort of false gravity: His mission, for all its consequence and seriousness of purpose, was also fueled by a particularly American mania. But it’s refreshing all the same that “The Good Lord Bird,” Showtime’s new limited series about Brown and his mission, percolates with quirky and strange energy, overflowing with its sense of America as a place defined by its oddity.
Ethan Hawke, who executive produces the series and co-wrote the first episode with showrunner Mark Richard, here plays Brown, a man whom we see early on foaming and spitting with his passion for freeing slaves. (This is an out-on-a-limb performance for an actor who often, as in his Oscar-nominated turn in “Boyhood” and in the “Before Sunrise” trilogy, radiates normalcy, and Hawke nails Brown’s passion, and his impatience with those who don’t share it.) Rage and rhetoric are one outlet for his holy and righteous mission; another one is compassion, which he shows to a teenage freed slave named Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson). As in James McBride’s 2013 novel, on which the series is based, see Brown through Onion’s eyes. it’s a smart way to situate a man who is both merciful and terrifying: Brown’s mercurial nature doesn’t always have to make sense when he’s ebbing in and out of Onion’s view. His bizarreness is the point.
The show has a big-hearted embrace of the possibility within America. Brown’s mistaking Onion for a girl is proof, perhaps, of his insistence that he is right; his giving Onion a dress to wear and seeing that he wears it is proof of his power to bend the world around him to his vision; Onion’s coming to feel an unusual comfort being treated with the delicacy and grace afforded a young woman suggests a sort of curiosity about the varieties of experience available to those willing to live creatively. (It’s worth noting that Johnson, a young actor, holds the center of the series with an assurance and talent beyond his years.) Elsewhere in the series, figures familiar from history textbooks pulse with life: Harriet Tubman (Zainab Jah) and Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs) feel rounded and real in their full-throatedness. They’re pillars of opposition to slavery, but that objection comes from an understandable emotional objection rather than simple superhuman goodness.
It will hardly come as news that Tubman and Douglass, like Brown, were real people, and yet it’d be easy to canonize them rather than doing the tricky work of making the historical cameo human. If there’s a flaw in “The Good Lord Bird,” it’s that in trying to teach the complexity of Brown, it can seem to biff the transitions between madness and clarity: Hawke sells both Brown’s rage and his clear-eyed vision, but it can be too stark a binary, with scenes written to serve one or the other side of the man’s temperament, but not both.
But it’s a small complaint about a show that, in the main, uses the sine wave of Brown’s moods to tell a story about the nation that created him, and that may have needed him as a conscience. Brown was a believer — in the voices within, but also in justice. Hawke’s committed and tenacious performance, in the midst of a show that’s curious about what sort of bravery was possible within a fracturing America, is a galvanizing and surprisingly elegant reminder of what has come before in this nation, and what sort of wild, impassioned courage might rescue the present moment from something as unimaginative as cruelty.