October 4, 2020 8:00 AM EDT

“So John Brown is crazy?” It’s Frederick Douglass who utters these particular words, in the third episode of Showtime’s The Good Lord Bird. But the question permeates the funny, tragic and profound miniseries based on James McBride’s National Book Award-winning 2013 novel, which debuts on Oct. 4. Brown—the white abolitionist who led an unsuccessful 1859 raid on a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, WV—certainly comes off as quixotic in the few paragraphs the typical U.S. history textbook devotes to him. Of course a scraggly 59-year-old with less than two dozen men backing him up in his effort to arm enslaved people was instead going to be captured and hanged for treason. Then again, did any white person in antebellum America take a braver stand against the barbarism of slavery? If Brown was crazy, what were his executioners—sane?

Few actors could step into the shoes of this real-life walking contradiction: a Christian minister who embraced Old Testament justice, a loving father who sacrificed several sons to his cause, a violent extremist on the right side of history. So let us now praise Ethan Hawke, who co-created the adaptation with Mark Richard (Fear the Walking Dead) on the heels of his career-highlight performance as a priest driven mad by contemporary tragedies both personal and global in Paul Schrader’s core-shaking film First Reformed. He’s clearly fascinated by zealots—characters locked in existential struggles with faith and morality and their duties to a world that falls egregiously short of their ideals. Merciless with enslavers, scarily fervent on the abolitionist lecture circuit and prone to temperamental outbursts on the frequent occasions when his plans go awry, Hawke’s kinetic Brown is breathtakingly patient, kind and generous with his family and followers. If he’s a bit of a holy fool, too quick to trust anyone who claims to share his convictions, then he can also be surprisingly insightful; he perceives the complacency of progressive Northerners and realizes that many, many people will have to die to liberate Black Americans from bondage.

Johnson and Brown make an unlikely pair
Kevin Lynch/SHOWTIME

Like a solar eclipse, Brown burns too brightly to be viewed straight on. McBride (an executive producer of the miniseries) filters him through the perspective of a fictional protagonist: Henry Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson), an enslaved boy who assists his barber father in a Kansas tavern. Brown visits the establishment in 1858, during the Bleeding Kansas conflict—a years-long series of violent skirmishes over whether the future state would permit slavery—and starts preaching abolition. When Henry’s dad is killed in the ensuing shootout, Brown flees with the boy in tow—except he misheard his new ward’s name as Henrietta and believes him to be a girl. The simple burlap sack Henry is wearing doesn’t help disabuse Brown of the notion. “The way he believed, he believed,” the boy explains in voiceover narration that successfully recreates the feel of McBride’s colloquial, first-person storytelling. “It didn’t matter if it was true or not. He was a real white man.” In another misunderstanding, at Brown’s camp, Henry eats a tiny rotten onion the old man has been keeping as a good-luck charm and is nicknamed “Onion.”

It’s Onion who brings out the dark humor in Brown’s crusade—not because there’s anything funny about a vulnerable Black kid who’s just lost his father in the crossfire between two white men, but because the reluctantly cross-dressing boy plays straight man to a well-intentioned, wild-eyed radical who arguably hurts the people he means to save more often than he helps them. And the two characters make a good team. Sometimes they’re both too naive to understand what’s happening around them. But as the seven-part series progresses, we watch Onion absorb information that Brown can’t or won’t internalize, slowly evolving into a savvy young man (despite the dresses he acquiesces to wearing). In a subtle, sweet performance that provides a welcome contrast to Hawke’s holy-rolling intensity, newcomer Johnson depicts liberation as an active process of developing free will, loyalty and the courage of one’s convictions.

While the tense final three episodes cover Onion’s time in Harpers Ferry, the first four unfold as a looser sort of picaresque, in the style of Mark Twain. One standout episode has him traveling with Brown to Rochester, NY, in hopes of securing the support of Douglass, who is portrayed by the prolific Daveed Diggs as a man oozing with self-regard. (Historians will have to judge whether Diggs’ vain, imperious performance is fair to an American hero with a complicated legacy.) As telling as Douglass’ discomfort around the unpredictable Brown is his condescending treatment of Onion; instead of empathizing with the fellow former slave, he distances himself from the literate but unpolished boy, mocking his colloquial grammar.

Daveed Diggs as Frederick Douglass and Tamberla Perry as Anna Douglass
William Gray/SHOWTIME

The show suffers a bit whenever Hawke is offscreen for too long, such as when Onion and his shrewd pal Bob (Hubert Point-Du Jour) split from Brown’s army for a time and our hero endeavors to hide his “true nature” while apprenticing at a brothel. But it’s enjoyable, in its humor, insight and preservation of McBride’s vivid language, even when its narrative momentum slackens. The Good Lord Bird strikes me as a remarkably contemporary slavery story. It’s no simplistic revenge fantasy like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, yet its makers also get that viewers shouldn’t have to see constant, graphic violence against Black bodies to understand the institution as an atrocity. At the same time, unlike many recent period pieces—from The Great, where rude 18th-century Russian royals bear striking resemblances to the unfit leaders of today, to Lovecraft Country, with its supernatural take on the pre-civil-rights ’50s—it doesn’t need flagrant anachronism to hold our attention. (“All of this is true,” read the title cards that open each episode. “Most of it happened.”) And why should it? As the last few months have so powerfully and painfully reminded us, when it comes to race in America, the past isn’t even past.

Neither does the show fall prey to the white savior archetype, a trope Henry’s voiceover acknowledges within the first few minutes of the premiere. Righteous though Brown’s motivations may have been, we see his extremism, myopia and poor judgment result in the deaths of innocent characters of all races. Black characters such as Harriet Tubman (Zainab Jah, magnetic) and an unrepentant rebel slave named Sibonia (a brief, fierce performance by Crystal Lee Brown) are painted as more straightforward heroes. The creators’ only departure from realism is in periodically cutting in still shots of individual, costumed Black actors’ faces, as though to counteract popular representations of enslaved people as homogeneous masses on plantations. Viewers are never allowed to forget that every slave was a discrete human being.

Not that The Good Lord Bird wastes much energy on the redundant task of denouncing slavery. Its moral dilemma is more sophisticated. When you know that the society you live in is deeply, brutally, lethally wrong, McBride’s story asks, how far should you go to defend what’s right? The show introduces character after character who puts comfort before justice: a farmer who supports slavery for financial reasons, a future Confederate general (played by former Lodge 49 star Wyatt Russell) trying to dissuade Brown from continuing his futile siege and causing more bloodshed. A lot of reasonable men like them must have killed and died defending state-sponsored chattel slavery in the Civil War. So what if Brown ranted and raved and picked fights he could never have won? As Ray Bradbury once wrote, “Insanity is relative. It depends who has who locked in what cage.”

Contact us at letters@time.com.

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