Few cultural conceits have been as fruitful in recent years as the trope of a band of survivors making a journey through a collapsing world. It’s the premise behind both AMC’s The Walking Dead (with added zombies, gore, and moral complexity), and Mad Max: Fury Road (where Max Rockatansky and Imperator Furiosa take a high-octane flight across an Australian wasteland). In literature, it’s the central pillar of dystopian works like The Road and Children of Men, and predates even Frodo and Sam’s fateful trip to Mount Doom in The Lord of the Rings.
Most of the works that explore this scenario are set in fictional worlds that are either near apocalypse or suffering its aftermath. But the idea of escape, specifically a harrowing flight through hostile territory while under constant threat of death, is built into the foundation of America’s history. The flights of hundreds of thousands of enslaved people via the Underground Railroad and other efforts in the 18th and 19th centuries are themselves a story of escape from apocalyptic horrors, with many souls risking mutilation, death, disease, and unimaginable psychological trauma in their quest for freedom and a promised land.
Finally, television is exploring America’s most autobiographical apocalyptic quest story. WGN America’s Underground, which airs the final episode of its first season Wednesday night, is an epic series about slavery and escape created by the Heroes writers Misha Green and Joe Pokaski, and executive produced and scored by John Legend and his Get Lifted team. The entertainment industry has tackled the subject before—on television with Alex Haley’s landmark 1977 miniseries Roots and its 2016 remake, and in film with 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, and the upcoming Birth of a Nation, among others. But those treatments largely focused on the terrors of plantation life or on revenge fantasies. Underground, by contrast, provides historical fiction about the great flights that shaped American history, taking its cues as much from other weekly primetime thrillers as it does from the famous canon of slavery period pieces.