Ethan Hawke Soars With Radical Rage in Showtime’s Magnificent ‘The Good Lord Bird’

No country can escape its past, as we have seen in this year of mass protests. Showtime’s ferocious limited series “The Good Lord Bird” is about one of the most incendiary of all American historical ghosts. John Brown was a key figure who lit the spark of the Civil War, and because he was a radical in every sense of the word, the name still carries a hint of danger. A determined abolitionist, convinced the only way to end slavery was through armed insurrection, Brown is the kind of personality that never ages. This is why he was a great subject for novelist James McBride, whose brilliant, National Book Award-winning novel this series is based on. Like the book, it combines humor with red-blooded action, against a canvas of true events.

Our narrator is “Onion” (Joshua Caleb Johnson) a young slave who becomes a bystander to the clashes of 1800s “Bleeding Kansas,” that period when the state became an arena in the country’s growing tensions over slavery. Onion was given her nick-name by none other than John Brown (Ethan Hawke), the armed abolitionist waging guerrilla war against slave owners. Browne’s small army includes his sons, Owen (Beau Knapp), John Jr. (Nick Eversman), Salmon (Ellar Coltrane) and Jason (Jack Alcott), along with freed Blacks and adventurers. A fire and brimstone preacher as well, Brown is convinced he is doing God’s will by battling slavery. What he doesn’t realize is that Onion is actually a boy, who had no choice but switch genders as a disguise during a battle. No matter, Brown takes Onion into his army as a sign of God’s favor on the cause. Onion becomes a witness to both Brown’s messianic personality, which swerves from warm to idealistic fury, and other key figures of the times like Black emancipation icon Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs). Brown hopes to enlist Douglass’s support for a plan to help spark a slave uprising, first with an attack on Harpers Ferry, the event which will cement the revolutionary’s place in American history.

All the creative stars aligned well to make “The Good Lord Bird” work flawlessly. Produced by Hawke and McBride, this is not the usual, stuffy or stale period piece recounting the same old Civil War TV talking points. It is revolutionary art, a visceral Western in the best tradition of the genre, smart satire and searing profile, all in one seven-episode package. Hawke also co-writes a bulk of the episodes, not letting it stray too far from the novel (although McBride does allow a few extra flourishes to emphasize its social message more bluntly).  Episodic in a Mark Twain style, Onion’s journey is endearing and hilarious. John Brown is the fiery subject but Onion is the true focus because it’s all from his point of view. The cowboy America depicted is satirical and rough, where a town can feature both vicious racists and a sad, pro-slavery “red shirt” like Chase (Steve Zahn). Chase hunts down runaway slaves yet clearly lusts for Onion. “The Good Lord Bird” is full of great side stories like this, including Onion’s time at a brothel, trying to hide his true identity while falling for Pie (Natasha Marc), a prostitute who breaks his heart with a different kind of betrayal. 

Towering over it all, including a fun and likeable Joshua Caleb Johnson, is Ethan Hawke. Recently, Hawke has undergone an impressive renaissance, appearing in work brimming with originality and meaning like “First Reformed” or “Cut Throat City.” But nothing Hawke has done before compares to the level of intensity he displays here. His John Brown is one of the year’s great television characters. He’s a fanatic hiding a warm soul, a true believer who knows the Bible by heart and sees slavery as an offense to God. Hawke has the madness in the eyes of a visionary, and then spends time holding a turtle, smiling at the Lord’s creations. And when he isn’t spewing rage at the racists of the world, making grand proclamations before sending a slaver to hell with cannon fire, Brown is loveably funny. He prays too long before dinner to everyone’s annoyance, and will start trying to give Onion a Bible lesson in the middle of a fierce gunfight. The writing also finds rich complexity in this man, who has been deemed everything from freedom fighter to terrorist, who was called “the meteor of the war” by Herman Melville. During a train ride he tells Onion about his own personal losses and pains, and the horror of seeing a childhood Black friend suffer. In its own, bold way, “The Good Lord Bird” challenges the viewer to truly ponder what it means to be human towards your fellow human beings. Brown might come across as a bit mad, but it’s a vengeful madness birthed by the very insanity of slavery. For Brown, there was simply no other way to react to such a system other than through violent blows. Hawke’s performance is brilliant in its contrasts. Preachy, ideologically driven John Brown still looks sane next to the proper, well-dressed gentlemen who argue that slavery is right.

As a work of history and social commentary, “The Good Lord Bird” still retains its sense of wit. Some of the best moments without gunfights involve Frederick Douglass who, as in the book, is portrayed as a great but flawed figure. He is the eloquent spokesman for emancipation, although he does get annoyed when Brown gets too loud in shouting praise during his speeches. Daveed Diggs, who was a fiery rapping Thomas Jefferson in “Hamilton,” plays Douglass as a likeable diva, true to the cause but also vain with his Black wife and white mistress living under the same roof. He genuinely sees Brown as a comrade, but doesn’t have the will or stomach to support his raid on Harpers Ferry or any sort of ragtag revolution. While the two characters are great drama on their own, they also symbolize the eternal debate between immediate action and caution. Onion’s own voice over dismisses white savior complexes, critiquing not only the slave owners, but white liberals who cheerfully give money to support Brown’s cause, but not much else. Onion also notices at some pro-abolition meetings, the waiters are still Black.

As entertainment “The Good Lord Bird” is simply a glorious Western, shot with a widescreen vision and grand, funny action scenes that are also not mere bloodshed for kicks. When the story culminates in the famous raid on Harpers Ferry, it turns into a tense standoff but also a microcosm of the debate between a freedom fighter and the slavers. A single moment where Brown orders a sniper to shoot a particular character is also a meditation on the question, is force the only way? But intellectualism aside, the whole show is an adrenaline experience where not a single episode is wasted. As an adventure it offers a bit of everything, with welcome heart tugs as when Onion meets Brown’s strong-willed, sharp daughter, fittingly played by Maya Hawke. Because this is a story about ideals, the romantic angles serve as the most powerful messages. Artificial boundaries have a way of collapsing under an assault by true love.

There is both timeliness and timelessness to “The Good Lord Bird.” As this country is again boiling and splitting into factions, with different ideas and old historical wounds clashing in the streets, this is a story about the very roots of the United States, told through the eyes of a freed slave and committed radical. It’s a masterful Western, but it also conjures the ghost of John Brown at a moment when we were wondering again where we’re going, and what the cost will be.

The Good Lord Bird” premieres Oct. 4 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime.