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.
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.