Each week Jayson will recap the events of the latest episode of Lovecraft Country and take a closer look at the shows themes and overall goo.
Seconds into the premier of Lovecraft Country you’re treated to a healthy dose of the type of experience you should expect from this show. Black and white depictions of the Korean war melt into blistering color and seething science fiction violence as gruesome, bloody horrors pop out of the screen before you can remind yourself of the show’s namesake. We see flying saucers and death machines annihilating groups of people with laser blasts set to a voice over from 1950’s The Jackie Robinson Story. Prepare your senses and your media literacy, this is going to be a ride.
It doesn’t stop there. We see the story’s hero Atticus (Jonathan Majors) embraced by a Korean woman painted a deep red who descends from a saucer in a reference to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s A Princess of Mars, a novel we’ll see Atticus holding shortly. A moment of tenderness before she turns him to face Cthullu who is then split in half by Jackie Robinson appearing as though tulpa, all while Roman centurions and American soldiers fight. Atticus awakens as Cthullu reforms, destroying Jackie.
This dream sequence is a feast for the senses but it also serves as a warning. This is not prestige HBO drama per usual. This is for pulp fiction fans. There certainly will be subtlety here but your plate is getting filled to the brim with pulp horror. As it should be if the source material is any guide--which this first episode seems to follow with surprising faithfulness.
For the most part in this week to week discussion of the show we will steer clear of references to Matt Ruff’s 2016 source novel as there may be significant differences and I don’t see any reason to spoil a thing from the book if it doesn’t happen in the show. But we do have some interesting spoiler-free changes here. For one, Atticus’s Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) now shares the same name, Freeman, where they had different names in the book. This is most likely just to avoid confusion.
There’s also some gender swapping going on. Horace, son of George and Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis), is now Diana (Jada Harris). The purpose of this is yet to be known exactly but it does bring about an interesting reference. Hippolyta, as some may know in DC comics lore, is the mother of Wonder Woman who is also named Diana. This is very unlikely to be a coincidence as, like Horace, Dee as she is referred to on screen, is a comic and drawing enthusiast. She illustrates George’s map with many terrifying beasts while authoring sci-fi travel comics. In her latest edition her parents note she has changed her characters from Panther Man to Orithya Blue. This is likely a reference to the character changing but there is probably more going on here as well. Orithya like Hippolyta and Diana are all Greek mythological references.
There’s also another gender swap, Caleb the boy who would have been in the Silver Bentley later in the episode is now Christina. Why this change might be taking place we really don’t know.
And, well, if you are a purist who doesn’t like these changes and maybe you don’t think they are perfect let me refer you back to Atticus’s words. As he is making his way back home with a middle-aged black woman after their bus breaks down and they are refused a ride because of the color of their skin;
“Stories are like people—loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try to love and cherish them.”
Of course what he is really referencing is John Carter being a confederate soldier and the hero of A Princess of Mars. But from a larger contextual point this is about the white supremacist legacy of H.P. Lovecraft himself, one that we don’t need to white wash in order to appreciate our ability to cherish his stories if you are a horror lover.
Some critics will undoubtedly call moments like this too blunt. To that I can only say that there are many storytelling tools and sometimes a blunt instrument is the best. Based on Lovecraft Country’s aforementioned entrée this is definitely a show that prefers the hammer.
As Atticus and his new companion walk down a country road we cut to Chicago for a scene that introduces us to both Hippolyta and George in bed. We learn that George has a travel business that puts him on the road and that Hippolyta is also a writer and wishes she could do more traveling. George is afraid what might happen to her if she was to face the ugly nature of how whites treat blacks. As we learn later, George has been kneecapped by whites in the past which has left him partially crippled. There’s also an element of implicit misogyny here that is well done and that comes back later. But in this moment we are also treated to an incredible love scene. The scene depicts two mature people who clearly actually love each other. It’s incredibly refreshing to see on a prestige television network that typically deals with “sexy” people fucking or privileged pigs cheating on their spouses. It’s a very nice moment.
As Atticus returns back home to a segregated Chicago, he meets up with George and begins investigating his missing father, Montrose. He visits George in his travel guide business dedicated to leading black folx through segregated America. Much like the historical “Green Book,” the guide notes where they may safely travel without impediment and violence by racist whites.
We learn that Atticus has a letter from his father, who we now know has disappeared in an attempt to discover more information about Atticus’s mother’s legacy -- a quest which George thought he had given up. In the note a particular segment stands out “A sacred secret legacy, a birthright, that’s been kept from you.” Montrose believes that the legacy can be traced back to Ardham, Massachusetts. Perhaps a stand-in for the Lovecraftian Arkham?
But there is more here. Lovecraftian literature is about legacy, lineage, obsession over the sins and misgivings of our forefathers and underpinnings that make us who we are, parent to child. This obsession is also what perhaps cements Lovecraft’s racism. From this frame we see an inciting action built on a breathtaking flourish that hi-lights the lineage of black people in America trying to discover and restore their roots. Lovecraft is often also obsessed with explorers. Those that brave danger where no man tread. And George Freeman is certainly that. A man willing to go into the dark heart of America and pave a safer path for those that come after.
The two concepts meld perfectly as we both get a last look at a moment of relative safety and are introduced to our final big players of the episode, Letitia ‘Leti’ Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) and her half sister Ruby Baptiste (Wunmi Mosaku). The two are introduced on stage as Ruby signs “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa” by Sister Rosetta Tharpe. The pair then sing a duet of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’” which most probably know because of Jerry Lee Lewis despite being originally recorded by Big Maybelle. Sister Rosetta Tharpe is also a little recognized revolutionary guitar player who inspired some of the great white blues guitarists who get a lot of the credit, such as Eric Clapton.
There is an interesting musical motif that runs through this episode. Earlier we are treated to what some might consider an anachronistic music choice in Tierra Whack’s “Clones.” But this show is going for thematic choices, not one hundred percent realistic ones. Later the characters literally walk through a Gordon Parks painting. “Clones” is about others coming to copy you. Here the rap song plays as we see black people doing business, children playing, making music of their own.
The next day Atticus and George set off on a trip across America. Leti joins the group, for part of the journey to her brother Marvin’s house who also may have more information about Ardham. Here we are treated to easily the most beautifully artistic moment of the episode. In an extended montage we view the way America treats white people, eating ice cream, relaxing at the gas station juxtaposed to the harassment and discrimination our group faces. Billboards remind them of the impending, oppressive violence of Sundown Towns. A white man directs a mimicry of an ape at Atticus. We see pictures of Aunt Jemima and the long tradition of commodifying black bodies in roles of service. All this is viewed while audio of James Baldwin’s debate with William Buckley in 1965 is heard in voice over. The speech and the visuals are perfect thematic matches, as Baldwin reminds us that the American Dream exists on the back of the black people of this country. Stunning, harrowing and as horrible as any Lovecraftian monster.
The threat to the group intensifies as they stop at a diner that was once recorded in the guide book as safe for black people. Instead we find another horror story as the young white server rushes to the phone to inform those in charge which brings a group of white townspeople peeling through town with evil intent. There is some jostling over Leti driving by which she rebukes George for his second moment of misogyny in the episode and our heroes are nearly captured when a silver Bentley intervenes, destroying the pickup with what appears to be an invisible forcefield. We catch our first glimpse of Christina (Abbey Lee) with a knowing look on her face.
Once at Marvin’s house, we learn about the witch burnings in Salem and how the county of Bideford was founded by the witch hunters and that people disappear at night, oh yeah and also that the worst monster is the sheriff Eustice Hunt. It’s also revealed that Leti used money from her family to bail out protestors rather than return home for her mother’s funeral, a decision that seems to have caused an irreconcilable rift between her, her brother, and Ruby. It isn’t long until we are back on the road en route to what appears to be the middle of nowhere in search of Ardham which isn’t on a map.
As the group searches for Ardham in the woods of Bideford county Atticus draws from his literary knowledge to key us in to what’s likely to be in the woods; Shoggoth, gelatinous blobs with tentacles and teeth. Leti muses that she could outrun a blob, and neither believes George could. That’s when the true monster pulls up, a police officer who threatens them, tells them this is a sundown county and he will hang them all if they aren’t out in 7 minutes, but not before further humiliating Atticus for asking such a “smart” question as, “Can we make a U-turn here?”
What proceeds is one of the most heart pounding television moments of the year as the group attempts to get out of town without being lynched while staying below the speed limit to avoid arrest. It’s horribly panic inducing but also a reminder that the rules of racism are less rules but more of a maddening nonsensical trap. This concept is further amplified as they cross a county line and are still apprehended because they might be thieves from out of town.
This is where the show makes its final turn into full blown supernatural horror. Our group is taken into the woods with shotguns pointed at them, imminent violence looming large. Suddenly the Shoggoth attack the police, ripping the arm from the Sheriff and killing most of his men. The creature effects and the blood look great and it’s clear the high quality visual and aural qualities of Lovecraft Country will extend to even the gooey parts. The Shoggoths are different from Lovecraft’s depiction of the formless blobs. They are more rounded out devil dogs with giant mouths and multiple eyes but the sliminess and clear blinking eyelids are nightmare fuel. And when we get into the gore, this show does not pull punches. It’s clear showrunner Misha Green is committed to the horror. This wears it’s gnarly horror roots with a little more pride and as a horror fan that’s very nice to see.
The body horror continues after Leti and Atticus escape to a cabin. The wounded Sheriff and one of his men follow and burst inside, their shotguns still pointed at our heroes, so blinded by their hatred they are unwilling and unable to see the gigantic, slobbering threat right outside. Suddenly, the Sheriff begins to turn, his muscles bulging and extending. “Shoot the motherfucker!” Atticus yells at the other cop, but it’s too late. The sheriff has gone full Shoggoth in a slick little Evil Dead reference. We’ve also learned that they are terrified of the light as George saves himself with a flashlight and Leti, forced to retrieve the car returns with the headlights blazing, crashing through the cabin to save the day.
As the group uses flares to ward off the Shoggoth, we hear a whistle in the distance and the creatures disperse. Who is this master? Turning to daylight our group finds themselves in Ardham in front of a castle as Atticus is welcomed home.
Book readers will know that the novel is split up into different stories around different characters which tells a broader story about some of the characters we are introduced to here. This story isn’t completely told in this episode so it will be interesting to see how this format is handled in the show. Will these threads be handled one at a time or woven together into a tapestry?
Either way this was a thrilling, horrifying beginning to what appears to be an incredibly promising experience for social conscious horror fans. So join me next week and every week as we break down the events of each of the 10 episodes of Lovecraft Country.