In the first two weeks Lovecraft Country has sculpted some poignant musical and cultural references. But this week we start with a little more of an unexpected one. A voice over hauntingly floating over images of Leti in church solemnly seated amidst joyful singing, clapping and dancing parishioners.
This voice over is actually from a 2017 Nike Advertisement narrated by Precious Angel Ramirez, written by Daisy Zhou.
“Hey Lei” The Voice asks “What did you do to make a mark on this world? What mountains did you climb?” The Lei in question for this ad was in fact, Leiomy Maldonado who some readers might know is the vogue dancing superstar trans woman who was featured on America’s Best Dance Crew and currently choreographs the ballroom scenes in Ryan Murphy’s show Pose. This juxtaposition charges episode 3 with the unique struggles Leti is currently facing and how they are affecting her.
We immediately get an exposition dump in the form of a plain, printed statement. Advising us that in 1955 three people will go missing in a Chicago house. We also get a reminder that “Pioneering”, in this case black people moving into a white neighborhood, is dangerous. Of course we also know this is the year our story takes place, so this appears to be a clear homage to The Blair Witch Project. As perhaps is the countdown of days, though this may also be a slight nod to The Shining as well considering where this episode goes.
And then we find ourselves with a white hand clutching their curtains as Ruby and Leti come into frame. Leti has purchased a house in this all white neighborhood. A tall spooky domicile, boarded up and filled with spiders. It has three floors, minus the basement, and also 10 rooms, Leti lets us and Ruby know hastily. All the while Ruby pressures her to answer where she got the money to make this sort of purchase.
But Ruby has other, more grave concerns. Not that long ago across town a black couple moved into an all white apartment building and all hell broke loose. Leti isn’t deterred though, not by that or Ruby’s insistence that she wants a respectable job. Leti reminds her that this could be a great chance to get closer. And isn’t Ruby just sick of paying rent?
Leti seems desperate to find something “real” after the shock of what happened with the Braithwhites. Ruby decides she wants the biggest room.
We now find ourselves with Hippolyta in her room putting on makeup and tearing pages out of a paperback copy of “Dracula” as the domestic sounds of Atticus and Dee play out in the kitchen setting up breakfast. This is a woman in mourning. Dracula was George’s favorite book and we are being hit hard with the devastation of her grief over George’s absence. The mourning plays out on Aunjanue Ellis’s face in waves of stoicism and near breakdown. For her and for us, the specter of George is all over this episode. Courtney B Vance will absolutely be missed from this show and it’s very sad we didn’t get more of his incredible performance of the character.
We get another reminder of this in a heartbreaking moment as Dee notices the setting for breakfast is in front of the seat where her father once sat every morning. But she seems, for the moment, to be dealing with it by pushing her emotions down and spending time with her cousin Atticus as she tries to plan a day with him.
Unfortunately, we also learn things aren’t quite right with Tic and Hippolyta. As there is unspoken tension with him. We learn he is planning the publication of the tour guide book without her permission. In an awkward exchange over the kitchen sink, we see a family disconnected and Dee is left in a lurch as Tic lets them know he won’t be staying there anymore.
Tic finds himself out of one family problem into another as he arrives at his father’s to find him drunk and babbling. Throwing a glass of cold water in Montrose’s face, Atticus recants an interesting story George had once told him. George found himself in a fight with a mob of white people when Montrose showed up with a bat, swinging, like “Jackie Robinson.” The show provides a nice callback to the series's opening with a nod to the fleeting nature of heroes, especially when it comes to his father.
“We could have used a version of you in Ardham,” Atticus laments to his father. Montrose lets that one slide, but the fire really comes out when Atticus starts showing remorse. It appears Atticus, Montrose and Leti have conspired to hide how George actually died from Hippolyta and Dee.
“You want to tell them wizards exist? That white folks got magic on their side too?” Montrose yells, ultimately slamming his fist on the table in anger.
To be honest, it’s a solid argument. But it’s hard to ignore that this show ultimately in part is about how the ugly truths we try to hide always come to the surface one way or another. But Montrose is the “deal with it when you need to” sort who favors putting his head down, while Atticus is the more logical, strategic sort and it’s likely we’ll continue to see this dynamic play out over the course of this series.
Leti is more jovial than we last saw her, snapping photos of people moving in. The house is a flutter with activity as the new tenets, mostly artists, carry in pianos or ask about setting up a dance studio. We also learn a bit more information about this situation as Leti tells a tenant she can’t make changes until the installment contract is paid out in full. Installment contracts are historically a means of keeping black people in tight financial binds as missing one payment or being one day late could result in the bank taking everything. There is no foreclosure process unlike a mortgage. There is no ownership until the final bill is paid.
Atticus swoops in, but he lets Leti know he’s just there to say goodbye and then he’s off to Florida. We have confirmation here that it’s been 3 weeks since George was buried and they haven’t seen each other since. They embrace in a tender moment of shared relief before it’s rudely interrupted by the white neighbors. Outside we see a row of cars parked in front of the house with white faces menacingly glaring. The soundtrack is overwhelmed with the sound of car horns as we see bricks tied with twine to the steering wheels. We also get a slow ride by police as a quiet reminder of who is actually going to get support if and when things come to blows, just in case that was in question at all.
Atticus changes his mind about leaving.
The supernatural elements of the house really begin and the racism continues. The neighbors have planted signs proclaiming it as a “Whites Only” neighborhood while bloody handed no jawed ghosts are pulling at Leti’s sheets. Also, the horns are STILL blaring day and night.
As Leti awakes her room is stifling and she hears the boiler knocking. She moves down to the basement to turn the release valve with a wrench and nearly steps on...a bear trap!? (That would have been the first thing I got rid of). But there aren't just vicious metal contraptions down in the basement. There’s also violent noises and banging on a trap door. She returns, with Atticus, bat in hand to find predictably nothing. An empty, spacious subbasement which Atticus suggests she should use as a dark room after acknowledging that, yes, they know wizards are real but also maybe it’s the wind or something causing problems?
The pair share a moment, Leti taking his hand and he pulls his hand away. There’s grief and attraction but neither know quite how to deal with all this turmoil.
We find ourselves in one of the white neighbors' houses with disconcerted looks on their faces. Black people are having a party. That just can’t be. The signs, horns, and vague menacing stares just doesn’t seem to be cutting it. We get the feeling things might be escalating.
Leti, her tenets, and friends aren’t feeling any of that at the moment. They’re drinking, laughing, dancing talking about a new leader of the movement who has changed his name from Michael to Martin and Ruby is absolutely tearing up a version of Roy Brown’s "Boogie at Midnight."
We find ourselves in the basement with Dee and some new friends playing with a ouija board. A young boy named Bobo asks about his upcoming trip and whether it will be a good one and the planchette lurches to the word “No”. Some will have noticed that he is dressed like Emmett Till whose nickname happened to be Bobo. If you aren’t aware Emmett was famously lynched and murdered by white people while he was on a trip with his family to see the Mississippi Delta the very same year this episode is set in. The show reminds us of the real world horror in the face of the supernatural events yet to come.
We then get a question about who the group of youngsters are talking to and the response is “George is dead” which sets off Dee who flips the board as she assumes her friends are pranking her. It seems a pretty safe bet that the ghosts were speaking more to the audience than anyone else here, in case there was lingering doubt about our beloved uncle.
Hippolyta must have sensed the danger as she is searching for Dee, well for a moment at least, until she is distracted by a golden orrery. This is probably to cement our understanding that Hippolyta loves astronomy which will likely come up in a future episode. Nice of the ghosts to think of her.
Meanwhile, the party is in full swing and Tic is here in full military dress, prepared to intimidate and just look ruggedly handsome. He is dismayed however to find Leti dancing very closely with another man and our friend from the bar Tree is here to leer asking if he can get a shot.
This is followed by a scene with Leti in the bathroom, and after a little glimpse of a ghoul in the mirror, a full but brief sex scene in the bathroom between Leti and Atticus. This ends with Atticus discovering there is blood on his fingers which Leti apologizes stating she must have just started her period and Tic reassures her.
This ends in Leti sobbing in the bathroom followed by a quick cut to the living room where she is virtually stone faced, an indication of all the emotion and grief she is hiding deep within. She sure isn’t hiding her eye rolls though, as Ruby explains that black people just need to work harder. This is a nice little lead up as we can really feel the light from the burning fire reflected on Ruby’s face before we can even see the giant cross burning on the lawn.
Leti has had enough. She’s out the door in a flash and to the smashing cymbals of Donna Clark-Cole’s “Take it Back.” Leti smashes the car windows with a bat, knocking bricks off car horns all while the men hold shotguns in case she needs protection. She is taking all that pain and frustration out on these cars. That is until Ruby rides out in her car and everyone disposes of their weapons in the trunk as the police arrive, the group on their knees with hands raised before a cruiser even pulls up.
We find ourselves with Leti in the back of a police wagon with a smug-faced captain. He is here in this scene to accomplish two things. First, as a reminder of the institutional aspect of racism. He tells her there have been numerous complaints about her, but has conveniently forgotten hers. He is outright calling people of color pests and cockroaches all while allowing her to be thrown about the back of the van by the swerving of the driver resulting in her face getting smashed on the floor and walls. Pretty brutal and infuriating stuff.
But he’s also here to dump some exposition. You see, black people have disappeared in the Winthrop House she and her compatriots reside in. Eight of them to be precise. This comes across a little ham-fisted perhaps, but this is in part at least pastiche, and this is the sort of exposition you often get in a haunted house story. So I give it a little bit of a pass in that regard.
Leti has turned the sub-basement into a dark room like Tic suggested. And she’s enjoying this quiet moment in earnest. At least until she notices there is a figure in all of these pictures. One she doesn’t recognize. Leti drops the photos in a pile from which emerges a giant disembodied head that tells her, not unlike her white neighbors, “Get out of my house!”
The CG is pretty rough here especially as the head begins to take shape. But the idea is a good one especially in the formation from the photos. And not for the first or last time in this episode, Jurnee Smollett is killing it.
The next day. People are fleeing. Not because of ghosts but because of the white terrorists in the neighborhood. And Ruby and Leti are back to fighting which leads to her letting it slip to her half-sister that the money she got from the house was an inheritance left to her by their mother. And Ruby got nothing. This leads to an extremely contentious moment as Ruby tells Leti, “All these years I was sending you money I thought you were just a fuck up. But you’re just fucked up.”
But it’s not the end of the familial turmoil. Montrose shows up to try to play some ball with Dee and finds Hippolyta coming home from the grocery store. But he’s drunk and spilling the contents of bags including George’s copy of “Dracula.” This leads to Hippolyta coming right out and stating she doesn’t believe the story of her husband’s fate. Perhaps this will lead to further investigation by Hippolyta in the coming weeks. We shall see.
Leti is at the bar. Neck deep in crumpled up papers and research. And Tic is suddenly there, looking confused as to what the hell is going on. The house is haunted, she tells him. And he sits down. Slowly.
Leti lays out that a scientist named Hiram Epstein was experimenting on black people, torturing them and presumably murdering them after being banned from the University of Chicago for unethical practices. So he bought the Winthrop House to continue his vile serial killer activities. This is very likely to be a direct reference to J. Marion Sims, father of modern gynecology who invented the vaginal speculum and also horrifically experimented on slaves. In fact as we learn some of the ghosts' names later in the episode, are confirmed victims of this mad doctor who had a statue in central park until 2018.
This whole thing about the house is starting to get serious as Atticus puts on his spectacles. The gesture is a cheeky signifier of Tic in “intellectual mode” but it’s also a costume allusion to Uncle George. Which is a good thing. Atticus is a little more consistently intelligent in the books and Jonathan Majors is able to imbue him with both a little more physicality and the introspection he shows in The Last Black Man in San Francisco (Talbot, 2019).
There’s also another twist here. Leti wasn’t bleeding because it was her period. She reveals it was because she was a virgin. And Tic comes across the table to her, letting her know immediately that he is there for her. This is probably a more inelegant approach to the emotional floodgates of Leti than is at all necessary. Jurnee is completely capable of making the characterizations and emotional turmoil real for this character without this virgin subplot. This is pulp storytelling, and I love how this show leans into that in the horror elements but I wish it leaned away from it in the emotional beats sometimes.
However, the most batshit insane moment has just begun. Suddenly, Leti and Tic are at the house with a Hatian medium and a goat. Within seconds, the medium slits the goat’s throat and bleeds it while white people watch from their windows. And with barely missing a beat they all have bloody X’s on their foreheads to protect them from the evil within the house as they charge down into the basement and begin an exhilarating seance with books flying and some excellent camera work.
But, after witnessing them slaughter goats on the porch three of these knuckle headed white supremacists are breaking windows and sneaking in? Pretty brazen. But they are dealt with very quickly in a mixed bag of supernatural vengeance. The first two are dispatched by a weird baby headed basketball player who tricks them into getting burned by hot steam somehow. The third is decapitated by the elevator in a scene as awesomely gruesome as anything I’ve seen in a horror film this year. This is where the pulpy instincts help set the show apart. Typically we think of socially conscious horror, capital p, Prestige horror as it might be called, leans toward subtlety. This show wears its gore proudly on its sleeve for all to see with the same brazenness it lends its social commentary.
(Back to the seance).
The medium has been possessed and attacks Atticus which leads to him being possessed by the spirit of the evil doctor. Leti calls forth the ghosts of the tortured black people into their own sort of seance. And in their unification, they cast out Dr. Epstein (that name has to be a coincidence, right?) and regain their humanity as their grotesque visages are restored to their previous beautiful selves and allowed to ascend.
I know. I’ve mentioned Jurnee Smollett’s acting multiple times, but really her performance here gave me goosebumps and I actually got a little misty as she’s screaming all while Shirley Caesar's “Satan, We're Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down” and it’s driving beat is pulsing throughout the scene. Fantastic.
We then find ourselves a few days late. The tenants have returned to the house and a reporter is interviewing Leti calling her a hero. With our understanding of the events both supernatural and racially discriminatory it adds a nice layer of emotional and physical labor Leti had to endure to get here at this moment, just to be recognized.
The journalist asks about the three missing neighbors and Leti, perhaps truthfully, says she has no idea. We watch the camera pan down to a secret tunnel below the elevator with a pile of bones and three bodies, leaving us to wonder whether if it was Leti or the ghosts that left them among the discarded remains of the once tortured.
Some book readers are very likely to not like a lot of the significant changes to this portion of the book. But for the most part I quite enjoyed them. We get a little more agency and story and a driving force to the spirits of The Winthrop House that helps us meld both the social and supernatural elements.
Atticus spots Christina, across the street at a real estate agent’s office and he confronts her, gun in hand. The former real estate salesman who we can assume sold the property to Leti flees as Atticus closes the blinds, raising his revolver. Atticus had figured it all out, that Christina had given Leti the money under the guise of it being her mother’s inheritance as he remembered Winthrop’s name carved on the frame of the painting of The Garden of Eden.
But Christina has words for Atticus as she freezes him in place. Here Christina lays some larger mythology of the show at our feet. Information that will clearly be driving this story forward as we proceed. Winthrop had stolen some of the pages of The Book of Names and likely had hidden them in the house that she needed Leti to rid the ghosts of for her.
You see—most Sons of Adam can only master one spell at max. But that’s because no one has all the pages of the Book of Adam and the ability to decode them. In fact she can’t even access what her father had as it is locked in a trapped vault that she does not have access to. And she intends to use anything at her disposal to get that book. This is a set up for what the coming weeks will give us, a race against time as Atticus and friends pursue their own right to the power and knowledge their history should be offering them with Christina and the Sons of Adam at their heels. I, and I hope you, look forward to what this show has in store for us in the next episode.