In episode 4 of Lovecraft Country themes change, genres are shifted, some interesting and difficult narrative decisions are made and trends are bucked. Most notable though is the genre shift from direct horror toward action/adventure as we begin to get inside the head of Montrose.
This week the show opens with a news broadcast about Soviet Russia rather than its usual formula of a pop culture infused introduction. Montrose is thinking of his own sort of war: “Ain’t shit new about it.” He says to himself “Whitey keep cooking up death for the rest of us to eat”.
This bleeds into grief and regret over his treatment of his family which leads Montrose to embrace what he sees as a protector position. This leads him to burn the book he received from George. The “By-Laws and Precepts of The Order of The Ancient Dawn,” may have been a useful tool for the family down the road, but Montrose sees it as a path paved in death for Tic.
This beginning strays a little from the more subtle character strokes of the last two episode openers in favor of a more direct tortured look into the mind of our focus character for the week. And it’s a good decision. Subtlety isn’t Montroses’s thing. As he burns the book he says, “Smells like Tulsa.” This is of course is in part a reference to the attack on Black Wall Street in 1921 which saw white rioters terrorizing the Greenwood District of Tulsa and destroying 35 blocks of a thriving black community. But, we also learned last week that there was an incident, a personal one with Montrose and George in Tulsa that may also be haunting him.
This powerful scene leads us into our title card; a blue background with a skull, the symbol at the bottom of the screen appearing as a compass.
Cut to Christina, in her Bentley with Rhianna’s Bitch Better Have My Money playing as she slides up to the Winthrop house and comes looking for Leti and an item from the house. Christina is stopped short at the entry way as we learn that the red X painted with the blood of the sacrificial goat last week keeps white wizards out. This turn of events gives Leti a wry smile and an opportunity to learn some information. Christina spills the beans that Tic pulled a gun on her, which leads to Leti to presume the money came from Christina. But, she also learns that Christina is after the orrery Hippolyta was eyeing last week.
Christina tries to turn all of this into evidence against Tic and men but Leti doesn’t seem to be buying. She’s too smart for all that. But that doesn’t mean that she won’t have words for Tic next time she sees him.
Oh and the orrery? Appears that Hippolyta was able to leave with it as we get a shot of it in the offices of the travel agency as she speaks with her father. Here we learn that this isn’t a representation of our solar system, but most likely The Virgo Cluster as it presents two suns in the model. We also learn that this orrery likely has some other secrets as Hippolyta informs us that she isn’t sure how to reach the gears that need repairing.
For the first time this show is taking less of an anthology approach and setting up multiple threads for future episodes. It’s exciting to see them plant the seeds and get the audience invested in some characters arcs as we see with Hippolyta here and Ruby later. It’s a smart narrative move so we can get some of these pieces on the board from an exposition standpoint. We also get another shot of Emmitt Till (going by his nickname Bobo) spending time with Dee. It’s haunting to see that play out for another week and give us another moment with him as he lingers before disappearing off the screen.
Next, we get a dose of Jade Josephine’s Get ‘Em as we find Leti, infuriated at what she learned with Christina and heading to the library to find Tic. We also get a nice little side gag with a young bookworm reading Journey to the Center of the Earth and shushing our heroes. This may be a reference to a library scene in The Last Crusade that has a similar exposition feel and also serves to show that the tone of this episode is a little different than previous as we dig up information and delve into exposition.
The exchange between Leti and Tic also serves up a theme that will play out through the rest of this episode. Turns out withholding information is no way to protect someone in this world. Tic still fights Leti’s desire to be involved, which leads to her storming out of the library and declaring she’s going to see Montrose. Tic follows quickly behind as he notices all the books he’s reading have already been taken out and read by his father.
And, of course, he finds Leti and Montrose at the bar where Montrose lectures both of them. He favors keeping out of white people’s affairs at all costs. Leti’s prospecting and Tic’s treasure hunting will achieve nothing but to kick the hornet's nest.
“I ain’t gonna help you kill yourself. Even if you too dumb and pigheaded to realize. You can’t win this game that she’s setting up for you to play, boy.”
The last word, emphasized, just in case Tic doesn’t get how Christina views him really. This likely has the opposite effect Montrose intended though as Tic and Leti are holding on to a vigorous optimism about their chances that even causes Montrose to relent.
We are then treated to a very weird scene of Christina playing tag with a bunch of kids, perhaps signaling her own lost childhood as a police cruiser rolls up and takes her to see the captain of the police. All this, with a very on the nose musical interlude, The Clovers’s Devil or Angel as they pull up to an ominous building. The exchange with the police captain gives us some insight into the inner politics of the lodges. He chides Christina for being after his lodge’s property -- the orrery -- and also attacking her right to power as a woman. This sets up another player in the game and a foil for Christina.
Leti, Montrose, Hippolyta, Tic, Dee and even Tree join the woody out to Boston. Hippolyta and Dee want to see the planetarium and Tree is off to catch a “filly in Philly” and looking to save some cash. And so we find ourselves en route to The Harvard Museum of Natural History on a treasure hunt.
But before we get there we have our third related musical interlude. Leikeli47’s Money plays as Ruby enters a department store in search of employment. This is our third woman lead hip-hop song for a moment where a woman is about to be scorned in some way by the decisions of another who is trying to hold power over her. Ruby discovers that Marshall Field and Co. has hired another woman of color, leaving her heartbroken.
As Leti, Tic and company arrive at the museum, Leti has an amusing exchange with Tree, calling him out for lying about their past relationship. This is followed by a much more serious story by Hippolyta in the planetarium with Dee, relating the story of how she named a comet “Hera’s Chariot” as a child but was denied the naming rights which were given to a little white girl. This story primarily serves as a nice bonding moment for Dee and Hippolyta in the wake of George’s death. Dee yells with pride, educating the rest of the attendees about her mother’s achievement. It also calls to mind Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures and the role women of color played in space exploration though they were denied their due.
This thread is followed as we move into the rest of the museum. We get a really efficient and deft handling of an important element of this story as show highlights how the museum industrial complex was built on the exploitation and genocide of indigenous peoples. This is handled in a moment with a voiceover and it’s impressive honestly how just through a few images we get a sense of these complex elements.
There is a later complex issue that isn’t handled quite so deftly, and the seeds for this are laid here in this next scene. Tree approaches Tic and reminds him of witnessing the owner of the bar receiving a blow job from another man. Tic said he didn’t care about that, that it wasn’t his business. So Tree takes it step further, insinuating that Montrose is also gay. This is followed by a shot of Montrose talking to his security guard friend and Tic being stunned that Montrose is touching another man.
Now, this could easily be shrugged off as being par for the course of the times. But this show has never shied away from anachronistic actions to prove a larger social point in other situations, and this really becomes more problematic in my opinion as we deal with how this episode unfolds with Montrose’s actions at the end.
As this scene ends, Montrose informs Tic and Leti that they will get 2 hours after sundown. We get a shot of the statue in the middle of this exhibit with a Latin quote from Titus which roughly translates to:
“The process of delving into the black abyss is of the keenest fascination”
We find Christina pulling into a dark driveway, exiting her car and walking around a corner. And wouldn’t you know it, walking out from that same corner is William back down the driveway to kick the shit out of some of the captain’s men who were tailing Christina. This has given some speculation that Christina and William are the same person. I’m sure this is something we will learn about in future episodes but for now we will assume that they are different people.
Now that it’s dark, Montrose and the gang are back in the museum. Montrose orders them to extinguish their flashlights and the moon shines a light first on a map on the wall and then the tooth of one of the crocodiles on the statue. This seems like a rather conspicuous way to hide what’s supposed to be a secret entrance, but that is the sort of the thing that happens in these adventure stories so I suppose I’ll let it slide. So down a hole into the bowels of the museum...
With some nifty adventure story logic, the group makes a decision to go down one of the three tunnels, once again name checking Journey to the Center of the Earth and we find ourselves overlooking a big pit with a narrow board extending out and out of sight. Our group makes it across the board, leaping and dodging a swinging blade and rushing to avoid falling to their demise as the board begins disintegrating. It’s as heart-pounding an adventure scene as I’ve seen in many years. As the group struggles to open a door what they are standing on begins to literally fall away beneath them. At last, Montrose comes up with the solution, pulled from the by-laws book he burned and the group dives into a new set of tunnels now filling with water.
But, before we get more adventure, the show cuts back to Ruby who is singing her ass off to Chain Gang Blues by Ma Rainey to a criminal lack of fanfare. It’s not long, however, when she finds a patron to buy her drinks in the form of William who undoubtedly has a secret agenda. She does not know that though, as he seduces her and this results in a very sexy sex scene on the stairs. While hard to keep track of where they end up, perhaps William has just connived his way into the Winthrop house. We shall see...
Back with our heroes in the catacombs beneath the museum we learn that if they don’t find their way out before dawn they are all going to drown. It is at this point the trio begin to argue about who knew what when and so forth. I know this is another trope of adventure films, but dealing with the characters bickering in the most inopportune locations seems sort of silly even if the themes are all well built up prior to this. Even so, because of the strength of the acting and the relationship we have to the characters it all sort of comes together.
Leti discovers that in the tunnels floating in the water, she finds the dead body of one of the white supremacists that had broken into the Winthrop House last week. In the twenty so minutes of walking the characters have found themselves back in Chicago somehow.
In the immortal words of Lucy Lawless, “Whenever you notice something like that...a wizard did it.”
This leads us to the next trap. A door with a disembodied arm sticking out of it. This is just a great set up, as Tic is forced to pull the arm out, let it float away and then stick his own hand back in that hole. Of course because he is a rightful heir the trap door above opens, but really it has a Temple of Doom level of ickiness that ratchets up the adventure elements to the next level. The group climbs a rope and we enter into an underwater ship with a table of skeletons who undoubtedly were robbed and abused by Titus at some point. The entire set has more than a little of a The Goonies vibe. It looks great, and you really feel the weight of all these dead bodies.
Amongst the skeletons we notice one of the hands clutching a scroll. Titus’s pages. We don’t have much time to celebrate as suddenly the figure holding the scroll springs to life, reforming to their human body. This is certainly the most shocking moment of the episode but also becomes quickly the most problematic as we are introduced to this character as Yahima who is two-spirited.
There is a long complicated history with two-spirited individuals, which as a non-indigenous, cis-gendered, white dude, I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here as it is both not my place and there is much better resources out there.* There are a few sources below I suggest that anyone who sees this episode should take the time to read. Suffice to say, that intersex and two-spirited individuals are not exactly the same thing, but that doesn’t exactly translate to what we see on the screen as the group gasps at the sight of the naked body of Yahima and refer to the character as “she.”
There is an interesting potential in introducing the idea of two-spirited people here, especially as the character spends time reciting the atrocities done by Titus as he used the indigenous people to attempt to translate his pages. This is done through translation by Tic as he can evidently understand the language but it all feels a little sloppy dealing with a delicate subject matter and not enough time is spent making clear what they are going for here especially in light of the end of this episode.
The explanation is brought to a halt as the glass of the ship cracks and water comes pouring in and Montrose, Leti, Tic, and Yahima swim to the elevator. As we escape the watery clutches of the catacombs now with pages in hand, we get a passionate kiss between Leti and Tic and learn also that Yahima is some sort of siren that can evidently be silenced by being knocked unconscious by Tic.
This is followed by a discussion between Montrose and Tic where Montrose says that he raised a great son. They discuss how they can enlist Yahima’s help to translate the text and they in turn can break a spell that turns Yahima’s voice into the deafening scream. As the episode concludes, there is a shocking turn of events as Montrose slits Yahima’s throat in a gruesome moment.
This moment is really tough for a couple reasons. First, it would have been nice to spend more time with a two-spirited character and give the audience a chance to learn more instead of just as a tool to demonstrate Montrose’s fear. (The writers have said it was to demonstrate that Montrose can’t handle the possible connection of allowing Tic to be further othered by associating with someone who is two-spirited). Secondly, the action makes Montrose essentially a villain and possibly unredeemable. I’ll be very interested to see how this show attempts to handle all of these elements as we move into the fifth episode and the halfway mark of the season.
The way this show is able to effortlessly swap genres from week to week, all while holding on to the important elements in line is honestly inspiring. But even the show's formal prowess can’t make up for a shocking and disappointing final sequence.