Lovecraft Country review: A radical new show is here to rule HBO’s fantasy roster
Cast - Jurnee Smollett, Jonathan Majors, Michael K Williams, Aunjanue Ellis, Courtney B Vance, Abbey Lee, Jamie Chung
Lush with lore and spilling with subtext, Lovecraft Country has the rare ability to be dead serious yet hugely entertaining at the same time. It’s a powerful progression for HBO, a year after Watchmen paved the way for the future of Black storytelling.
The network isn’t the only thing that the two shows have in common — episode nine of Lovecraft Country also revisits 1921’s Tulsa race massacre, which Watchmen brought back into public consciousness in its unforgettable pilot.
Watch a trailer for the Lovecraft Country finale here:
Inspired by the fictional universe of HP Lovecraft and based on the 2016 novel by Matt Ruff — written in the twilight of the Obama years — Lovecraft Country tells the story of a Vietnam War veteran named Atticus Freeman, who along with his childhood friend Leti and charming uncle George, goes on a road trip across the racially segregated (and fantastical) United States of the 1950s to hunt for his missing father. The novel, which I’m told is divided into eight interconnected stories, probably gave the show its rather episodic structure.
This makes for a disjointed viewing experience, where certain episodes are markedly better than others. None, however, is quite as brilliant as the first — Sundown, directed by Yann Demange. The episode gets its title from the ‘sundown towns’ of Jim Crow America, in which travelling Black people were disallowed entry after sunset.
In a thrilling sequence, our central trio is pulled over by a smirking white policeman, who tells them, as a matter of fact, that they will be lynched if they do not exit the town before dark. After making them beg for mercy, he allows them to drive to the nearest border, but also issues a warning -- he will be tailing them the entire six minutes that they have before sunset. If they speed, he will pull them over; if they fail to escape, he will kill them. It’s like a game to him. Little does he know that in the woods, there are actual monsters, waiting to pounce.
I’m tempted to declare that Lovecraft Country peaks with its first episode, but that would be unfair, because the show is responsible for setting its own benchmark. Although several other episodes come close, none is able to match the sheer ambition of Sundown.
I particularly enjoyed the Indiana Jones-inspired episode four — A History of Violence — in which Atticus and Leti, now joined by his long-lost father Montrose, break into a subterranean vault to steal a magical artefact. And chapter six — Meet Me in Daegu — a flashback episode in which the story of Atticus’ fleeting wartime romance with a Korean woman possessed by an evil spirit is told in the most sweepingly satisfying manner.
On other occasions, the show plays around within the framework of genre conventions to deliver resounding commentary about the present. Take, for instance, the time travel episode in which our protagonists jump through a portal and find themselves in Tulsa, on the eve of the 1921 massacre, where they must locate and recover a magical MacGuffin that was said to have been destroyed amid the violence. Or episode five — Strange Case — in which Leti’s sister Ruby consumes a potion and wakes up white. Body swapping, as a storytelling device, has largely been mostly restricted to broad comedies. In Lovecraft Country, it is layered with subtext. For Ruby, having experienced living like a common white person for a day, she might as well have experienced living like royalty.
Lovecraftian horror is defined by the unknown. What lurks in the shadows is often scarier than what can actually be seen. But white supremacy — if that is indeed meant to be the dominant metaphor here — isn’t invisible. It is manifested by the sweaty, chewing gum popping men who stomp on the necks of young Black people, stifling their calls for mercy. These are the same men who shoot unarmed kids in the back, and are let off with a rap on the knuckles.
“I can’t breathe,” a young girl gasps in one scene, as two white police officers, both armed with more than just their service revolvers — they’re also practitioners of magic — put her in a chokehold and cast a spell on her. In another scene, when the cops are summoned to investigate a Black family that has just moved into grand old house in a white neighbourhood, every last inhabitant walks onto the front lawn and silently assumes the ‘hands up don’t shoot’ position.
Co-produced by Jordan Peele and JJ Abrams, Lovecraft Country uses these words and gestures — symbols of Black resistance — to comment on the real horrors that the community continues to face, decades since the abolition of the Jim Crow laws. Is it wise to reduce centuries of oppression to a sweeping (and rather in-your-face) metaphor about monsters? I don’t know. But on this occasion especially, I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt to creator Misha Green. Her ambitions are noble, of that there can be no doubt.
In Lovecraft Country, she subverts the very foundations upon which her story is built. Much like how Lin-Manuel Miranda came up with the brilliant idea of casting actors of colour to play white men (and women) with a history of racism, sexism and xenophobia in his groundbreaking musical Hamilton, Misha Green takes the works of the bigoted HP Lovecraft, and fashions them into an empowering tale about reclaiming one’s stolen honour, dignity and pride.
It’s mandatory viewing, if only to experience the leaps and bounds with which conventional television is evolving. Despite near-constant pressure from streamers, HBO remains in a league of its own.