HBO’s Lovecraft Country
Directed by Yann Demange
Written by Misha Green
* For a recap & review of “Whitey’s on the Moon,” click here.
We start with WWII footage, depicting men fighting brutally through the trenches. One of them is Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors). He looks out over the landscape to see UFOs hovering above the earth, huge tripods stalking overhead, and all sorts of other madness. From one UFO comes an alien life form, a woman clad in a bikini— a typically patriarchal image of outer space from the 1950s. And then, from the ground, comes a Cthulhu-like monster which gets walloped apart by a baseball strike from none other than number 42, Jackie Robinson.
It’s just a dream, of course.
Atticus is on the bus, dreaming about things he’s been reading, like the John Carter adventure A Princess of Mars. The bus breaks down and a truck from a nearby town has to take the passengers further. Sadly, the two Black people on board— Atticus and an older Black woman— are stuck walking into town. They talk about literature, particularly pulp fiction novels. Atticus doesn’t think much of John Carter being an ex-Confederate soldier, whereas she says you don’t “get to put an ex” in front of fighting for slavery. And right she is— more interesting is that Lovecraft Country is specifically confronting the legacy of its namesake, H.P. Lovecraft, whose racism and xenophobic tendencies are glaring in several key stories, not to mention the name of his cat, and so on. So the series— based on Matt Ruff’s novel— right from the start, has already begun to dig into Lovecraft. Lots of reckoning with patriarchal figures to come, as Atticus is on his own journey concerning his father.
Soon Atticus is in town surprising his family: Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), Aunt Hippolyta (Aujanue Ellis), and his cousin Diana (Jada Harris). At the bookstore, he and George get chatting about Lovecraft, particularly the little known poem “On the Creation of N—–s.” After that they quickly get talking of family. Atticus breaks out a letter his father wrote of ancestors and a “secret legacy.” That evening, Atticus talks to a bartender who knows his father. The bartender claims he left with “some white man” in a fancy sedan, possibly a lawyer.
Letitia Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) is also in town, looking for a place to stay. She meets up with her half-sister Ruby Baptiste (Wunmi Mosaku) at a big block party, who reluctantly gives her a spot to stay. There’s clearly a LOT of history there, as Ruby doesn’t seem to trust Leti as far as she could throw her. We also see more of Atticus at home with Uncle George, looking for the place his father called Ardham. He’s determined to go after his dad, regardless of where that takes him. George isn’t letting his nephew go alone, either.
It isn’t only pulp and horror that Atticus reads. He’s got a copy of The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. He’s got a couple copies, actually. One of them has a picture of his father in it, Montrose Freeman (Michael K. Williams). Atticus makes a call to South Korea. Someone picks up but he’s speechless. A woman on the other end tells him he shouldn’t have gone home, like a warning rather than longing for him to be back with her. So, he hangs up.
In the morning, Atticus runs into Leti. They catch up briefly when Atticus discovers she’s going on their road trip, too. Part of the way, anyway. Uncle and nephew get finished packing the car, then they’re ready for the road. Not before George gets a new “travel comic” from his daughter, somewhat of a tradition. A very cute gesture, and shows how close the Freemans are as a family. As they get on the road, we hear parts of a debate between James Baldwin and William F. Buckley from 1965. Even though it’s anachronistic, given that the events of the series are occurring in the ’50s, it’s a deeply important inclusion as Baldwin as debating Buckley about whether the so-called American Dream comes at the expense of Black Americans.
The trio arrive in Simmonsville, and before they’ve even stopped there are eyes on them. They stop at a diner where things are no less awkward. Leti and Atticus would prefer to get out, though Uncle George refuses on principle. When Leti goes to the bathroom she hears the waiter making a phone call about the three Blacks who just walked into the place. She rushes out and tells the men to get in the car, at the same time uncle and nephew are recounting the burning of the White House/its subsequent repainting. Just as soon as they do they’re being tailed closely by white men with guns in trucks. Atticus fires back with his handgun while Leti does some kick ass driving. They get away, getting a glimpse of a bourgeois white woman in one of the vehicles.
Leti gets them to her half-brother Marvin’s (Demetrius Grosse) place. He’s been looking into Devon County, where Ardham’s located. The county seat, Bideford, was named after the same place in England where one of the country’s final witch trials was held— they executed a woman who said the devil appeared to her “as a negro man” and fornicated with her. Lots of strange disappearances in the area, and the typical rampant racism. Not much info on Ardham, other than Marvin finding the approximate location.
And so, onward to Devon County.
But the more they drive the less idea they have about where to find Ardham.
All they see is forest and road. Atticus insists it’s out there somewhere while Uncle George is sure they’ll never find it. Leti thinks they shouldn’t give up, even if they don’t find Ardham today. Perfect time for a police car to roll up on them while they’re parked on the side of the road. The cop calls them all to the back of their car. He says it’s a “sundown county” and calls them “animals,” basically threatening their lives. Thankfully, Leti, Atticus, and Uncle George slip away without any white violence coming down upon them. Atticus has to debase himself a little, or else potentially face the shotgun over the sheriff’s shoulder. A shitty decision to be left with making, no doubt, but at least they’re all alive. Now they have to rush to get out of the county before sundown, or else face that looming white violence at the hands of a psycho cop. They can’t even leave yet because the sheriff’s tailgating and running into them. The sun’s nearly down and they make it across the tracks in time before darkness comes.
However, down the road is a blockade of other cops.
The sheriff and his pigs take their three Black hostages into the woods at gunpoint. They’re concerned about burglaries in the area, naturally seeking any Black individual they can to blame for the crimes. Atticus tries reasoning with the white men, giving permission for the car to be searched. When things are getting heated, suddenly a noise comes from the woods— strange, unnatural sounds. And out of nowhere, a hideous creature leaps from the trees, tearing one of the cops apart. Leti, George, and Atticus take their chance to run while the cops try fighting off more of the creatures. Leti and Atticus reach a cabin, soon joined by the now mangled sheriff and another cop, but George falls behind, tripping in the bush. Poor George only has a flashlight, up against creatures with many eyes. He manages to get to the cabin before being chewed up. But they’re still stuck with racist shitbags, and those “children of the night” outside looking to get in.
One positive? George figured out light hurts them. What a great metaphor for a sundown town, having literal monsters come out at night while Black people are forced indoors, an allegory for all those all-white towns with KKK members patrolling their streets at night to make sure there’s no non-white faces lurking around.
The plan is, survive until daytime. Leti will run for the car, to use the headlights, and they also have flares. She makes it to the vehicle in time to get away from one of the creatures. But things just get worse at the cabin once the sheriff seems to be transforming into a hideous creature, as well. Not a good place to be trapped. They’re saved when Leti comes crashing through the cabin, lights blazing. This will keep the creatures away until daytime.
After that, George, Atticus, and Leti head for Ardham— where Atticus has been expected.
Amazing opening episode! If it didn’t get your blood pumping you may be dead.
I’ve never read Lovecraft Country, so I’ll have to dig in after the series. Either way, I love the spirit of the show and I think so much of the thematic mission statement comes out in this first episode. We see all the elements that are going to make this a fun ride. Plus, it comes along at a much needed time in American history. Horror can be fun AND socially/politically relevant, y’know.