Lovecraft Country

Lovecraft Country Season 1 Review: The Terror of American Life

The greatest strength of Lovecraft Country is the terror it finds in everyday American life. It’s the kind of terror that becomes sharply noticed and then, for many viewers, disappears as if it has faded away into the past. It’s the everyday fear that is erased for some when they speak of “the good old days.” The thing is, as the show and quite frankly, the reality in and outside of American windows knows, is that the good old days have always been there for white Americans. It’s the ability to sit in a diner and not think about whether the subpar, unseasoned food is going to arrive with the real threat of police violence. It can be the capacity to be well-read without being perceived as an inherent threat to the fragility of a white man in a police officer’s uniform. Alternatively, it can mean having the same respect as the people who consume your culture with gusto but refusing to recognize the humanity of the people who created it.

Lovecraft Country’s terrifying portrait of American life speaks to an uncomfortable truth about what programming that centres Black experiences is given the proper space to breathe and grow. There has been a vigorous conversation about why narratives that prioritize Black pain inflicted by this white supremacist colonial settler state since 1619 are preferred by overwhelmingly white executives. One of the pleasures here is to see Letitia (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) running through the forest in a sequence that feels like it’s from a monster movie. Black writers have written quite a few articles about this conversation and I entreat you to look for those pieces.

Shows run by Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, while still rare, have to meet an additional standard of perceived importance. They must be about race, they must handle it well, and they must meet all intersectionalities. That is not a standard expected of HBO Emmy juggernauts like Game Of Thrones and even, to a certain extent, Watchmen. Misha Green, as a Black woman showrunner, faces that additional standard and our critiques of Lovecraft Country must keep that in mind. If Craig Mazin got the space before he arrived at Chernobyl, then Misha deserves an even better space because, while Lovecraft Country does not entirely deliver on its promises, it’s too unique to be entirely abandoned.

I have already reviewed the pilot episode, which is one of the best singular hours of television I have ever seen, so I won’t go into details here. However, I will say that the pilot episode did deliver on the promise of the show. It intertwined the demons of this country with the demons of both H.P. Lovecraft’s stories and his own unabashed racism. The rest of the season simply can’t match the pilot.

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There were glimmers of promise here and there. Duelling narratives could have been intertwined more cohesively. Diana’s (Jada Harris) excellent turn in episode eight and a large portion of Ji-Ah’s (Jamie Chung) story in episode five prove just that. But the overall execution came across as questionable, leaving behind a few lingering questions of just how much the show was showcasing the period for what it was, how much it reinforced the stereotypes it was purportedly fighting, and what ultimately were the questions it was seeking to ask.

The choices around stereotyping feel especially odd because the narrative structure, haphazard at it seemed at times, was ostensibly built to give its supporting cast more room to grow and be fully realized. The scene between Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis) and the iconic Josephine Baker (Carra Patterson), for example, was stunning. It’s potentially Lovecraft Country’s best scene after the sundown sequence in the pilot. But the supporting cast’s relative growth often felt like detours, no matter how interesting, and therefore it often seems like the show is halfway between a narrative and an anthology. There is nothing wrong with eschewing traditional, Western storytelling structures, but you need to commit to an alternative. Lovecraft Country does not.

Sometimes Lovecraft Country feels like its adding in historical callbacks just for the sake of it. That choice is a largely negative double-edged sword. On the one hand, I’ve learned a great deal by digging deeper into the plethora of references and storytelling bits into which the series draws. On another arguably more important note, the callbacks are often inorganic to the story and interrupt the narrative flow. They also feel, in some specific sequences, exploitative and grotesque. Arguably the most offensive sequence features Christina Braithwaite (Abbey Lee) tried feel the pain of Emmett Till’s murder. I cannot understand the purpose of that sequence. When Christina tells Ruby that she, as a wealthy white woman, could not understand Ruby’s (Wunmi Mosaku) pain over what happened to Emmett and nor does she care, I believed her. I didn’t need to see that be challenged in that way.

The show also misses the mark when tackling American imperialism, so often left out of the conversation when stories tackle racism. That spectre appears briefly in episode five, but the show is more concerned with setting up Ji-Ah’s relationship with Atticus (Jonathan Majors) than it is in exploring that juncture. Their relationship doesn’t particularly go anywhere, either, which proves frustrating.

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Ji-Ah, who feels more like a character device upon her return, rather than a developed character, is briefly given some characterization and heartbreak as her best friend Young-Ja (Prisca Kim) is presumably taken away to be executed for being a Communist spy. When Ji-Ah asks Atticus why he would fight for a country that dehumanizes him, there’s a brief spark of interest that perhaps we would get that conversation. Then the conversation goes away and Ji-Ah falls in love with Atticus, the very man who shot her colleagues and who, for a time, she was determined to kill as revenge for Young-Ja.

Ruby has an arc that occasionally feels intriguing and exciting, with the series making some excellent notes about how much easier it is for white people to exist in their own skin, like walk into a department store or sit in a park without thinking twice. There’s also some excellent commentary that Ruby, as a larger and darker-skinned Black woman, has it even more difficult than Letitia. But then certain choices remove the complexities present in the arc of Ruby’s fate. There are, again, writers who have written with a lot more grace and actual experience of colourism and narrative tropes, but it is worth noting that darker-skinned characters like Ruby rarely get to be the hero throughout stories and, in this case, her fate is genuinely dispiriting.

As for our primary protaganists, Letitia herself is perhaps the show’s clearest, most well-realized character. Brought to great life by Jurnee Smollett-Bell, her ferocity, flaws, and determination are all crafted with a precision by writers who know what a complicated individuals looks like. Her driving scene in the pilot alone is iconic. Atticus, whose stoicism was delivered with an excellent pathos by Jonathan Majors, is complex and Lovecraft Country does an excellent job of not making him into a prototype hero.

Lovecraft County’s handling of its LGBTQIA+ characters is arguably its weakest link. There is not a singular moment in the entire season where Lovecraft Country’s queer and trans character have a positive, welcoming, cherished relationship. I do not expect a show to ignore the difficulties created by homophobia and transphobia, but that alone cannot be the sole and frankly thin exploration of LGBTQIA+ characters. This, unfortunately, creates a circumstance where the show “otherizes” its own LGBTQIA+ characters – especially Sammy (Jon Hudson Odom) and Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams), which is deeply disappointing. I don’t expect a show that explicitly addresses racism to also address LGBTQIA+ rights within a genre framework, but, again, if you are going to go there, commit.

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Yet Lovecraft Country is often beautiful. The production design, art design, and costuming alone are impeccable. The creation of an environment simultaneously idyllic and explicitly terrifying is beautifully done. The moments of some genuine warmth are so bright that they glow. It refuses to make its characters easy to root for and commits to making them flawed, especially its protagonists. Its callbacks to some beautiful and heartbreaking speeches at times created effortless bridges between the horrors of the past and the now. The performances were astounding and the actors commit to the real and the imaginary as if there was no distinction. It was a unique journey and I learned a lot. I cannot say if I would return again.

The first season of Lovecraft Country is streaming on HBO Max in the United States.

 

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