‘Lovecraft Country’ Is a Chaotic Rebuke of American Racism
The new HBO series—produced by Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams—sees our Black heroes dodging monstrous aliens, dark magic, and white supremacists.
The only thing more dangerous than monsters in Lovecraft Country are racists—although there are plenty of both in HBO’s new series, and sometimes they’re one and the same. Blending comedy and drama, horror and sci-fi, social commentary and genre thrills, showrunner/writer Misha Green’s adaptation of Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel tackles American intolerance through the prism of author H.P. Lovecraft, whose famed work about ancient, incomprehensible evils lurking just behind the veil was colored by his own noted intolerance for those with darker skin complexions. It’s a bold, heady venture with ambitions as grand as its creatures. Yet at least in its initial installments, it’s an effort routinely undercut by irritatingly sloppy storytelling.
That Lovecraft Country is often an overstuffed narrative mess is made all the more frustrating by the fact that its debut episode (Sunday, Aug. 16) is an expertly crafted table-settler for a rich saga to come. Home from war in Korea, sci-fi aficionado Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors), known to most as Tic, returns to his native Chicago. There, he partners with his voracious-reader uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and headstrong (and financially irresponsible) high school friend Leti (Jurnee Smollett) to embark on a search for his boozehound father Montrose (Michael K. Williams), who’s vanished after sending Tic a letter indicating he’s somewhere in Ardham, Massachusetts—a place related to Lovecraft’s fiction—and has new information about the ancestry of Tic’s deceased mother. Since George is an author of green books and thus presumably knows his way around the country, the three head out on a road trip made perilous by the beasts that lurk in rural parts unknown, and the everyday threats—such as hateful white citizens and cops—common to this Jim Crow landscape.
Tic’s introductory dream sequence of a Korean battlefield becoming infested with Lovecraftian behemoths, laser beam-blasting aliens and a bat-swinging Jackie Robinson is a delirious marriage of the real and the unreal, commingling the very sorts of disparate elements that would be on the mind of a 1950s Black man. Awakening from that reverie to find himself on the back of a bus, and then forced to walk to the nearest station alongside another Black woman after their vehicle breaks down and their new ride is driven by a racist, Tic is an individual grappling with terrors born of this and other worlds. Such menaces become even more intertwined once Tic, George, and Leti are beset by a villainous sheriff and a horde of hundred-eyed fiends, and subsequently take refuge at the mansion of blonde-haired cultist Samuel Braithwhite (Tony Goldwyn) and his daughter Christina (Abbey Lee).
Wizards and spells, magical books and secret passageways, blood sacrifices and rituals to grant everlasting life—these are merely a few of the many supernatural components of Lovecraft Country’s opening two outings, the latter of which is so jam-packed with scattershot exposition that it’s jarringly out of sync with the former. Green’s scripts have a habit of introducing random fantastical details and developments and then leaving them unexplained for long stretches, at which point they’re clarified in offhand-conversational fashion—a haphazard structure that’s compounded by the show’s refusal to properly establish any of its out-there lore. Characters suddenly have knowledge we haven’t seen them acquire, speak languages they can’t possibly know, and assemble puzzles before all the pieces have even been introduced. Moving at such a blistering pace, it forgets to provide a foundation for any of its insanity, or to take a breath long enough to make each revelation stick.
Speed, however, is everything to Lovecraft Country, which is so determined to be all things at all times that it never lays the groundwork for its tantalizing threads—or strikes the right balance between corny humor, gross-out terror, sleuthing and spelunking and all the other modes it tries on like a new outfit. The third episode, “Holy Ghost,” cleverly reconfigures Leti’s decision to move into a white neighborhood—where they don’t take kindly to Black folks—as a haunted house nightmare, but the sharpness of that conceit is undercut by the show’s disinterest in offering an initial explanation for how Leti came into money to purchase the abode in the first place. Worse, when we finally do learn the story behind those funds, it makes no sense unless you assume that Leti is more thoughtless and reckless than Smollett’s performance suggests—a disconnect between what we’re shown and what we’re told that routinely takes place as the show barrels through its chapters.
From stalwart Majors and feisty Smollett, to endearing Vance and enigmatic Williams, to forceful Wunmi Mosaku as Leti’s singer-sister Ruby, solid performances abound, even when the scripts’ characterizations are shaky. Similarly in great supply are allusions to, among others, Night of the Living Dead, Evil Dead, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, The Goonies, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Pirates of the Caribbean and, of course, Lovecraft’s own stories. All of this mixing and matching—which extends to a soundtrack featuring soul, blues, Cardi B, Marilyn Manson, TV News, and James Baldwin audio clips—is inherent to the series’ DNA. Yet while it makes sense in theory, it often feels clumsy in execution, driven as it is by absurdly convenient twists, deus ex machinas and bombshells. Unlike Watchmen, another HBO endeavor that investigated historical and contemporary racism via a geeky genre-fiction lens, Lovecraft Country is too busy swerving and combining to carve out a clear identity of its own. It’s a Frankenstein monster whose primary parts—that of real 20th-century racism and extraordinary leviathans—fit, but whose ancillary appendages are too many and too hastily stitched together.
This is a real shame, because at its finest—as in its stellar first hour and fifth body-swapping episode—Lovecraft Country gets to the rotten root of American prejudice, which manifests itself in both bold, overt actions (harassment; a billboard warning; a front lawn sign) and in subtle condemnatory glances and gestures. There’s something so natural and smart about its basic premise that the show’s inability to fully cohere proves exasperating. That it gets itself on more solid ground by the midway point of its debut season indicates that there’s still time left to right the project’s uneven course. But for now, the scariest thing about Lovecraft Country is its potential to be a missed opportunity.