Super Recaps: Lovecraft Country – Episode 1 (Sundown)

Lovecraft Country is owned by HBO

Directed by Yann Demange

HBO Max is proving to be a darn good service and I’m finding a lot of great series to enjoy, particularly Perry Mason and Harley Quinn, so in the spirit of celebrating the arrival of another good streaming service (and looking for something I can review on a regular schedule), I’ll be watching their latest series which I can only assume is a Once Upon a Time knock off but about scarier monsters, right?  Okay, probably not.  Does this series have what it takes to grip you right away and leave you itching for more episodes, or does the novelty of the show wear off once you get past the title?  Let’s find out!!

The show begins with what I’m sure most of us were expecting when we heard it was called Lovecraft Country; a Syfy channel series with HBO money and gratuitous violence as we see a bizarre WW I trench battle involving flying saucers, alien bikini babes, and Cthulhu themselves being utterly wrecked by Jackie Robinson!  Seems like the kind of show that’s right up my very silly alley, but this is not to be as the show has much more on its mind as it all turns out to be a dream; escaping from a reality that may be more mundane but is certainly one our main character wants to get away from.  Our hero is Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors); a nerdy black kid from Chicago who joined the army, got super buff, and has been moving around the country since the end of his service.  He’s finally returning home because his father, the man he was trying to get away from by joining the service, has gone missing and the last thing he did was send a mysterious note to Atticus requesting his presence in Ardham Massachusetts which doesn’t seem to exist.  Seems like a straightforward enough task, except that this show takes place in the fifties and therefore he can’t just do a Google search and more importantly he has to deal with the terrifying barriers of systemic racism wherever he goes; where even riding a bus is rife with danger and indignities as we learn as soon as he wakes up from his exciting dream. The bus has broken down in the middle of nowhere and the only transportation that’s come to help is a pickup truck sending a very clear message of exactly WHO they’re willing to take.

Despite having to walk a good chunk of the way there and helping a nice older black woman with her bags who was also not invited on the pickup truck, he makes it to Chicago where he, as well as the show, can breathe a bit more; a haven of sorts for him where he can worry less about everything else that’s wrong with the world and focus on the reason he came back in the first place.  It’s here that the show starts to settle in and establish the characters and their relationships that will be important throughout the rest of the show.  Most notably are his uncle George (Courtney B Vance) who makes a living traveling the country and writing Green Books and Leti Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) who’s a young woman who very recently came back to town and finds herself almost immediately entwined in Atticus’s journey.  Besides them, we’ve got Leti’s sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku), George’s wife Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis) and their daughter Diana (Jada Harris).  I’m unsure how much they will have to do with the rest of the series, especially given where the episode ends up, but they turn in good performances for the scenes they’re in.  The scenes in Chicago are well done and set an interesting tone for the series that goes well with the pulp sensibilities that inspire it.  Despite being unmistakably set in the fifties (even though I DID think it was the twenties at first considering the WW I opening) it’s written and directed with a much more modern sensibility; or at least NOT specifically with a fifties sensibility as often depicted in popular culture.  How everyone talks, the use of modern music, even the references to pulp science fiction and horror stories which MAY have existed back then but weren’t exactly a part of the cultural discourse until much later (the first HP Lovecraft film adaptation wasn’t until 1963), definitely gives the story a fresh and vital feeling which will only become more apparent later on in the episode.  In any case, from what Atticus could gather from the people in the neighborhood, his father was last seen getting into a fancy car with a white guy, while his uncle was able to determine that there WAS once a place called Ardham, but it was over two hundred years ago that it was last referenced on any census and was somewhere in Massachusetts.  We also learn that Atticus has some secrets of his own as he calls a woman in Korea but hangs up the phone almost as soon as he does. 

From there, the episode is Atticus, George, and Leti who go together on a road trip; each with their own agenda.  George needs to go out on the road to work on his book, Atticus has his sights on Massachusetts, and Leti doesn’t seem to have much going on at the moment and rather than stay in Chicago with her sister she decided she would get more out of riding with these two.  As least I think that’s her motivation as they ALSO explain she has a brother close to Massachusetts who’ll look into Ardham for them and perhaps she wanted to see him.  Her joining the trip is basically mentioned in passing and I wish they would have focused on it a BIT more considering how much she does in this episode going forward.  The road trip is rather hard to sit thru as the show unflinchingly depicts Separate But Equal practices in the US, but ultimately feels like the most salient point the show is trying to make.  The monsters of Lovecraft’s stories or the dangerous worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs were (and in some cases continue to be) right outside the doorsteps of people of color.  Throughout the trip, they have to wait in colored lines, take mockery and scorn from white people with nothing better to do with their time, and constantly see reminders of the harm that white people are just looking for an excuse to inflict on them; all of which occurring while James Baldwin’s The American Dream and the American Negro is being read to us.  No, I didn’t actually know what it was and had to look the speech up later, but even so the words are powerful and the imagery is far from subtle.

It all culminates in a scene where the trio visit a diner that George got a tip about to see if it really is a safe place to add to his book, and spoiler alert; IT ISN’T!  As soon as they get there, the white people are looking at them with utter contempt and even fear, but George is not deterred as his money is just as good here as it is anywhere.  Then they notice that the walls are painted white which you USUALLY do when a place gets burned to the ground, and come to think of it… wasn’t the place supposed to be called Lydia’s?  There sure isn’t a Lydia working there today!  Then Leti hears one of the waiters calling the… “Fire Department”, and it becomes clear that they need to get out NOW!  The three of them run to the car and as soon as they start it, a truck screeches around the corner filled with white dudes and guns.  What follows is a straight up action movie car chase, complete with an action soundtrack, the three of them yelling at each other in the car, and Atticus taking a pistol he brought with him and firing it at the car pursuing them.  While the rest of the road trip was, shall we say… more grounded, I don’t think the over the top antics here really detract from the overall terror of the situation; rather, like what Jordan Peele did with Get Out, it uses the storytelling conventions of a genre to tell a larger story.  The final scene of Get Out where Daniel Kaluuya is in a completely justified yet compromising position when you hear a police siren and see the flashing lights is perfectly executed because it gets you as audience to feel that dread in the pit of your stomach that you may not have any reason to feel whenever police show up but is the lived experiences of many people of color.  Similarly, the tension in this scene as the three of them realize the danger they are in and the life and death stakes involved in the car chase get across that feeling that many people of color have to live with feeling unwelcome or in danger whenever they go to certain places.  The one thing that I’d argue IS a bit too silly here is the ending of the car chase which I can only assume will be more in line with what the rest of the series is about but on its own it feels a bit much to stick it right here.  During the chase, the three of them manage to maneuver their car ahead of another car; using it as a barrier between them and the white dudes with guns.  The three of them pull ahead a fair bit and then out of nowhere, the middle car stops, and the white dudes’ car flips over; NOT because it crashed into the car that stopped, but because of what I can only assume are Jean Grey psychic powers as a very well dressed and stylish white woman comes out of the car and stares meaningfully back at Atticus.

So after all THAT excitement, they make it to Leti’s brother’s place where he gives them a rundown on what they’ll be facing next.  Ardham, at least where it used to be, is in the middle of Devon County, which is known for black people “mysteriously” disappearing; possibly due to some dangerous wildlife in the area or most likely due to their sheriff who on top of LOOKING like an evil scumbag actually has an NAACP file a mile long.  If they want to find Ardham, they’re gonna have to go into his jurisdiction, and that could turn bad REALLY quickly.  After this ominous bit of news, we get some more backstory for our main characters.  Leti has a contentious relationship with her family due to her missing her mother’s funeral and bailing activists out of jail instead, and Atticus has unresolved issues with his abusive father who Uncle Joe was never really able to stop.  If there’s one thing I’m not exactly digging about this episode, it’s just how much information they’re dumping into this one episode.  A lot of characters with a lot of different motivations and backstories coupled with hints and teases at cosmic horror and whatever that X-Men thing was with the woman in the car.

The three of them head out and starts searching the woods of Devon County to find some sign of Ardham; particularly an old road connected to a bridge that was hinted at in the records that Leti’s brother found.  After a day of searching they come up empty, and to make matters worse the sheriff finds them and informs them it’s a Sundown Town and they’ve got seven minutes to GTFO before he hangs them or shoots them dead.  Even if you’ve heard of Sundown Towns before, the way this episode uses the concept to build tension and instill fear is horrifically palpable, and the scene of them trying to beat the sun with a sheriff on their bumper who will just as soon shoot them for going half a mile over the speed limit as he would for them being in the city limits after dark is incredibly hard to watch.  Thankfully they make it over the line with five seconds left to spare… only to find a squad of police cars waiting for them; laughing at the cruelty with which they’ll ignore even the most corrupt and heinous of laws to do whatever they please.  The three are dragged into the woods with guns aimed at their heads and as you start to wonder if ALL of them need to survive for the series to continue, something out in the woods begins to growl and in a flash one of the officers’ head has been chomped clean off.  Now apparently these creatures are called Shoggoths, but if you’ve seen Stranger Things then they’re basically the Demogorgon.  In fact, it’s at this point that the show just straight up becomes Stranger Things which is well enough I suppose.  I mean one of the more common complaints about that series is the rose-tinted nostalgia with which it views the time period that it’s set, and if there’s anything you can say about this show, it certainly doesn’t have THAT problem!

After a while, and after most of the cops are dead, they realize that light is the only thing that will repel the Shoggoths and the three of them somehow make it through the night, though their car certainly did not.  Covered in blood and having seen FAR too much weirdness for one night, they walk the road to try to find some town and wouldn’t you know it, they find that bridge they were looking for and on the other side they find a resplendent mansion.  As they walk up to the house, Atticus notices that the car his father supposedly got into is sitting in the driveway, and when the door opens some there’s some dude who I can only describe as a young and well-dressed Matthew McConaughey and he informs Atticus that they have been expecting him and that this is his home. LOVECRAFT SHOCK!!

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The show is certainly wearing a lot of hats and has enough big, jaw dropping moments to keep me hooked, but I’m still somewhat ambivalent about where it ended up.  If I were to guess, we’re setting up some secret society or second world stuff, a la Wakanda or even The Dresden Files.  That could make for a fine show and all, but what usually happens in those kinds of stories is that we separate ourselves from the rest of the world, to experience the fantastical elements separate from everything else, with the “normal” society as it were serving as a thing to protect when the stakes get raised.  It probably WON’T be that considering just how much effort the show put into setting up the real world and the terrifying status quo that they live in, but I guess I’m worried that once (or even IF) we get into bigger Cosmic Stuff and people with magic powers, that the change in framing will make the racial issues feel insignificant.  Still, there is so much to enjoy here, especially in its pulpier sensibilities and creative cinematography, that I’d easily recommend this show to anyone who has HBO Max as well as the stomach for some of its more dread inducing moments.  Also, we need more scenes of Jackie Robinson whacking Cthulhu with a baseball bat.  I’m not even saying it would have to make sense; you could splice it in randomly throughout the episode.  I just need more of it!

4 out of 5

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