Lovecraft Country is owned by HBO
Directed by Daniel Sackheim
Last week’s episode was a major disappointment, but not so much that they can’t find a way to come back from it. The characters are still strong and engaging, the aesthetic has a fun pulpiness to it (not dissimilar from Perry Mason), and we’ve seen how effectively they can handle a difficult tone between horror fun and dreadful reality with aplomb, so there’s no reason they couldn’t pull it off again. Does this show find a way to get back on track after the convoluted mess that was the last episode, or were all their best ideas in that first episode? Let’s find out!!
The episode begins with Leti in the middle of a church service; staring off in the middle distance with an expression of empty sadness while… um… a Nike commercial is playing in the background. The spoken word monologue on the soundtrack during this scene is from Nike’s NYC Be True Campaign from 2017 (written by Daisy Zhao and narrated by Precious Angel Ramirez) which seems like an odd pick for something like this. Also, what exactly IS this? If this is supposed to be the funeral of Uncle George, then it doesn’t read as such because there’s no casket, no pictures, and certainly no sadness from anyone else there who seem to be singing joyfully with Leti being the odd one out. Perhaps my cultural signifies for what a funeral scene in a show or movie is supposed to look like are too narrow, but for me it started things off on an awkward note as I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on here.
After the funeral we get a quick update on the fallout between the last episode and this one which if you recall ended in the Sons of Adam being destroyed and Uncle George dying of a gunshot wound. Atticus is taking care of Aunt Hippolyta and their daughter Dee now that Uncle George is gone, and on top of that he has to deal with his cranky dad Montrose who seems content to while away his time drinking from his flask and being a dick to his son. Seems they’re apt to pick up their relationship exactly where they left it off; icy and cantankerous. There’s certainly a lot of guilt being felt between the both of them, especially since they decided to not tell Hippolyta and Dee exactly HOW George died opting to go with a hothead sheriff shooting him; a decision that’s certainly weighing harder on Atticus than it does Montrose.
That’s about all we get for the bulk of the episode that connects us to the Sons of Adam and all that happened in the previous two episodes as this is very much a self-contained story which I found rather refreshing. I’m glad that we’re not going to get bogged down in all the nonsense from the last episode that felt like trying to unravel a Gordian knot in a pressure cooker and that we’re exploring other ways of infusing genre tropes into distressingly relevant situation. The plot of this episode being that Leti bought a house that you can tell is gonna be full of ghosts and bad plumbing, but she brings her sister Ruby over anyway to convince her to move in and help her turn it into a boarding house; a safe haven for Black people looking to find a safe haven to live and prosper. Well… I SAY “safe”, but the place has this ridiculously horrifying elevator that doesn’t seem to work and as soon as they stick their head into the shaft it comes SCREAMING down with enough velocity to give Superman a concussion. I’M SURE THEY’LL FIX IT AND IT’LL BE FINE, RIGHT!?
Almost as soon as Leti, Ruby, and the boarders move into the house, the local white people start to try and intimidate them into leaving; all of which is being done in full view of the police who smile as they do nothing in case you weren’t sure what side they were on. Still, they preserver and won’t be intimidated so easily and make the most of what they can. Atticus drops by to let her know that he’ll be returning to Florida soon (presumably he’s had enough of his dad to last him a lifetime), but the hateful conduct of Leti’s neighbors convincing him that he should stick around; either until these bastards get sick of waiting around and try something or they get tired of giving them grief. PROBABLY not the latter as the community at large is fully behind these hateful acts of aggression, up to and including tampering with the house itself, and if that wasn’t bad enough Leti starts to hear ghostly voices and a rumbling sound in the furthest and darkest corner of the basement. There, she and Atticus find a SUB-basement door that leads to a room that can only have been used for bootlegging, evil science, or torturing people for fun; perhaps even all three at the same time! Still, it’s completely empty and it’s not the kind of thing that would make you run screaming from the house (at least not yet), so Leti preservers and even throws a party that night for all of her friends to prove just how much they truly belong there no matter what their racist neighbors think.
The party is where things really start to come to a head; not only with the tension between the neighbors and Leti, but with everything else that’s been threatening to simmer over this entire episode. Hippolyta is there with a lot of food which only makes things awkward when she brings up George as Leti is not happy about having to lie to her about how he died, but what the heck is she supposed to say? A wizard did it? On top of that, Atticus still seems itching to get out of town, but he just can’t seem to get away as there’s always something else he needs to do or someone else he needs to look after. Then again, does he REALLY want to leave or is he just afraid to stick around and lay down roots in this community once again? The tension reaches a fever pitch between him and Leti as they can resist each other no longer and have sex in the bathroom, but things get awkward REALLY quickly and they just part ways almost as soon as they start. Still, the food was good and Ruby did a great job on stage, so I’d call this party a success, right? Well probably not at the end of it when a cross is found burning outside the house.
Leti has officially had it with this hateful nonsense, and she takes a baseball bat to bash the windows out of the parked cars and remove the bricks that were holding down the horns these past few days. While this may have been an act of fury and passion, she knows exactly what this means and is picked up by the cops. No one else is in the police van which I guess is a lucky break for all the Black people in the house, but there’s no chance anyone is going to pay for lighting that cross in their front yard. This is where things get REALLY distressing as the cop in the back of the van with her starts to grill her about why she bought the house in the first place which she doesn’t have an answer for (at least not an answer the cop wants to hear), and the car stars whipping violently around; drawing direct parallels to the Freddie Gray murder back in 2015. Once again, Lovecraft Country does a fantastic job of exploring racial injustice thru the language of genre tropes, and while I could see some disagreeing with just how closely they’re emulating a real world tragedy here (possibly edging up to the point of exploiting it to stoke a reaction), I think it serves its purpose of creating an overwhelming sense of dread and terror from threats outside of the house as well as whatever is bubbling up within it.
From there, the episode kicks things up a notch as the ghostly apparitions begin to escalate and the tension between all of our characters starts to boil over as well. Leti and Ruby have a blow up argument as all the tenants are leaving the house and it’s discovered that Leti SOMEHOW got a decent inheritance from her mother; the same mother who didn’t have anything left to give to Ruby (or their brother for that matter) and whose funeral Leti had missed. If that wasn’t bad enough, Leti and Atticus have an awkward chat about what happened at the party, but they eventually get past it; at least long enough to focus on the scary ghost that’s haunting the house. The episode has rested almost entirely on Jurnee Smollett’s shoulders to give Leti not just more dimension as a character but to plumb some REALLY deep emotional depths to convey all that she has to feel during this episode. The joy when she first has the house and people are moving into it, the rage at the white people trying to drive her out, even the deep desires for Atticus and the crushing emotional weight of letting down her sister; all while having to sell us on this scary ghost story! Everyone else does a good job as well (especially Wunmi Mosaku as Ruby), but Smollett is absolutely the standout.
So then, what’s up with these ghosts? Well after doing her search, Leti finds out that some mad scientist white dude was the previous owner and that eight bodies were found in his basement. Given how cagey the police were and the dangerous ride they gave Leti the night before, chances are they either helped him get those people for him to do his sick experiments or simply turned the other way as it was going on because the people found in the basement were Black. In any case, Leti and Atticus need to do something about this, and it’s sadly thirty years too early to call The Ghostbusters, they find a medium off screen and take her to the house to sacrifice a goat which apparently will protect them from ghosts while they’re inside. I’m not too keen on seeing this kind of violence against animals and I wish they actually introduced this woman before she just showed up with them at the house, but aside from that this climax is AMAZING!
It’s everything you’d want to see in a ghost film! There’s a séance in the sub-basement with heavy winds and the lights going in and out, we’ve got three racists white boys with bats trying to find them and instead find terrifying ghosts throughout, and I’m not even going to spoil what happens with the elevator from earlier! The ghosts themselves are brilliantly depicted and some of the most terrifying I’ve seen in any movie or show in the last few years. The restless ghosts of the scientist’s victims are stuck in here with the monster himself, and there’s a deep sadness to seeing them and the depth of cruelty with which this scientist dude mangled and destroyed their bodies for his own sick pleasure. The evil man possess Atticus who’s trying to fight back, but Leti manages to rally the other ghosts to perform a séance of their own to try and expel him from the house. The mangled bodies of these ghosts start to heal themselves as the scientist’s power gets fainter and fainter; all the while Shirley Caesar’s Satan We’re Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down is blasting on the soundtrack. Eventually the Scientist is destroyed and the ghosts of his victims can finally be at peace.
Some time passes after that and Leti has finally turned the boarding house into a true home for Black people in the community, though the episode doesn’t end there. Clearly we’re not done with the Sons of Adam yet because it turns out that Christina Braithwhite (Abbey Lee), the daughter of the head of the organization who died in the last episode, was the one who gave the money to Leti under the guise of a secret inheritance from her mother, and she even paid a real estate agent to convince her to buy that specific house. Why? Well Atticus isn’t interested in finding an answer when she confronts her at the real estate office and instead pulls a gun on her which refuses to fire because MAGIC. Then we get a verbal waterfall of information that, even for someone who was TRYING to pay extra close attention last week, came off as nonsense until I sat down and watched it a second time. From what I can gather, The Book of Adam is in a secret code that only Titus Braithwhite was able to decipher. Some other dude named Winthrop tried to make his own cypher for it but… I guess it didn’t work out? In any case, the book of Adam itself is gone (I think?) but some untranslated chapters remain in a SECRET VAULT that Titus has somewhere. The implication seems to be that Christina thinks that Atticus can find these pages and ALSO find the cipher that Winthrop was working on which will allow them to translate the pages and unlock even more magic spells. What does Christina want to do with this power and why is Atticus so important to getting that? I don’t know, but I guess we’ll learn more in the next episode, if I can manage to remember all that between now and then!
Aside from an awkward start, a few rushed moments here and there, and an ending that felt like way too much continuity maintenance, this was a REALLY great episode that nails its important moments as well or in some cases BETTER than the first episode did! Take all the Sons of Adam stuff out and you have one of the better ghost stories I’ve seen in a while that has some really devastating undertones that recall the dark history of Black trauma at the hands of the authorities, their fellow neighbors, and especially science and medicine which led to some horrifying outcomes like the Tuskegee experiments or even modern day issues where Black people’s pain and symptoms are often dismissed by doctors and the rate of Black pregnancy-related death remain distressingly high. The show still has a few kinks to work out here and there with its pacing (I REALLY would have liked at least one scene with the medium before she just showed up), but when this show nails it, it nails it like few other shows and I can’t wait to see where else it goes; as long as we don’t have to deal with ANOTHER overly convoluted cult anytime soon.