Lovecraft Country is owned by HBO
Directed by Helen Shaver
We’re back with even more clunky yet mostly fun nonsense from our favorite supernatural HBO show! The last episode certainly had a really great central hook with the Jekyll/Hyde motif, but everything involving Atticus and the larger storyline was rather underwhelming which is a shame because that’s the main plot thread for the show. Thankfully this one is another excursion away from all that as well learn more about the woman Atticus knew during the war, but even without the baggage from the Sons of Adam, are there enough thrills, chills, and genuine insights on important issue for this to be another solid episode? Let’s find out!!
Today’s episode is a flashback to Atticus’s time in the Korean War, but is told from the perspective of Ji-Ah (Jamie Chung); the mysterious woman who Atticus called at the end of the last episode. It’s the fall of 1949, and Ji-Ah is a young woman living with her mother in Daegu South Korea. When she’s not busy studying in medical school or taking care of her mother, she’s at the movie theaters watching Judy Garland films or trying to get a date with her fellow nurse friends. I never thought to learn when Speed Dating was invented, but apparently they had it in the forties and it was just as unpleasant then as it was now; especially when a Korean Bro calls MEET ME IN ST LOUIS American propaganda. She does seem to connect with one person who they talk with movies about… but when the timer goes off and it’s time for him to mark his card, he puts a nice big X over her space. Tough luck, Ji-Ah. Well she doesn’t give up quite yet and heads to a bar where she manages to find someone to take home and they immediately start to have sex! No kissing, no foreplay, not even any lube; just take off the clothes and get to humping! This ends up making sense however (at least for Ji-Ah) because as soon as the guy finishes… strange things start to happen.
It turns out that Ji-Ah is actually NOT Ji-Ah… but still kind of is. Okay, so YEARS ago, Ji-Ah’s mother (Cindy Chang) caught the girl’s step father abusing her and in an act that would surly garner a bunch of likes on r/JusticeServed, she has a Mudang (basically a female Shaman in Korean culture) summon the nine tails fox demon to inhabit the body of her daughter and kill the man. However, the spirit SEEMS to have taken over Ji-Ah’s soul? I would the situation is comparable to Kurama from Yu Yu Hakusho to simply things, and the whole “you’re not actually my daughter” thing has caused some tension between her and her mother. Speaking of anime, you may remember the nine tails from Naruto… but I don’t think THIS ever happened in Naruto, and I read A LOT of Naruto! Getting back to the random dude’s O face, as soon as the guy finishes, furry tentacles (which are decidedly NOT tails!) start coming out of every orifice on Ji-Ah’s body. And I mean EVERY orifice. Eyes, nose, mouth, ears… other places; I mean shoot, the nine tails HAVE to come out of somewhere, right!? In any case, the tentacles get to work which involves sucking all the memories out of the guy’s head and then making him explode in a cloud of bloody mist. If nothing else it is a compelling sight as these weird tail things with mouths lift the dude up in the air before turning him to juice, and frankly it’s not the most terrifying thing this country is gonna have to deal as the Korean War is about to begin.
Perhaps I’m revealing little more than my own personal ignorance, but the Korean War is something that’s we’ve kind of thrown down the memory hole as far conflicts that the US was a part of. Vietnam and WW2 continue to be brought to the forefront when talking about America’s previous wars, both in terms of education and pop culture, while the only things I know about Korea is that I think M*A*S*H* was set in it. This episode doesn’t exactly FIX that problem as I still had to look up the specific details of the conflict, but the point is less to give us a history lesson than it is to give us the story of someone who’s life and community are slowly slipping away as the war continues to take more and more away from them. Being a nurse, Ji-Ah sees the devastation of war first hand as well as the way it slowly destroys the community itself; up to and including the movie theater which is shut down as the owner was suspected of being a communist. Ji-Ah’s mother however has a glass is half full perspective as this will only make Ji-Ah’s murder sprees that much easier to get away with. See, according to the Mudang that summoned the demon, if Ji-Ah takes the souls of a hundred men then the fox spirit will leave and supposedly Ji-Ah will become her “true” self once again, and they are only a handful of dead guys away from reaching that goal. Still, the entity currently known as Ji-Ah has mixed feelings on this to say the least. I mean, are they truly two distinct spirits and that everything Ji-Ah has felt and experienced will just be washed away the remains of her last victim. I like this idea IN THEORY, but the way it plays didn’t quite hit the mark. For the most part, Ji-Ah seems to be normal. She goes to the hospital to work as a nurse, she has friends there that she cares about, and she LOVES big Hollywood musicals. However, whenever she’s arguing with her mother about this, she starts talking like she’s an alien who doesn’t understand these HU-MAN EMOTIONS, going so far as to claim a lack of understanding between the “love” her stepfather had and all other kinds of love. I understanding having this character wear SOME sort of mask in public given her true nature and what she’s basically being forced to do (there’s no indication that she HAS to kill people to survive or something like that), but the rest of this episode is ALL ABOUT tackling difficult emotions and stressful situations surrounding the war, and that story feeling as human as it does makes scenes like this where she argues with her mother about being a monster feel… performative I guess? Like she’s trying to needle her mother more than genuinely not feeling like ONE OF YOU MERE HUMANS, but I doubt that’s what they were going for.
Atticus (Jonathan Majors) comes into the story at about the halfway mark, and this is where we’re gonna have to have a LONG talk about things. The scene starts with several nurses working at the hospital, including Ji-Ah and her best friend (Prisca Kim), being dragged to a US military camp and forced to get on their knees. One of them is a communist spy and they intend to get to the bottom of it; not by asking questions or confirming alibies but by shooting them in the head until one of them fesses up. A sergeant kills one of them but then his gun jams so he has Atticus shoot the next one in the head. He then points a gun at Ji-Ah’s head and is about to pull the trigger when her best friend jumps up and admits to being a spy. She’s then spirited away by the soldiers and the nurses, including Ji-Ah are left there with the corpses of two innocent women. Now, I understand that for this entire show Atticus has been haunted by SOMETHING in his past and that it’s a trauma he has to deal with; that he’s not a blunt killing machine but someone who had to act in war. The reveal though that THIS is what he had to do, that he walked up and shot a civilian in the head with no provocation, proof, or threat of danger, is not something I think I’ll be able to overlook in future episodes. Perhaps this shows my own immaturity and hypocrisy, that I was all for the over the top violence when that guy got killed by tentacle monsters but this is line too far for me, but I don’t know what to tell you. Atticus committing a war crime like this is not something that is easily overlooked or dealt with, and frankly the show doesn’t seem like it REALLY wants to confront it.
We cut to several months later where Ji-Ah is still working at the hospital treating soldiers, and then Atticus shows up with a broken leg and a sad look on his face. Ji-Ah clearly intends to kill him at some point but is trying to keep it cool, and without at ANY point recognizing the woman he held a gun to not that long ago, he starts to flirt with her and they start to bond which means he’s that much closer to getting goo-ified by the tails. This is where they try… I don’t know if JUSTIFY is the right word, but they try to walk Atticus back from being a stone cold murder of civilians to someone we’re supposed to like as he relays his experiences of being a black man in a country like the US, and the challenges he faced that led him to think that enlisting in the army was the best option for him. It’s not that he’s not remorseful for what he did, but he’s still not able to recognize Ji-Ah, and some of his smooth moves to court Ji-Ah ring as very tone oblivious. The most obvious is a scene where she agrees to meet him for a date on base. When she gets to the base, his solider buddy (Daniel Chung) who was ALSO there when they shot the nurses and doesn’t recognize Ji-Ah takes her to a dark tent without at any point explaining what’s going on, and just leaves here there. SURPRISE! Atticus just wanted to show her a Judy Garland movie and they needed to make it dark; all of which is fine, but this wasn’t communicated to her beforehand and it’s intentionally shot and framed like a tense scene until the fake out reveal. When am I supposed to start liking this guy again?
Well apparently Ji-Ah has forgiven him long before I have as she starts to fall in love and she refuses to take Atticus’s soul while having sex despite him being the last person she would need to kill in order to turn back human. The episode actually improves significantly here because this creates friction between Ji-Ah and her mother, but finally it’s about Ji-Ah realizing that she is worthy of respect and love despite being a monster and that her mother didn’t have to hold this grudge against her this whole time; that she can be her daughter and the fox spirit without contradiction. Perhaps then I was a bit overzealous in my negative reaction to earlier scenes between them, but rewatching those scenes still feels awkward and unnecessarily blunt in the way it writes Ji-Ah’s “monstrous side”. This is also what we are to take away about Atticus’s character as well, that the monster within him is not incompatible with him still being seen as human. She eventually works up the courage to tell him the truth, so she sees him on the base again where she finally reveals that he was going to kill him because he killed those two nurses and then her best friend. They both end up reconciling over their own sense of inhumanity and resolve to find the humanity in one another which is GREAT for these two; not so much for the two women who are now dead and for all we know the family never even found out what happened. Sigh…
Everything seems to be sunshine and roses for them (which is ironic because now it’s winter time) but while the two of them have sex the tails just kind of slip out. She tries to suck them back in like a giant hairy lugie, but the tentacles can be denied no longer and they get as far as retrieving his memories which reveals that… she can ALSO see into the future? This wasn’t clarified at any point when we were learning about her powers so for all I know she COULD do this all along, but regardless of that she manages to disconnect the tails before killing him and warns him that HE IS GOING TO DIE!! I mean I probably would have been curious to find out more, but Atticus just high tails it out of there before he can even put on his pants, and so Ji-Ah is left sad and alone. Having patched things up with her mother who seems to be okay with her choice not to kill one more person so that the fox spirit can leave her body, she is led to the Mudang who put the curse on her all those years ago and seems to live on one of those Kung-Fu movie mountains where there’s always a wise person ready to either train you or kill you. While this is happening, we get audio from an interview by Judy Garland who bitterly decries those who derided her all her life for not being good enough; not to mention the actual abuse she incurred working within the studio system. Sadly it ends with a promise that these people will not kill her, but as we all know her story ends rather tragically as she died far too young at forty-seven; perhaps a bit of auspicious foreshadowing for whatever will happen next on this show.
In any case, they get to the top of the mountain and speak with the Mudang who has a VERY nice looking hat for someone who lives away from civilization, and Ji-Ah asks her if her visions of Atticus dying would come true? The Mudang doesn’t seem all that interested with these petty human concerns, and while she doesn’t answer the question, she DOES let Ji-Ah know that A LOT of people are going to die on whatever journey she takes. Will one of those be Atticus? I guess we’ll have to wait until next time to find out!!
If I were to give one big overarching conclusion as to why this show always seems to fall short, it’s that the show has a serious problem with tunnel vision; that it has a few ideas that are brilliantly thought out and executed, but it then falls woefully short elsewhere. Everything involving Black Americans’ relationship to White Supremacy and structural inequality is spot on and the way it weaves into horror tropes as well as turn of the century pulp tropes in general is fantastically realized. However, its depiction of other minority groups such as Indigenous people, LGBTQ individuals, and now with Korean women, just lacks that same nuance and grace. Yes, I understand the plight of soldiers (particularly those of color) who end up in the military industrial complex and the absolutely horrible things that are asked of them to quote-unquote “defend the country”, but doing it on the backs of women of color just feels like its missing the point. Atticus gets screen time to redeem himself, but it’s in the context of his own sadness and guilt rather than the lives he took or the damage he’s done to the families. Ji-Ah falling in love with him and seeing the good person beneath just doesn’t feel like enough for me to get pack to the point of rooting for his character despite the show clearly wanting me to do that. I don’t know, maybe I’m just overreacting and it’s not my place to be making these criticisms considering I’m a twenty-something white dude who’s never enlisted or been put in a situation where I would have to make that kind of choice, but for me, that one moment just sunk an otherwise good episode. Ji-Ah is an interesting if slightly inconsistent character, and the depiction of a community being occupied by a supposedly friendly force is chilling to watch unfold as tensions continuously rise throughout the episode and in the people of this town. I’m not sure where we’re going to go with the whole Nine Tails thing, though I’m really hoping that the next few episodes will be big scale anime battles between Ji-Ah and whatever bad guy is menacing Atticus and Leti in the next episode. Heck, if HBO is paying Zack Snyder to make a slightly different version a movie we already saw, they can certainly afford to make some awesome fight scenes in here!