There’s no shortage of talent involved in HBO’s latest entry into the world of prestige television, Lovecraft Country. Behind the scenes are none other than producers Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us) and J.J. Abrams (Lost, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), in addition to showrunner Misha Green (Underground). This is as much of a powerhouse team as you can get, and the effects are felt immediately.
From the outset, we’re told, more or less, just what we’re in for. We begin with our hero, Atticus (Jonathon Majors, The Last Black Man in San Francisco) leading a charge against an enemy trench. What seems to be a typical war scenario is soon revealed to be something more, as we discover enemies being assisted by horrifying creatures that defy description, the kind which threaten to drive all who gaze upon them beyond the brink of madness.
This is, of course, all a dream. Atticus, whom we properly meet waking up on a bus traveling from to Chicago, is dreaming up scenarios that mix his time at war with the creatures which populate Florida the pulp fiction he so adores. It being the 1950s, Atticus, a black man, and another woman sit alone at the back of the bus as it leaves the south, and Jim Crow, behind.
Lovecraft Country, based on a novel by Matt Ruff, is an attempt the blend the horrors of America’s past with the horrors of Lovecraftian fiction and, so far, the series excels in its aims. It serves as both an homage to author H.P. Lovecraft’s legacy of influence on the horror and sci-fi genres as well as a reckoning with Lovecraft’s well-documented racism.
In that sense, it’s also a reclamation. Ruff’s novel is an attempt to create a story using the Lovecraftian image of monsters and the unknown in a way that uses America’s racism as part of the horror. As the story unfolds, we’re faced with monsters both human and inhuman, and it’s hard to know which is scarier.
As our avatar into this world, Atticus is perfect. He is everything a “good American” should be. He’s a veteran, he works hard, he loves to read, and he’s there for his family. Since he is black, however, his options are limited. Majors gives a nuanced performance, bringing depth to the role and creating an immediately memorable and relatable character that we can’t help but root for. He is a man who is not only used to and unsurprised by the racism he’s confronted with, but he is a man who’s just about at the limit of what he’s willing to take.
Unfortunately for him, his journey to Chicago is one that will lead him right back into the arms of Jim Crow. Atticus is summoned back to his hometown after his father, Montrose Freeman (Michael K. Williams) goes missing with few clues as to where he might be. Other than a bizarre letter sent to Atticus talking about birthrights and powers, as well as the mysterious town of Ardham, Atticus and his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) have very little to go on. Together, under the guise of doing research for the next edition of the Green Book, which detailed the safe places that Black Americans could visit, the two head out in search for clues regarding Montrose’s whereabouts.
They’re joined by Letitia Lewis (Jurnee Smollett), an old friend of Atticus’s. The three represent the heart of this series, each bringing with them three different ideas of duty and responsibility as they head into the heart of American racism. It’s here that Lovecraft Country finds its horror.
Oh sure, there are monsters. You can’t have a Lovecraft homage without them, and the creature design is pretty spectacular. Lovecraft always described his creatures in the vaguest of possible terms, letting the reader imagine the unimaginable. Here, we see them clearly, but they are just as strange and bizarre as Lovecraft hinted. But even those are about on the level of Stranger Things. They’re just movie monsters, good as they might be. But in the first episode alone, our trio of heroes finds themselves confronting and trying to outrun multiple racist threats.
The scariest of which comes from Sheriff Eustace Hunt (Jamie Harris). After spending hours searching for a remote road hinted at by Atticus’s father, the three are confronted by Sheriff Hunt who makes no bones about letting them know where they stand. “This is a sundown county,” he tells them. “If I had found you…after dark it would have been my sworn duty to hang every single one of you from them trees.”
So sets up television’s most frightening minutes in years. For those unfamiliar with the concept of “sunset towns,” they were towns in which white citizens could murder Black citizens after sundown without fear of consequence. As Atticus points out to the sheriff, the sun hasn’t gone down yet, but they have only seven minutes until it does. Seven minutes, 3 miles, a 25mph speed limit, and a sadistic sheriff following close behind.
Episode director Yann Demange (White Boy Rick) creates the perfect intensity for this scene, deftly cutting between the slowly dipping sun, the fear gripped faces of our trio, and the slow moving chase they’re involved in. The fear is beyond palpable, capturing the historical fears of the Black community and suggesting the modern realities they still face.
The episode is unrelenting in its depiction of racism and does a fantastic job of letting each confrontation build. The chase with Hunt was preceded by local Klan members chasing them down for trying to eat at a local diner and it ends with the sheriff of the next county accusing them of being robbers so he could execute them with impunity. At no point does the series let up, painting us a picture that leaves no uncertainty of where the horror of Lovecraft Country truly lies.
Only then do the monsters show up.
In this context, it’s almost hard not to cheer for the monsters. Not only have they saved our trio from murder by cop, we also get the relief of watching them tear the limbs and heads off of their racist asses. Oh sure, our trio isn’t safe from their grotesque appetites, but it’s kind of an enemy of my enemy situation. Not only that, but their bite turns their victims into monsters themselves. There’s a twisted catharsis in seeing the cops turn into what they really are: unspeakable horrors.
We get no respite in Lovecraft Country. The show moves deftly between real life horrors to eldritch terrors without giving us a chance to catch our breath, leading us down an intense path of frights both real and imagined. It walks that road well, however, and holds great promises for once to come.
Ending on something of a cliffhanger, our trio eventually find themselves, blood splattered and exhausted from their night fighting monsters, at an estate in the town mentioned by Montrose. Moreover, they’ve been expecting them.
What’s to come we can’t yet know, but as first episodes go, Lovecraft Country feels like a masterwork of emotional horror in the making. Given the sheer force of the talent both behind and in front of the cameras, and the pieces of this puzzle they’ve laid already, HBO has what’s certain to be one of 2020’s biggest hits on its hands.