HBO’s Lovecraft Country is Wicked Smart Television | TV/Streaming

HBO’s Lovecraft Country is Wicked Smart Television | TV/Streaming

Atticus Black (Jonathan Majors) returns from the Jim Crow South to the city he grew up in Chicago after his father Montrose (Michael K. Williams) goes missing. He heads out with his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and a friend named Leti (Jurnee Smollett) to find dad, using a cryptic letter Montrose sent as a guide to a mysterious cult in the heartland of America. The narrative takes them into a world of monsters, both literally and those that are technically of the human species. For example, the premiere finds the trio of adventurers in a “sundown county,” an entire county in which non-whites aren’t allowed after the sun goes down. Being chased to the county line by a gun-wielding racist police officer is one thing; the monsters they stumble upon in the woods are another. It’s hard to say which is worse. Each episode of “Lovecraft Country” plays with these dualities—legendary monster storytelling of the H.P. Lovecraft model intertwined with the stories of racist violence that are embedded in this country’s history.

While there’s a continuous narrative, one of the fun things about “Lovecraft Country” is how much Green and her collaborators, including producer Jordan Peele, embrace a playful episodic structure as well. For example, the third episode features Leti moving into a home in a white neighborhood, which just happens to be haunted. Simultaneously, the writers are telling a story that can be enjoyed purely as a standalone episode, one that has repercussions to the overall arc of the story, and comments on segregation and racism in 1950s Chicago. It works on three levels. A later episode involving Leti’s sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) is even more ambitious in the way it balances a stunning story-of-the-week while also pushing the narrative forward. The habit of binge-watching entire seasons and showrunner over-reliance on the cliché that their season should really be seen as a movie that’s been cut up into episodes has led to creators forgetting the joy of episodic storytelling. “Lovecraft Country” has a breathtaking balance, allowing each episode to be analyzed and discussed on its own terms, but also in the context of what the series is doing overall.

From George A. Romero to Jordan Peele, “Lovecraft Country” continues the tradition of socially conscious horror by embedding its messaging in some of the most startling and terrifying imagery on TV this year. Keep in mind—this is H.P. Lovecraft-inspired horror. It’s not “things that go bump in the night” as much as “portals to Hell.” And the show addresses Lovecraft’s deep racism, even quoting some of his worst work in that regard, but then reclaims many of his concepts by subverting them.

If Lovecraft’s vision of cult members and lesser beings destroying the fabric of humanity reflected what he thought of non-white people, “Lovecraft Country” suggests he might have had the right idea but the wrong target. Most of his fiction was about someone discovering that the smiling face of the country held true horrors underneath it. What better writer to use to expose the actual systemic problems in the history of this country? While “Lovecraft Country” pretty quickly gets away from actual Lovecraft stories and creations, the thematic sense remains of a curtain being pulled back on stomach-churning horror—both human and supernatural.


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