Okay, first of all, I have no idea what is happening in Lovecraft Country. Just my smooth brain faithfully tuning into HBO’s mythology-heavy horror series, assuring myself that it will not be scary because it’s an allegory for racial trauma and white supremacy. “The monster is racism!” I shout into my room where all the lights are on and a bucket of sage is burning. Second of all—and this will shock you—the monster is also an actual monster! I’ve been bamboozled! My sage fire has gone out!
Misha Green’s series, based on Matt Ruff’s novel of the same name, is an intricately constructed creation, expertly designed, written, directed and acted so that it works on multiple levels: historical drama, contemporary commentary, psychological realism, and—gird your loins—old-fashioned scream fest. I do not like to be scared. If you scare me, I’m calling the FBI. I’m not playing any games. But it seemed clear that Lovecraft Country has more than just terrifying me on its mind, so I gave it a shot and was rewarded with a rich, daring, blazingly funny show that gets more inventive by the minute. One could write whole theses on the references and themes and layers of this show, or what experts might call “what is happening,” but who will answer the most pressing question of all: How scary is it, and what scary things happen and how scary are those scary things that happen? That’s where I come in.
Caution: Spoilers ahead for episode 2 of Lovecraft Country, “Whitey’s on the Moon.”
How scary are George and Weezie Jefferson?
One of the most exciting things about Lovecraft Country is how formally inventive it is. The premiere episode began with Jackie Robinson killing Cthulhu with a bat and included a sequence in which meticulously re-created tableaus based on Gordon Parks photos are paired with a James Baldwin monologue. Any good horror movie prepares the viewer to expect anything, but Lovecraft Country takes that concept and runs with it like Flo Jo. The second episode, “Whitey’s on the Moon,” springs to life with a montage of Leti (Jurneee Smollett) and Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) discovering the many treasures their too-good-to-be-true rooms at the QAnon Mansion while the theme song to The Jeffersons blared on the soundtrack. I screamed but out of pure delight. Verdict: Not Scary.
How scary is the help?
I’m just going to say it: between the strange blonde Vinklevoss (Jordan Patrick Smith) who works in the mansion and the long-suffering clone butler on HBO’s Watchmen, I am not feeling it for live-in staff this year. What’s worse is that Vinklevoss has a pesky habit of just appearing. Don’t like that. Do not like that one bit. You better put some bells on your shoes, Vinklevoss. Verdict: A little scary.
How scary are housecoats?
As we learn the history of the QAnon Mansion, we hear that it was built by Titus Braithwaite, whose image lords over the main hall in a painting where he’s wearing a pointed robe with strange symbols on it. Check please! A stern-looking white man in a cult housecoat? Oh honey, methinks not. Atticus (Jonathan Majors) and crew immediately suspect that these guys are the Klan, but they’re informed by Christina (Abbey Lee), a younger Braithwaite, that the Klan is too poor. Bloop. Nevertheless, Old Braithwaite’s lewk is too much for me. The robe drags along the floor and the hood is pointier than a church steeple. This man is trying to make a statement! I’m just not for it. Also, question for the cult leaders out there: Why do you wear clothes with hems so long they have you out here looking like Wee Willy Winkie? Do cults and secret societies not have access to tailoring? Verdict: Very scary.
How scary is seasoning?
Leti, whose brash personality is a highlight of this show, takes advantage of the creepy service to ring a butler bell for salt at breakfast because, as she says, “You know white folks don’t season their food.” It’s a genuinely funny surprise laugh in an intense scene. My personal verdict on seasoning is that it’s not scary, but, well…to each their own.
How scary is the Scary Woman in Scary Town?
SCARY. VERY SCARY. TOO SCARY. After taking the car, which Vinklevoss has cleaned for them, and gone in search of Atticus’ father, the gang rolls into a town straight out of The VVitch, complete with a Wicker Woman and sinister singing children. Let me state for the record: NO INDEED.
I was not prepared for this; one minute Leti is eating freshly salted gazpacho and the next we’re wondering if we wouldst like to live deliciously? I’m stressed. One of the most fascinating things Lovecraft Country does is play fast and loose with time and space, moving characters from one place to another or one time of day to another in seconds, to surreal and destabilizing effect. That’s put into use in this trip to Simmonsville, where they encounter a woman (Jamie Neumann) with a straw hat, two dogs, a whistle, and zero effs to give. Atticus is sure is the woman who used her whistle to call off the monsters that ate the racist sheriffs, but something tells me she doesn’t exactly own property on the right side of history. One of the things I like about this character is that she’s the kind of racist who really goes hard on the racist innuendo. She gives a monologue about “black bears” that should make her the poet laureate of Trump Country. Very impressive. Verdict: Terrifying.
How scary is former President Fitzgerald Grant?
Okay, someone call Olivia Pope and her dinosaur-loving dad, because Fitz has lost his ever-loving mind! It turns out that Fitz, aka Samuel Braithwaite (Tony Goldwyn), is a descendant of Titus Braithwaite—as is Atticus, through the lineage of one of the women Titus enslaved. Fitz is trying to get back to the Garden of Eden so he can live forever and forces Atticus to help him. Fitz did not read Robin DiAngelo, babe, I’ll tell you that. Fitz, along with his daughter Christina and Vinklevoss, are all wearing the most amazingly janky white blonde wigs and I am living for it. It’s honestly refreshing to watch a show where the white wigs are on the struggle bus and the black hair is laid. Justice! Verdict: A little scary, but mostly in the follicular region.
How scary are clothing stains?
Christina helps a cow give birth to a calf of a monster while wearing a pristine satin blouse and tailored pants (she’s not in the cult) and I screamed bloody murder. WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE TEXTILES??!! Verdict: Too scary to watch.
On the other hand, Leti’s wardrobe remains a damned delight, including inexplicable but EXCELLENT jodhpurs. The costume design is a FEAST on this show. No salt needed. Meanwhile, Atticus spends most of the episode with his pristine muscles being hugged by a marigold knitted shirt and I’m about the Marty McFly my way back to the 50s just to go clothes shopping (and then IMMEDIATELY return to the present). The only thing better than Atticus’s shirt is Atticus shirtless. And the only thing better than that is Atticus’ surprise butt prior to the Garden of Eden ceremony. Alas, he is quickly enswathed in a cult clothes and once again we must suffer the oppression of robe supremacy.
How scary is Shawshanking?
Of course Atticus’s father (THE Michael K. Williams) is being imprisoned at the bottom of the Scary Tower in Scary Town, but by the time Atticus and company find him, he has Shawshanked his way out and emerges, handcuffed hands first, out of the dirt in the middle of the forest. It’s an exhilarating scene made even more emotionally resonant by its setting: It appears to be the same spot in the forest where, earlier in the episode, Uncle George remembered that Atticus’s mother was a descendant of an enslaved woman who escaped the Braithwaite house after Titus set it on fire doing the Garden of Eden ceremony last time. This is a place of rebirth, of near-deaths, and overcoming. Verdict: extraordinary.
How scary is Eden?
First of all, I am so glad that Misha Green chose to play Gil-Scott Heron’s “Whitey’s on the Moon” over the Garden of Eden ceremony because I do not like when people do evil chanting on my TV. I am not trying to be possessed in my own living room. Also, Heron’s poem is amazing and maps brilliantly onto a scene where Atticus is being used for his lineage, for his proximity to whiteness, and as a way of giving a white man more power. It’s simultaneously darkly comedic and harrowing, as Atticus screams louder and louder.
But suddenly, like flag perceived through the smoke of battle, Atticus’s ancestor appears and my heart leapt into my throat. The ancestor is played by the brilliant Joaquina Kalukango, who was most recently in Broadway’s Slave Play and tore the roof off an Encores production of The Wild Party (watch a clip here). Fixing Atticus in her gaze, the ancestor shifts something in the room and Atticus’ screams suddenly attain the power to turn Fitz and the rest of his cronies into stone. As the mansion crumbles around him, Atticus follows the ancestor as she races out of the house of horrors. It’s hard to put into words how arresting this sequence is—an image of an enslaved Black woman freeing herself and her descendants, an image of a Black man owning his power, an image of an institution literally crumbling, a twisted braid that captures the intensity of lineage, of ancestors who hoped our present into being through their life force. All of this is happening and we’re only on the second episode. Verdict: it’s scary how good this is.
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