After faltering slightly in its second episode, Lovecraft Country roared back to its premiere episode heights, proving that the show is at its very best when it uses classic horror tropes to explore the history of anti-Black racism. It also helps when they throw in a heavy dose of Black and African-American culture, something that was largely missing from last week’s episode since the characters were stuck in White Power Manor.
One would think there isn’t much new ground to cover in a classic haunted house tale, but incoming director Daniel Sackheim taking over after showrunner Misha Green’s spectacular and groundwork-laying first two episodes, brought the dusty old tale of ghosts banging around in basements and sending messages through Ouija boards into something fresh, fun, infuriating and entertaining as hell – literally. By layering references to the history of unethical medical and psychological experiments on Black Americans by white doctors and institutions (by turning them into a Saw-like body horror tale), the actual horrors suffered by Black people who pioneered their way into white neighborhoods, abusive racist cops (which only makes sense as an ongoing motif in this show), and adding a spectacular party scene full of fashion, music, flirting and intrigue, this episode felt like the show really planting its flag on what it intends to be. And it did so by centering the most interesting, dynamic personality in the cast: Letitia F. Lewis.
After the shock of Uncle George’s death, the extended Freeman family is disjointed. Hippolyte resents Tic’s presence and doesn’t trust that he’s being honest with her about her husband’s death. Montrose has climbed into a bottle and lashes out when Tic tries to bring up their experiences in Ardham. Leti and Tic are sort of circling each other and when they come together, things are awkward between them. This is such a welcome development, because there’s nothing more annoying than a horror-based TV show that never seeks to explore let alone refer to the trauma the characters must be suffering. Monsters and wizards and ghosts – that shit’ll fuck you up and seeing the characters wrestle with the fallout of the world they’ve entered deepens the show even more. It’s such a smart and unexpected thing for Leti and Tic’s first true admission of their attraction to be a briefly hot but largely awkward moment of sex that leaves both of them unsatisfied and her in tears. What they’ve been through has made their burgeoning romance difficult to get off the ground. His tenderness with her later when she admits it was her first time (refer back to her hallucination of a snake-penis’d Tic trying to rape her last episode) was a lovely moment of grace for two characters on a whirlwind of terror.
But refreshingly, their experiences haven’t just damaged them; they’ve also made them much smarter about the hidden world of magic and supernatural creatures they’ve fallen into. Very little time is wasted on convincing the main characters that they’re dealing with a haunted house. When Leti blurts out the news to Tic, he simply sits down and says “Walk me through it,” knowing it would be silly to even feint at skepticism after fighting off monsters and wizards. When he suggests the smarter, quicker solution of simply moving out of the house, Leti immediately secures the services of a priestess and gets down to the business of putting the tortured souls in her house to rest and banishing the evil racist ghost at the heart of her problems. “I’ve got to face this new world head on and stake my claim in it,” she tells Tic – and the episode is one big love letter to the boldness and fabulousness of Letitia Fucking Lewis. That “Hold Up” inspired scene of her smashing out her racist neighbor’s car windows with a baseball bat Beyonce-style (set to Dorinda Clark Cole’s “Take It Back”) was gorgeous, stirring, darkly funny and an absolute fuck-yeah moment. And it was immediately followed by a scene of police brutality that left the triumphant Leti with a black eye, underlining the fact that every triumph will be met with an attempt to take it away from them in one form or another. For every ghost, monster and wizard they defeat, there will be a racist cop or neighbor willing to step in and terrorize them further.
The true wonder of the show is how it manages to balance bloody horror and relentless racism while keeping the show truly entertaining and often great fun. That party scene was a treat to look at and the soundtrack was once again sprinkled with tunes spanning the history of Black American music: “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby,” “Boogie at Midnight,” “I Don’t Hurt Anymore,” with a rousing rendition of Shirley Caesar’s “Satan, We Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down” for the big exorcism finale, with Leti providing the unlikely backup of “GET THE FUCK OUT OF MY HOUSE!” We know it was full of bloody and mutilated dead people but that was just fun to watch. Jurnee Smollett is doing quite the star turn on this show.
The episode took a hard left turn in the last ten minutes, revealing that this haunted house was no happenstance. Christina Braithwhite survived the destruction of her home and she’s got plans and schemes to make her dead father’s attempt to return to the Garden of Eden look like amateur hour. She’s after power, and she’s quite willing to manipulate Tic, his friends and his family to get it. With this development the show lets us know that there’s a larger mythology at play and puts last episode’s rather dreary plot and setting into context. All that stuff with the Magical Klan was setup for a much broader and grander tale, with our heroes caught up in the middle of it. It remains to be seen why Christina set out to ruin Leti’s relationship with her sister, but we’d guess she’s working a long game and doing what she can to keep everyone disoriented and with as little support as possible. “You know you can’t just go around killing white women.” White supremacy is one of her superpowers.
A few observations:
Leti’s fearful hallucination of a snake-penis’d Tic attempting to rape her last episode makes much more sense with the explanation that she was a virgin, but it also plays against the impression of her as a free-wheeling hellion. She’s got angles and depths is what we’re saying.
The opening monologue playing on the soundtrack during the church scene was ballroom legend Precious DaBitch’s narration over fellow ball legend Leiomy Maldonado in her 2017 Nike ad. The show is taking bits and pieces of Black culture from as broad a spectrum as possible and with this moment and the premiere episode playing James Baldwin’s words, it’s clearly trying to give Black queer voices a place at the table.
Two interesting little facts flew by in Tic’s confrontation with Montrose. The most interesting was what Montrose said in passing: “You want to tell Hippolyte that wizards exist? That white folks have magic on their side too?”
Tic tells the apparently oft-told tale of the mysterious stranger who saved young George and Montrose’s lives during a riot, when they were surrounded by white men. He swung a bat like Jackie Robinson and said “I got you, kid.” We saw Tic dreaming about this in the opening scene of the premiere episode. Is Tic the mysterious stranger with the bat?
We have definitely not seen the last of that astrolabe thing that Hippolyte found in the house. With her fascination with mythology and the clear rage she’s feeling about her husband’s death, nothing good is going to come from this.
Leti’s house has more basements than windows, it seems.
[Photo Credit: Eli Joshua Ade/HBO]