HBO’s Lovecraft Country will blow your expectations away. I really didn’t want to begin a review like that because I realize how hyperbolic it sounds, but after watching the first five episodes, the other options I came up with to start this piece were “!?!” and “batsh*t insane.” That’s not too classy, nor was my slightly revised “batsh*t insane and careening off a cliff but totally worth the dive.” This show will mess with your mind, in a good way, while being both fantastic and fantastical. If your expectations were low, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. If they were high, then you’ll feel vindicated, but not in the way that you’d suspect. It’s overwhelming at times, and messy, mostly intentionally so — especially when between-episode transitions feel so disjointed and tonally jarring that there’s virtually an anthology effect — but it never stops entertaining.
Creator Misha Green, working with Matt Ruff’s 1950s-set dark-fantasy novel as source material, hit a home run here from the opening scene, in which the first African American baseball player pulverizes a monster. That’s the first clue that executive producers Jordan Peele (his “post-apocalyptic Jackie Robinson” line from Key & Peele unavoidably comes to mind here, as does his horror-visionary status) and J.J. Abrams (representing the sci-fi-geek contingent) are onboard. Even though that first scene is a dream, it sets up the viewer for every non-dream scene that follows. We meet Jonathan Majors as Atticus, a Black Korean War vet returning to Chicago after risking his life for a country that hates him. He’s diving through reality-based horrors of the trenches before encountering UFOs and dodging otherworldly creatures. The black-and-white visuals clash with technicolor gore. It’s difficult to tell which horrors present more danger, and yep, that’s exactly the vibe throughout every episode that follows.
Let’s get slightly more detailed here about expectations. I’m pretty sure that no matter how you imagined Lovecraft Country to be, you’ll soon find out that you could not have anticipated much of what goes down. Yes, you may have expected monsters, both literal and figurative, as well as fantastical and grounded in reality, and both are present in this series. There are monsters who stalk the woods and lurk in basements and pull the sheets off unsuspecting sleepers, and also, there’s an even larger, more insidious abomination in displays of systemic racism. The series’ treatment of white supremacy will remind people of Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen, which is a superior show by most standards. Still, Lovecraft Country makes a fine followup and the closest thing we’ll see to a second-season substitute.
There’s a distinct difference between the two shows, even though both put Black inequality and white cruelty on display while subverting genre conventions. Watchmen stands as an ambitious and accomplished series, for which Lindelof painstakingly painted his backdrop with the finest of details. Whereas Lovecraft Country hurls paint onto a canvas by the gallon and haphazardly whips the pulpy splatters into place with a palette knife. The end result in both cases is enjoyable, but I would counter that while Watchmen is clearly the better show, Lovecraft is the gutsier one. In fact, its ambition and audaciousness might make it the most daring TV show of the year.
We should get into this show’s plot a little bit, at least. The series picks up with Atticus returning to his Chicago home base after war. He receives a mysterious letter about his legacy and sets off on a road trip (but this ain’t Green Book) to Ardham, Massachusetts, which — real or unreal? — isn’t on the map. Along for the ride (and to perform rescues) is his childhood friend, Letitia (Jurnee Smollett). They both enjoyed sci-fi back in the day, although Atticus is the most bookish of the pair. His preference for fantasy literature is, tellingly enough, inseparable from his reality because two of his favorite novels happen to be A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs and At the Mountain of Madness from one Howard Phillips Lovecraft. At best, these authors’ works dabble in stereotypes, and at worst, they’re notoriously and blisteringly racist.
It’s a stark lesson. Not even through stories that many consider fantasy are these characters able to escape reality, since those otherworldly realms are propped up by white supremacy. And as we see during the season’s first half, both reality and out-of-this-world moments are filled to the brim with brutality. Throughout, Atticus and Leti encounter abusive, sneering cops who degrade them and seductive, snobby members of an ancient order with agendas. Whether they’re being chased by police in a sundown town or running from ungodly creatures burrowing up through forest floors, it’s all a frightening reinforcement that Black history and horror are often interchangeable terms.
It’s madness, all of it, while the performances are across-the-board fantastic. Granted, Majors’ (Da 5 Bloods) powerful take on the steady leading man is the least surprising thing about this show. The true revelation would be Smollett (who worked with Green in Underground and was the most impressive part of Birds Of Prey) as she confidently embodies a spitfire who shall not be stopped (by man, woman, or ghost). She wreaks havoc with a baseball bat at one turn, belts out a song at another, and she’s damn good, alongside convincing turns by Courtney B. Vance and Michael K. Williams as Atticus’ Uncle George and bad dad, respectively. Wunmi Mosaku (giving what can only be described as a layered performance, and we’ll come back to that one day) crushes it as Leti’s half-sister Ruby. On the unsettling side of humanity, look no further than the ultra-blonde Abbey Lee and Jordan Patrick Smith as a mysterious duo.
I’m only scratching the surface because this show should be experienced when it comes to specifics, which all slide sideways with a heady cocktail of horror and sci-fi, but the show also delights in dancing around genres. Likewise, the soundtrack refuses to make up its mind while swerving from Rihanna to Marilyn Manson to Cardi B. while mixing in era-appropriate music like Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” and Nina Simone. Get ready, because from the sight of Leti scorching down the road to the call of Cthulhu-esque creatures, this show is no slow burn — it hits you in the face right out of the gate. It’s an astounding piece of television, but I think I’m going to stick with my initial reaction: Lovecraft Country is “batsh*t insane,” but in the greatest way.
HBO’s ‘Lovecraft Country’ premieres on Sunday August 16.