HBO’s Lovecraft Country is ambitious and astounding and will undoubtedly blow your expectations away. Created by Misha Green, who’s working with Matt Ruff’s 1950s-set dark-fantasy novel as source material, the show counts horror visionary Jordan Peele and sci-fi maestro J.J. Abrams as executive producers. The show is full of literary and musical references, along with monsters, both in-your-face and and figurative; we’ll discuss the resulting symbolism on a weekly basis.
Last week’s Lovecraft Country episode shone light on “sundown towns,” which still aren’t entirely a thing of the past in the U.S. in our current times. In the 1950s, though, they were raging. Atticus, Leti, and George found these towns and counties full of figurative horrors (tied to racism) and, in the forests nearby, literal horrors (in the form of the vampire-esque monsters in the woods). The episode introduced us to a variety of literary references (in particular, the appallingly racist legacy of H.P. Lovecraft) and kicked off one of the show’s major themes: Black history and horror are often interchangeable terms.
This week in “Whitey’s On The Moon,” the traveling trio wakes up in the manor in Ardham. Leti and George are oblivious to the trauma of the prior evening, Atticus gets forced into a cult ceremony, and we’ve got some musical/spoken-word references that form the backbone of the episode. We probably need to address this matter first.
– No one wants to see a snake, especially like this
Amid more monsters in the woods and Braithwaite consciously enduring surgery to sacrifice an organ for his cult’s dinner party, we see this slithering out of Atticus 2.0’s pants. What madness. I keep chuckling to myself while thinking of Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett acting out this scene while pretending that a cartoonish phallic symbol is darting across the bed, but oh yes, symbolism. This moment echoes the Garden of Eden painting on the wall with a snake about to invade a vagina. We hear Atticus and Leti talk about how the Bible is full of demons, but these stories aren’t as horrifying as human-inflicted atrocities. Or are they? We talked last week about how Atticus’ beloved pulp novels are meant as escapism but inevitably mirror his reality. Here, instead of art mirroring life, we witness the opposite coming out of his pants.
Of course, this isn’t the real Atticus in Leti’s room. Both of them, along with George, are all enduring different planes of demonic reality. Atticus relives a bad memory from the Korean War, and George dances with a ghost from the past before discovering a hidden room and a book about the “Order of the Ancient” group. On the way, he pulled a copy of House on the Borderland (by William Hope Hodgson and, notably, the edition from the Arkham House, which also published Lovecraft) out of the wall. Yep, another literary reference: the book holds plenty of parallels to the trio’s situation, including a weird remote house and otherworldly dimensions that induce hallucinations. Also, there are scary humanoid creatures, and the house collapses, much like during this episode.
Damn, this show has layers.
– “Whitey On The Moon” and (attempting to be) in the Garden Of Eden
Lovecraft Country sure doesn’t shy away from climactic scenes that deal comeuppance to racists. Of course, Braithwaite is refusing to heed history’s lessons, long after the manor burned down during a similar ceremony. This doesn’t end up going well for him.
All of it’s set to the radical 1970 Gil Scott-Heron poem, “Whitey On The Moon,” playing during the ceremony. (You might remember hearing it in 2018’s First Man movie — the Neil Armstrong biopic starring Ryan Gosling and directed by Damien Chazelle). The poem is a scathing indictment of the space race as an attempt to stir up patriotism during the Vietnam War and urban unrest at home. It also eviscerated the U.S. government for funneling money into the space program while economic inequality flourished. Today, the poem feels far too relevant after U.S. lawmakers pushed to include $1.75 billion in the stimulus bill to build new FBI headquarters while declining to extend a lifeline of federal unemployment for millions. (Yup, history repeating itself again.)
The poem’s place in this episode couldn’t be more appropriate, given that a whiter-than-white cult (which, as Christina tells Atticus, “would never fraternize with the Klan… they’re too poor”) makes a Black man (who served his country in war yet still suffers indignities while walking down a street or through a forest) endure a ritual and fuel their own space-y race. It’s a flat-out crazy scene, and in the end, Braithwaite gets what he deserves. In a fine twist, we see Atticus led to safety by his maternal ancestor, Hanna, who was the only survivor of the 1833 fire.
Atticus, as we learn during this episode, was in fact the last surviving ancestor of Titus Braithwaite (he’d impregnated Hanna), which apparently made Atticus the key to opening the Garden of Eden for the cult to achieve immortality. When the lodge crumbles to the ground again, Leti survives, but George does not (that one hurts!), although Montrose seems to be physically alright. Did Christina make it out alive, and what of William? As the rule goes, no bodies, no certain death.
– The Jeffersons and… Marilyn Manson
Like I wrote ahead of this season, this show’s soundtrack plays an important role in this show’s splatter-on-the-wall form of painting the story. None of this happens randomly or without careful consideration, and in this episode, two songs stand out. The first one, “Movin’ On Up,” holds a special place in pop culture as The Jeffersons theme song. Watching Leti and George dance to this song, completely unaware of what they saw the night before, is both a striking sight and a side-eye to how they’ve “finally got a piece of the pie.” Here, the dessert has been specifically tailored to keep both of them docile while the cult preys upon Atticus.
Then there’s a much less obvious piece of social commentary coming from “Killing Strangers.” Yes, that’d be the Marilyn Manson song featured in John Wick, where it simply sounded, you know, cool. Here, it’s both cool and terrifying when another invisible wall pops up, leading to Braithwhite shooting Leti and George. The song was inspired by the Vietnam War-acquired PTSD of Manson’s father, Hugh, and the lyrics speak to his struggle to readjust to civilian (and domestic) life after spraying the deadly Agent Orange poison and killing an untold number of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. The residual trauma of Manson’s dad parallels the shell shock that Leti suspects is plaguing Atticus when she wonders if he’s lost it while rambling about monsters in the woods.
A few loose ends:
– The women of Lovecraft Country
Without getting into too much nuance here, it’s clear that Christina’s got a major beef against her dad, which is perfectly understandable, given that the cult’s as misogynist as they are racist. She’s angered that Atticus can wear one of the Order’s rings, simply because he was born male, which might tell us a lot about her motives. Christina is the one who apparently believed that Atticus would be useful during the ceremony, but was she actually setting up the cult to fail? We can’t rule out that possibility.
As far as the German Shepard-owning village meanie goes, I wonder how she ties into a possible scheme, since she was holding Montrose prisoner. Atticus also believed that her dog whistle sounded like the one that stopped the Shaggoth last week. We did see Christina stop those monsters outside the village this week with a whistle (in the process, she erased Leti and George’s memories), and there’s gotta be a connection between the two women that we haven’t heard about yet.
This seems like a good place to recall that Leti’s a badass. George didn’t forget.
– Finally, another nod to Tulsa’s place in Black history
Damon Lindelof’s reimagining of Alan Moore’s Watchmen put the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre on the map for a lot of viewers, and the city’s getting a Lovecraft Country shoutout for what appears to be less nefarious happenings. As George dances with the ghost of Dora, she muses about the good old days with Montrose and George near the home of Black Wall Street. It’s at that point in the episode when George really begins to suspect that the cult’s gotten into his head, but it also leads to the revelation that Dora is Tic’s mother, meaning that Montrose might not actually be his father. Montrose, of course, doesn’t take kindly to that conversation later, but there’s a slight hint that Montrose, despite being a d*ck to Atticus, does care about him like a son. Well, Montrose must now step into George’s shoes, so we’ll see how that goes in the future.
HBO’s ‘Lovecraft Country’ airs Sundays at 9:00pm EST.