This article contains mild, but not major Lovecraft Country spoilers:
HBO’s Lovecraft Country kicks off with a super-sized scene full of space monsters, where Jackie Robinson -- yes, Jackie Robinson -- saves the day. It’s only when sci-fi enthusiast and young war veteran Atticus “Tic” Black (Jonathan Majors) wakes up, that we realize this zany fantasy is just too good to be true, while he’s daydreaming on a segregated bus ride to Chicago in 1954. But who cares, we’re going to f**k all of H.P. Lovecraft’s s**t up anyway! In a way, this is the premise of HBO’s very highly-anticipated period drama series, Lovecraft Country, adapted from the novel of the same name by Matt Ruff. The stellar team behind the show includes Underground creator Misha Green, who runs the show, and Jordan Peele and J.J. Abrams who are among its producers. The product is a very ambitious blend of outright horror, unnerving body horror, sci-fi, fantasy, psychological thriller, racial drama and more, with a dash of superheroes and superheroines on top.
Once we get into the story, we learn more about Tic, who is returning home to Chicago after he finds out his father, Montrose (Michael K. Williams), has been missing for several weeks. Tic received a strange but alarming letter from his still-missing father about a birthright that’s been kept from him. This leads him to pull together a trip to fellow sci-fi fan uncle, George Black (Courtney B. Vance), and his headstrong childhood friend, Letitia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollett). They head to New England to investigate Montrose’s disappearance and learn more about this mysterious family legacy that Tic knows nothing about. As the editor for a Negro Motorist Green Book-like manual with his stern yet creative and capricious wife Hippotyla (Aunjanue Ellis), George is keen for the ride.
They first believe that Montrose and this “legacy” are in Arkham, the town in which the racist Lovecraft set many of his stories. But they find out that it’s Ardham, a sleepy Massachusetts town that’s home to a wildly huge estate. This locale thrusts our group into otherworldly adventures that’ll follow them back to Chicago and beyond. The other assortment of characters includes Leti’s hustling, powerhouse vocalist half-sister, Ruby (Wumni Mosaku), and Abbey Lee’s Christina Braithwaite, a presumptive heiress and a literal poster child for dangerous white privilege and supremacy, blonde hair and all. Eventually, all of our characters get involved in the terror and treachery that kicks off in the Braithwaite manor that day.
So far in the promotion of the show, HBO seems to be very deliberate in their framing and hiding of plot details. After multiple teasers and trailers, only the most recent one (which is the first full-length one) deliberately teased that there were monsters, which may have come as a shock if you weren’t in the least bit familiar with the source material. But oh boy, there’s just way more than monsters...this is just the tip of the iceberg. But we won’t go into detail and will let you see most of this for yourself. Prepare to be absolutely shocked in every sense of the word.
Though Lovecraft Country is not an anthology series per se, each episode kind of feels like you’re watching one. The singular episodes feel like short stories that are a part of a larger narrative at play. They all may have different things going on, but each one connects to the whole tale, with each episode building upon the last. There are a few wonky pacing issues and unclear story beats in the first few episodes (five were given to critics), but everything starts to gel by the fourth episode. This leads to the excellent fifth episode, anchored by dueling turns that happen to be from the supporting characters played by Mosaku and Williams. Ruby’s storyline in this episode, something like a Jekyll and Hyde of body transformation proportions, will definitely be one of the most talked-about of the season -- prepare for the discourse. The show really finds its beat by episode five and makes all of the exposition to get there worthwhile. This episode in particular was masterfully directed by the groundbreaking queer cinema filmmaker Cheryl Dunye, making Williams’ story as Montrose all the better.
Lovecraft Country is pretty brilliant based upon premise and promise alone, and it delivers on this mashup of horror and sci-fi with racism. But despite the monsters that loom large over everything and the horror brought onto our South Side Chicago denizens, it’s very true that white supremacy is the biggest terror of all. In a recent interview, Smollett was quick to not want it to be referred to as “timely,” due to the fact that stories like this have always been timely. There’s no point in our history where racial terror hasn’t been a thing because it is the backbone of our country. Still, a provocative series like this coming at a time like this is worth noting to be uncanny. It’ll garner comparisons to HBO’s Watchmen, which dealt with similar racism themes as well as Black legacy like Lovecraft does. But, there is enough to distinguish the two, especially the pure horror that this one delivers.
From top to bottom, the cast is loaded, anchored by Majors’ compelling lead performance. After being seen consecutively in two huge projects with this and Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods, Majors will be commanding the attention that he deserved for his tour de force performance in last year’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco. He’s assisted by his co-lead in Smollett, who is working on the same level as her criminally underrated performance in Underground and then some.
The British-bred Mosaku is another that is sure to break out for those who haven’t seen her in The End of the F***ing World or Luther. She weaves in and out of standout moments with several cast members, elevating each scene. Williams effortlessly adds depth to another extremely multidimensional character in his repertoire. His storyline tackles the intersection of race, masculinity and sexuality that we haven’t seen on television during this time period, at least with Black men. Coming off of spectacular showings in The Clark Sisters and When They See Us adds the perfect gravitas to hold everything together. She leaves an impression, even though her primary story arc hadn’t come into focus by the end of the five episodes that were provided to critics. And in what may be the most surprising performance, Abbey Lee, who is a recast of the initial Christina, Elizabeth Debicki, lays down her claim as the only actress that could have portrayed this role. She channels every bit of the cunning villainess.
Utilizing music of the time period and modern music of the present in a very similar way as Green’s Underground did, it never feels out of place and is a highlight of the show from Cardi B to Frank Ocean to The Jeffersons theme to contemporary gospel music like Dorinda Clark Cole’s “Take It Back.” The series also uses monologues as the background instead of music in a lot of instances, so instead of hip-hop you may hear a portion of a famous James Baldwin talk. Lovecraft Country is truly scary but it’s also just as magical. Green touches so many genres with ease and does it perfectly. From scary to over-the-top camp, it all works. Just get ready to go down a wild road of pulp fiction like you’ve never seen it before...and it’s about damn time!
Lovecraft Country debuts Aug. 16.