This Lovecraft Country review contains spoilers.
Lovecraft Country Season 1, Episode 1
We’re introduced to Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors) in a dream sequence. What begins as a straightforward black and white scene of Tic in the trenches morphs into a colorful panorama of the fantastical, a smorgasbord of sci-fi hors d’oeuvres. Overhead, flying saucers hover, while creatures of unknown origin fly about the sky. A red woman (Jamie Chung) descends from a spaceship, and alerts our hero to the imminent threat of a rising Cthulhu. Before the Elder God can raise hell, Jackie Robinson smashes it to shit with a single swing of his bat. Tic abruptly awakens.
In real life, Tic is on the back of a greyhound. As the bus crosses yet another bridge named after a dead racist, Tic flips the bridge the bird, a final fuck you to the Jim Crow South. Unfortunately, the bus breaks down. Tic reads A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs as they wait for help, which makes sense of some of his dream imagery. When help arrives and begins to load the stranded passengers, it becomes immediately clear to Tic and the only other Black passenger on board that there will be no aid for them. Tic helps the woman with her bags and they walk.
This scene works on multiple levels. First, the dream sequence gives us insight into who Tic is. He’s a war hero out of his depth, surrounded by things too big and unknowable to fight against. His dream is a manifestation of his hopes and fears, and explores both how he sees himself and how he wants to be seen. Second, the scene establishes the setting. Tic is out of the South but not away from its pervasive anti-Blackness. There isn’t a county line that racists stay behind, that once you cross, you’re safe. A fact that is reiterated later in the episode. In its first few minutes, “Sundown” tells us a lot about the world our characters occupy, and their place within it.
Tic finally makes it home to the Southside of Chicago, where he’s reunited with his Uncle George Freeman (Courtney B. Vance), aunt Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis), and cousin Diana (Jada Harris), before looking further into his father Montrose’s (Michael K. Williams) disappearance. After some investigating, he decides to travel to Ardham, Massachusetts (aka “Lovecraft Country”) to find Montrose. Uncle George insists on coming along, take the opportunity to add more information to his atlas and the Negro Motorist Guidebook he publishes.
One of the jobs the pilot episode has is to introduce us to characters and make us care about them. We have to have a sense of who these people are and what their motivations might be and, crucially, we have to be invested in their journey. This is something “Sundown” does exceedingly well. In just a few lines of dialogue, a few minutes on-screen, we not only know who these characters are, we want them to win.
We meet Leticia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollet) for the first time, when she joins her sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) on stage. Their dynamic is clear even before they have a conversation, and their dialogue together says so much about both of them. Ruby is the responsible one of the two, always looking for an opportunity to advance. Leti is a free-spirit who doesn’t plant roots, so it comes as no surprise that she would randomly decide to join Tic and Uncle George on their trip.
We don’t meet Montrose in this episode, but so much of who he is can be extrapolated from the conversations people have about him. We know he drinks heavily, that he was abused as a kid and abused Tic in turn. We know he, like Tic and George, is well-read. I care about and am invested in Montrose, even though he doesn’t appear on screen.
Another thing Lovecraft Country does well in its premiere is establish stakes. Once Tic, Leti, and Uncle George set off, we see them pass through town after town. Eerie string chords backdrop otherwise innocuous scenes of the trio driving down main streets, or filling up at local gas stations. Where traditionally those audio cues might be used to alert the audience a killer is nearby or an evil entity is wreaking havoc in sight of a nanny cam, music in “Sundown” clues the audience into the fact that the trio are constantly under threat. The ever-present enemy is racism.
Racism isn’t just insidious, though. Tic n’em narrowly avoid being gunned down by white townies after stopping at a diner Uncle George was misinformed about. If not for Leticia Fucking Lewis’ superb driving and an assist from a mysterious white woman (Abbey Lee) in a silver Bentley, they mightn’t have made it. They regroup at Leti’s brother’s and receive his intel on the town of Ardham, including a dossier on the county’s top kkkop.
The group spend all of the following day driving around, looking for a road to Ardham that can’t be found. While pulled over to reassess, they’re approached by the same sheriff they’d been warned about, and he immediately threatens to hang them if they’re caught after dark. With mere minutes until sundown, Tic n’em have to drive out of the county, fast enough to beat the setting sun but not so fast they get pulled over for speeding. They make it over the county line in a knick of time, and are allowed a moment of relief before they run into more deputies.
Tic, Leti, and Uncle George are taken into the woods and forced to the ground, with the deputies’ shotguns aimed directly at them. Before the monsters in uniform can pull the trigger, they’re beset upon by many-eyed, tentacled beasts who dismember a deputy in a single bite. Chaos and carnage ensue, and the sheriff— who was about to execute innocent folks in the forest and who is missing a good chunk of flesh from his person—says, without a hint of irony, “monsters aren’t real.” The cognitive dissonance. Freemans and Leti have God and anime on their side and outmaneuver both the monsters with guns and the ones with fangs. They survive the night and stumble bloody and exhausted into Ardham, and the large manor that fronts the estate. When they approach the front door, it opens and they’re greeted by a vision of Aryan perfection, who says to them: “We’ve been expecting you, Mr. Freeman. Welcome home.”
“Sundown” sets the tone for the season and answers the question of what the audience can expect. This episode tells us, plainly, that racism is a horror of its own, equal to and separate from the things that go bump in the night. But it also makes it clear that monsters are real. We know our heroes are walking into something strange and dangerous, and the fun comes from watching that weirdness unfold. Lovecraft Country holds nothing back in its premiere, and if this episode is anything to go on, the show will only get wilder and better.