The following contains spoilers for Lovecraft Country episode 1.
From its opening scene onward, HBO’s new action horror series Lovecraft Country makes clear that it will not be tied down by silly little things like “time” and “space.”
The first moments of episode 1 “Sundown,” find our lead character Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors) in the hellish maw of trench warfare. Bullets fly and men die as Tic advances through the shit toward safety…only to find aliens and an enormous Lovecraftian monster blocking his path. It’s around the time that Jackie Robinson turns up to beat said monster to death that it becomes clear that this is merely a dream. Tic then wakes up to a far less fanciful, but no less dangerous world.
But when exactly is Tic’s world, if it’s not during one of the World Wars? Well Lovecraft Country has a very specific timeframe in mind, even while it’s willing to play around with that timeframe via flashbacks, dreams, and the occasional use of anachronistic music. In the show’s first episode, Lovecraft Country doesn’t come right out and say what year it is set in, but it does offer up some helpful clues.
For starters, there are clear cut signs of institutional racism that have come to be hallmarks of the Civil Rights struggle of the ‘50s and ‘60s. When Tic awakes, he is on a bus – but more specifically the back of the bus in the “colored” section. Additionally, as the bus passes a sign that says “Leaving Kentucky,” Tic bids “good riddance to old Jim Crow.” Jim Crow laws codifying segregation and disenfranchisement of Black Americans were on the books through 1965.
Then there’s the issue of the episode’s title, “Sundown,” and the existence of “sundown towns” to which it refers. Much like how Watchmen introduced the reality of the Tulsa Race Massacre to white audiences, so too does Lovecraft Country likely introduce the concept of “sundown towns” to those same audiences. As evidenced by an unbearably tense scene in which a white police officer leads Tic and friends on a low-speed chase to get out of the county before sundown, there were all-white municipalities that would not allow Black people in past sundown. This truly insane practice lasted into the ‘60s.
So based on all of this evidence, when is Lovecraft Country set? I fear that I’ve buried the lede a little bit, because the show eventually just comes right out and tells you. Lovecraft Country takes place in 1954 and 1955. The series’ third episode reveals that certain events take place in the summer of 1955. The 1954 date comes directly from the novel of the same name by Matt Ruff upon which the show is based. The book explicitly states that it begins in Chicago in 1954.
Lovecraft Country, the TV show, could have been more forthcoming about its timeframe by revealing the date in its first episode. Instead, however, it correctly concluded that introducing the images of America’s racist past (well…slightly more racist than usual at least) would be enough for viewers to get their bearings.