A ‘Lovecraft Country’ Post-Mortem: The Good, The Bad, And The Violent

Characters from Lovecraft Country

Lovecraft Country has come and gone, and I have lots to say. So, let’s not tarry and get right into my thoughts on this season. 

The good: A research-heavy show that wants to impress

Entertainment like Lovecraft Country is educating the masses about America's racist past and acts as a griot of African-American history.
Entertainment like Lovecraft Country is educating the masses about America’s racist past and acts as a griot of African-American history. (Photo credit: HBO)

Lovecraft Country wants its audience to be impressed with its knowledge. It wants to teach. On that aspect, the show is highly successful. There are so many Easter eggs in the series that tell the story of our nation’s relationship to race. As someone who has written a book on Black American history, I was excited by the amount of research the writers’ room completed for this series. I was so impressed that I created a Zoom presentation around it, which you can watch below. 

If Lovecraft Country were a documentary or a docu-miniseries, then the research alone would make for a satisfying experience. However, Lovecraft Country is a sci-fi/fantasy drama. That means, of course, that characterization and plotting have to come into effect. While the series passes with flying colors in the research department, it falters (at best) to create believable, well-rounded characters. 

The bad: A story that doesn’t know where it’s going (and occasionally offends along the way)

Cast of Lovecraft Country standing in front of Leti's newly-purchased home.
Cast of Lovecraft Country standing in front of Leti’s (Jurnee Smollett) newly-purchased home. (Photo credit: HBO)

The one reason Lovecraft Country got so many glowing reviews fresh out the gate was because of its stellar first episode. I count myself among the reviewers who watched the first episode and felt like the series was one to pay attention to. The episode had a clarity of purpose and succinctly revealed why paying attention to the past is essential for the future. But, as many reviewers can tell you, including some I’ve talked to, the series became a let-down the further the season progressed. 

The plotting and pacing are problematic, to be sure. Whereas the pilot had a directive, it’s apparent the writers weren’t sure how to progress the story beyond Atticus and the gang’s initial search for Montrose. (And if you think about it, we still don’t fully know why or how Montrose became missing in the first place.)

Soraya Nadia McDonald wrote about this problem as part of her phenomenon she coined “storytelling accounting.”

“Good storytelling accounting occurs when everything presented to viewers over the arc of a film or show serves a larger narrative purpose, even those, like the eggs floating out of the kitchen in [HBO series] Watchmen, that don’t seem to have an obvious function,” she wrote. “I use storytelling accounting to expand the idea of Chekhov’s gun beyond writing to include every element of decision-making in a given work, from costuming to production design to music supervision to hair and makeup.”

In other words, a successfully-plotted show would provide its audience with enough context clues to get from Point A to Point B. But with Lovecraft Country, a roadmap for viewers is pointless because, eventually, nothing makes sense. 

“…Lovecraft Country is filled with gags that don’t go anywhere, like the cows on the Braithwhite property that give birth to human-hunting monsters,” wrote McDonald. “The show is sprinkled with details that identify its writers as learned…But these various details don’t seem to point to much besides the obvious fact that racism is omnipresent in America and really scary.”

Characterization also wanes with each episode. Overall, the characters become half-fleshed-out archetypes. Atticus is the Hero, Leti is the Complicated Heroine. Montrose is the Anti-Hero. Hippolyta is literally a Magical Black Girl (or, in her case, Magical Black Woman). They serve their purpose, but we don’t grow as attached to these characters as we feel we’re supposed to. Unfortunately, when a character is given layers, the character usually aligns with evil. 

For instance, Ruby is a big problem for me since she is supposed to represent the Black woman who is tired of being the “mule of the world.” Her story is supposed to be complicated. But yet, all we learn about her is that she’s colorstruck by Christina/William and longs to be white. On top of that, when she is white, thanks to Christina’s potion, she becomes as selfish as any other white supremacist. It would seem that she only desires whiteness to express her selfishness and self-superiority with impunity. The optics of Ruby’s body–dark-skinned and heavy-set–compound her characterization. Whether the writers realized it or not, they recreated the trope of mean, evil big Black women. Compare that to light-skinned, skinny Leti, who is part of our group of saviors. 

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McDonald also commented on Lovecraft Country‘s clumsiness regarding tropes. 

“Rather than weaving the elements of the show together to buttress each other, Lovecraft Country simply piles a bunch of horror tropes for no discernible reason,” she continued. “If the show is supposedly offering some larger commentary on race and horror, why, for example to the Freemans liberate a Native American two-spirit person who’s been trapped in a crypt by a Son of Adam, only to murder them by the end of the hour?”

Indeed, Yahima’s murder at Montrose’s hands is the series’ most blatant moment of disregard for characterization and plotting. It’s also one of its many moments of discounting how certain violent acts can read to viewers. While Lovecraft Country dedicated itself to detailing African Americans’ history, it showed less commitment to researching other peoples’ lives affected by white supremacy. 

I’ve written about how Yahima’s death is a silencing of both Native Americans in general and Native Americans who identify as Two-Spirit. But there was also another moment of cultural insensitivity I didn’t know about–a possible moment of anti-Semitism in the form of “blood libel.” In the series, Leti’s boarding house was initially owned by a scientist named Hiram Epstein, who experimented with Black Chicagoans. However, the book’s character was named Winthrop, and therefore not explicitly Jewish.

“Epstein’s story calls to mind the way that Jews have been accused for centuries of stealing the blood of non-Jewish children to use in religious rituals, often to make matzah for Passover, in what is known as a ‘blood libel,'”  according to Foward.com’s Philssa Cramer. “The blood libel charge was leveled routinely at Jews beginning in the Middle Ages, and it was used to justify countless deadly pogroms and vigilante actions. A blood libel charge tore apart an upstate New York town in 1928, and the trope featured prominently in Nazi propaganda.” 

Misha Green has since apologized for mishandling Yahima’s storyline, and an HBO has spoken out regarding Forward.com’s charges of anti-Semitism. 

“While the fictional world of the series draws from history and mythology in many instnaces, this character’s name was neither conceived nor intended as a reference to the trope cited,” stated HBO. 

A series can’t avoid every trope or stereotype–no writer or studio is perfect. But, many of Lovecraft Country‘s pitfalls could have been avoided if there was a better accounting for the story, plotting, and more research into the stereotypes that define other marginalized people. 

The Violent: The oppressed becoming the oppressor

Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) quickly becomes attuned to violence once she gains access to Christina's magic.
Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) quickly becomes attuned to violence once she gains access to Christina’s magic. (Photo credit: HBO)

Lovecraft Country revels in violence. It wants to use violence to discuss the tools of white supremacy, but it never thoroughly investigates the idea. Instead, it merely uses the optics of violence for shock value. 

From listening to Lovecraft Country Radio, the writers wanted to explore how a Black person might use the tools of supremacy for their ends, for better or worse. The writers are obsessed with exploring how to dismantle those tools and find new ways of living. That’s an admirable exploration. But Lovecraft Country never gives its audience a look at what those new tools could be. Indeed, the series finale ends with white supremacy–represented by Christina– being choked to death by Dee. Even though Dee represents the new generation, she still uses white supremacy’s biggest weapon–brute force. 

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There are violent moments to make the audience cheer and side with the Black characters enacting the violence. For instance, there’s a scene with Ruby, as she’s changing back into a Black woman from her white form as Christina’s potion wears off. As she’s transforming, she lures her white boss into a trap she’s set. She then rapes him with her stiletto in the department store’s back room. In the scenes before, we find that boss trying to rape another Black female department store worker. Ruby’s actions are supposed to be revelatory for the viewers; Ruby is supposed to be a hero for defending Black women’s rights. But, while the scene wants to be an extreme version of Hammurabi’s Code, it comes off as gross, reveling in violence just for the sake of violence. 

Does it make sense for the audience to want to see Ruby’s racist boss get his deserved comeuppance? Of course. But “comeuppance” is different than “questionable violence.” The scene doesn’t further the storyline in a meaningful way. 

Maybe, except for this one point: We see that Ruby loves to inflict just as much racial violence as a racist white person in this time. Indeed, one of the show’s points of exploration is how the oppressed can become the oppressor by using “the Master’s tools,”  coined by writer Audre Lorde. If you’ve listened to Lovecraft Country Radio, you would have heard the hosts reference Lorde’s philosophy regarding dismantling oppressive systems before. 

But, to analyze this concept, does it make sense to showcase the Black characters–the downtrodden heroes of this story–as people who are just as violent as their oppressors? Yes, it makes sense to show that the oppressed have tons of anger towards their situation and a thirst for righteous vengeance. But, I think the methods Lovecraft Country used to address Lorde’s words is the show’s biggest failure. The series ends up being all over the place in how it wants to address Lorde’s writings. 

I think the show could have better handled the violence it wanted to engage in by giving consequences to the characters engaging in unnecessary or unproductive violence. For instance, Ruby never gets taught a lesson about why sexual assault against anyone, even a racist piece of crap, is wrong. Instead, the show wants the audience to root for Ruby committing this act. That’s a big ask. 

Similarly, aside from getting beat up by Atticus, Montrose doesn’t ever fully feel the effects of killing Yahima. Instead of getting punished in some magical or divine way, Montrose gets rewarded with a coming-out party. It’s as if killing Yahima was the key to Montrose finally accepting himself. That doesn’t make any sense. 

While I haven’t read all of Lorde’s work, I feel like her writings on the oppressed utilizing or gaining the oppressor’s tools are a warning, not wishful thinking. She said we shouldn’t be aspiring to achieve the master’s tools and disregard our own, self-made tools for freedom. In other words, we should be wary of becoming what we fear. 

Killing Yahima and sexually assaulting someone is, indeed, Ruby and Montrose becoming what should be feared. Yet, there are no consequences for this. Becoming an oppressor shouldn’t be celebrated. Instead, it should be cause for concern at the very least. If anything, Lovecraft Country should treat this latent desire within its characters as an emotional and psychological emergency. 

Final verdict: Lovecraft Country is great on scholarship, but not on follow-through

Leti shows off her house before the renovation, which is a little like the show: full of history, but needs restructuring.
Leti shows off her house before the renovation, which is a little like the show: full of history, but needs restructuring. (Photo credit: HBO)

With all of this said, it’s not like a don’t appreciate Lovecraft Country. I understand its importance in the canon of Black Renaissance Television. But I do wish that the story choices backed up the series’ alleged significance and prestige. 

Despite the hype on Twitter, I’m not sure if the ratings were extreme enough for HBO to want a second season. I could be wrong, and if I am, I will check out the second season to see if the writers have corrected some of their mistakes. But as it stands right now, Lovecraft Country provides much intellectual fodder and references for folks familiarizing themselves with Black American history. But for people who want something deeper, something that’s more invested in Lorde’s philosophy, watching Lovecraft Country could be aggravating. 

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