Lovecraft Country Recap: Disappointment Above, Disappointment Below

Lovecraft Country

A History of Violence
Season 1 Episode 4
Editor’s Rating 2 stars

Lovecraft Country

A History of Violence
Season 1 Episode 4
Editor’s Rating 2 stars
Photo: HBO

This Sunday’s episode of Lovecraft Country is streaming early on HBO Max.

If last week strived to make American Horror Story irrelevant, this episode’s subgenre-of-the-week to explore is “adventure.” It’s in the same vein as Journey to the Center of the Earth — alluded to outright multiple times in the episode — and the likes of National Treasure, The Goonies, or Indiana Jones. Unfortunately, while inhabiting these tropes, “A History of Violence” falls into the same xenophobic, imperialist trappings that the genre often does: an odd mistreatment of marginalized characters who are different than our protagonists. What I initially loved about the series is that there was fun to be had. And this episode was, despite its setup, rarely fun. It then turned completely un-fun and upsetting for a reason I don’t see as necessary: the introduction to a character, Yahima, who is immediately, violently killed.

Presumably the episode’s title refers to Titus Braithwhite’s history of violence. We learn that not only was he in the “shipping” (code for “slave”) trade, he was also a “famed explorer” who taught “the way of civilized man” to Indigenous peoples across the globe. This is, of course, an awful, racist thing. Here “exploration” is code for colonization, genocide, and decimation. In hopes of finding Titus’ pages from the Book of Names, Letitia, Atticus, and Montrose head to a museum in Boston, searching underground caverns for a vault housing those missing pages. Dee and Hippolyta come along in order to see an astronomy exhibit at the museum and “Tree,” the bar frequent, comes along to get partway to Philly.

This episode is extremely frustrating as a viewer. We are constantly put outside of what should be engaging about this episode. How exactly did Montrose figure out that moonlight would be the trick to finding the entrance underground? How exactly did they figure out which of the three tunnels to go down? We’re given some answers, but they’re so convoluted and so in-the-moment that they’re almost impossible to follow. The audience is rarely let in on the clue-hunting and discovery alongside the characters.

The most obvious example might be when, at the end of the long, narrow wooden plank, there’s a door into which the trio must input a code. If we’re paying close attention, we can understand that Montrose is using a passage from the Order of the Ancient Dawn bylaws as the “key” to the code — but we’re never even given a good look at the puzzle to figure it out ourselves. Letitia pushes stone buttons and we can’t even see their corresponding images. We have no opportunity to think Oh, I bet it’s related to the book Montrose was reading earlier. What did it say about Adam? Eve? Monsters? There were so many times in their journey when I thought, Why isn’t the camera showing us any of this more clearly?

This pattern continuously undercut what should have been the most exciting parts of the episode, like traversing that narrow, rickety plank across the cliff. Parts of it I enjoyed — not catching the bag and Montrose yelling “YOU BETTER CATCH ME, BOY!” was particularly funny. But the giant pendulum blade, then the sudden, magic slow-dissolving of the plank just gave me more questions than fear for their fates. Is the danger here the “booby trap” or the magic? And this was all set up by Titus? It didn’t quite work for me. The episode had lost me by then.

Further, after our trio makes it across the plank, they come across the elevator shaft that connects back to Leti’s apartment in Chicago. I think Leti is intelligent, but I don’t believe she should automatically know that the floating body they encounter is her neighbor’s. Her realization feels like a means to help the audience piece together that this is the same underground tunnel we saw at the end of “Holy Ghost.” Even if she knew her neighbor’s face or what clothes he wore, how did she come to fathom this could even be him this far away from home? How did she realize that they’re actually underneath her house? That they’ve come across the same elevator because time and space are working differently down here? This isn’t completely bad or unexplainable, we just don’t see or hear the dots get connected. It’s just more frustration in an episode that feels hasty. So of course I have little awe or wonder left when Tic offers his blood as the “key” to a final obstacle and a ladder drops down for our trio to ascend.

And this brings me to the most upsetting part of the episode. To be introduced to Yahima — an Arawak person who exists outside of the (colonial and constructed) gender binary — who then only ten minutes later is violently killed, feels wrong. The characters use she/her pronouns for Yahima (and the show doesn’t seem to indicate this as a misgendering) but we simply don’t get that validated from Yahima themself, so I’m using they/them pronouns in this recap. Even Yahima’s introduction feels too gazey: We watch the characters look at their genitals, the camera lingering on body parts more than it ever has. In Yahima’s words — though, translated through Tic — they are “woman, man, Two-Spirit.” Because we don’t get subtitles, because even their own words must be filtered through another character, it’s impossible to get Yahima on their own terms. It just didn’t have to be like this.

I thought a lot about the documentary Disclosure after watching this episode. That film discusses, among other things, how people learn how to react to others by the media they consume. In Disclosure, the documentarians are talking about trans characters — how for so long trans characters in film and television were met with horror or disgust or humor at the expense of their dignity, how that taught people in the real world to react in the same ways. It’s fucked up, plain and simple. And while Yahima’s Two-Spirit identity complicates Disclosure’s framework, what happens to Yahima fits this trope — they’re introduced and killed shortly thereafter. It fits into a history of violence. And a show engaging with the violence of white supremacy should not be doing something like this.

In “Sundown,” Atticus said, “Stories are like people. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try and cherish ’em, overlook their flaws.” He was talking about pulp stories written by Lovecraft and other white authors in a racist world. This is something that any nonwhite person has to contend with in media or literary canons oversaturated with whiteness. We can enjoy things and still reckon with their faults. “But,” as the woman walking down the road with him responds, “the flaws are still there.” I don’t expect anything to be perfect. I have found this particularly true as a horror fan, when a lot of what we get is not so great or not without its problematics. And in a moment of a surge in more diverse horror and science-fiction as Hollywood reckons with its exclusionary past, we’re bound to have missteps. But it’s extra painful to have an avoidable misstep like this in a show full of Black characters that’s made by Black creators. And I can’t see this arc as anything else: a flaw.

Tic says to Yahima that he wants to protect his people, and I wanted so badly for Yahima to be taken in and cared for as his people, too.

Leftover Country

• What I like about what the show is doing — building out an archive of Black genre pieces in the horror and sci-fi canons — is different than if I think it’s fully working or if I will end up liking the show as a whole. I’m on the fence, especially after this episode.

• “Smells like Tulsa,” is so irreverent and shocking and bold, I kind of love it as a line of dialogue from Montrose. We learned from the fake Dora in “Whitey’s on the Moon” that Montrose, Dora, and Uncle George used to live in Tulsa. I’m assuming they left after the Tulsa Massacre at Black Wall Street in 1921.

• Give the boy in the library a YA spinoff!

• We finally get some of Ruby on her own. But she’s having a moment. The department store job she’s been wanting just hired a Black woman who wasn’t her. “I know there are 103 employees at that damn department store and two of them are never gonna be colored,” she laments.

• Also, Ruby … how are you gonna not only go home with this man, but also not be deterred by the DEMONIC BRANDING on his chest.

• The kiss between Letitia and Atticus did not work for me — Atticus was not very nice this episode! What did work for me was Leti busting open the display case, RIPPING the map out, and SLINGING it down the hole.

• Hippolyta whips that car around, presumably to head to Devon County with Dee. The golden contraption she found last week is actually an orrery, a model of the solar system (this one with two suns). Yes, I had to Google orrery. And according to what Christina said to the cops, it seems like it’s related to building/unlocking a TIME MACHINE. Please! This world has everything: ghosts, shoggoths, wizards, time machines!

• I’m assuming Tree makes it to Philly okay?

• Twitter/the internet seems to have caught the show making reference to Emmett Till through “Bobo” (Emmett Till’s nickname). Bobo shows up again this episode (and according to Wikipedia, episode 8 is titled “Jig-A-Bobo”). Are we getting an episode centering on him? I don’t really know how to feel about it right now. But here are some other imaginations that give life to Emmett Till that I know I do like by Eve Ewing and Danez Smith.

• Gaywatch: Tree’s comment about Montrose and Sammy all but confirms that Montrose is queer. And Sammy’s li’l red, open shirt: A+

This article has been updated to note Yahima’s Arawak heritage.

Lovecraft Country Recap: Disappointment Above & Below