This is the story of an American boy, and a dream that is truly American.
As first impressions go, it is hard to determine what to make of Sundown, the pilot episode of the highly anticipated Lovecraft Country. HBO’s latest television epic is a Sci-Fi tale taking place during Jim Crow Era America. But for all the ways, in terms of setting and genre, the story is familiar, there are another dozen ways in which it is bizarre and otherworldly. The show, of course, derives it’s name from the sub-genre Lovecraftian Horror. Named after author H.P. Lovecraft, the genre typically depicts grotesque and monstrous creatures, usually in a sci-fi or fantasy setting. The imagery is intended to be surreal, frightening, and at times sexual.
Consider the opening scene – we’re introduced to Atticus (Jonathan Majors), a soldier in battle, but the battle is against horrific alien creatures and flying space saucers. One of the aliens, a red woman (Jamie Chung), approaches him as they look at each other suggestively. But their potential tryst is interrupted when another enormous Cthulhu emerges in front of them. However, said creature is killed with a baseball bat… by Jackie Robinson??
But it, of course, was just a dream. Atticus is an actual war veteran, headed back home to search for his recently-missing father. But Atticus’ dreams make sense – he’s an aficionado of science fiction novels. His imagination is clearly beyond, but influenced by, his reality – which happens to be the unrelenting racism of the Jim Crow Era South. There’s no hero’s welcome for Atticus, just a hot bus ride and a long walk home. His father was suspiciously last seen with a lawyer. Atticus, upon learning where he may have been headed (Ardham, Mass, which we’re told is known as “Lovecraft Country”), sets out on a road trip to track him down. Joining him is his uncle George (Courtney B Vance) and Atticus’ childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett-Bell).
The series establishes early that it attempts to deconstruct the science fiction genre, while determining where a black perspective fits in that genre. There’s namedrops of Ray Bradbury and Edgar Rice Burroughs. An early conversation centers around the literary hero John Carter, an “ex-confederate” who eventually becomes a leader on Mars. “He fought for slavery”, an elderly woman remarks, “you don’t get to put an ‘ex’ on that.” What this is attempting to do is create a myth, but centered around a black hero in the overt context of racism.
Myths are among the most, if not the most, popular forms of storytelling in entertainment. But Western myths are usually centered around white male protagonists and the dual obstacles of their hero’s journey and their coming of age. To sweeten the narrative pot, there’s usually a rich mythology that the naive protagonist must discover, an oppressive regime he must defeat, and a little-known, or misunderstood, heritage he must redeem and honor. The prominent examples that come to mind, of course, are The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. Frodo and Luke Skywalker both share many similarities with the tropes I just listed. Luke, in particular, is the poster-child of Western heroics and myth-making. His journey is about righting wrongs and rectifying the lost opportunities of the past. Unfair as it may be to him, his conflict is in correcting the mistakes of the past in which he had no role in committing.
Shifting back to Lovecraft Country, Atticus is our Luke Skywalker. And just like Luke, he dreams of something bigger and more fantastical than boring old real life. But his love for science fiction books establish a tension, one in which his entertainment is created by, and the stories themselves often uphold, a Western power imbalance that directly disadvantages him. In the first episode, no one in his community mocks Atticus for his affinity, but it is made clear that his love is out of the ordinary, especially among black people.
Yet, without delving too far into spoilers, Atticus will clearly get his wish and be set on the path of the grand Myth. There’s a mythology to uncover, a secret history to be revealed, and a quest for the heroes to go on in order to resolve the conflict.
It’s a simple formula that works, but wouldn’t be so captivating if Lovecraft Country wasn’t such an impressive production. This looks like one of the most expensive shows in television history, and the pilot doesn’t waste time in showing off the budget. There’s exceptional imagery, practical effects, a sleu of monsters, shootouts, and multiple edge-of-your-seat car chases… all in one episode. Yann Demange, the director of Sundown, was tasked with introducing us to the series’ visual style. The first impression is a resounding success – Lovecraft Country boasts a mesmerizing color palette, combined with impeccable framing, symmetry, and an active camera to establish an epic scope worthy of the show’s pulpy influences. This is like a story from the comic series 2000 AD come to life in spectacular fashion.
Fittingly, the series does have a literary source – the show is an adaptation of the book of the same name, written by Matt Ruff. The series’ showrunner is Misha Green fully embraces Ruff’s mashup of racial conflict with pulp fantasy. As a first episode, Lovecraft Country is a fantastic summation of what the show promises while also giving us characters that are relatable and intriguing, even if they’ve yet to be fully fleshed out. Uncle George is the wise but flawed mentor, while Letitia shows signs of taking over the entire show. It is she, not Atticus, who makes the smartest decisions, and who shows the greatest initiative. Meanwhile, Atticus begins to see his dreams blend with his reality. But will it prove to be a nightmare, or one of bliss?
It all goes back to the opening lines of the pilot, which is the quote at the beginning of this review. It’s a telling quote, where the key word is ‘American’. Typically, American is shorthand for just ‘white’, whereas different ethnicities come with the qualifier of African-American, Asian-American, etc. This qualifier is often apparent even if the person in question was born in America. Lovecraft Country wants us to see Atticus’ story as one of American heroism. To be seen as fully Black and fully American, no conjunction necessary. That is the dream.