When Lovecraft Country first descended upon us, one idea that became apparent early was the throughline the show has with other works in the fantasy genre. Namely, as I mentioned in the review of the pilot, that the utilization of Atticus Freeman was similar to that of a Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins, but through the lens of Jim Crow era America. In the 9th episode, titled “Rewind 1921”, the series pays off on much of that seed planting. Atticus is positioned as our hero, but he must first learn something about his heritage, a’la Luke, before he can rectify the evils of the past.
But before we get to that bit of character development, the episode begins as a race against time. Dee, on the run from a couple of evil spirits during the last episode, is in critical condition after the encounter. Atticus, along with Letitia and Ruby, scrambles for a way to save his cousin, but all roads unfortunately lead back to Christina Braithewaite. Christina reluctantly offers her services to reverse the curse that ails Dee, but only on the condition that Atticus participates in the Autumnal Equinox, thus assisting Christina in the ritual that will grant her immortality.
The development of this plot thread is intriguing because of what it says about each character. We know that there’s a good chance this ritual will kill Atticus – hell, Ji-Ah has practically told him this already. Yet Ruby, supposedly Atticus’ friend, is willing to give her lover, Christina, the benefit of the doubt that she’ll have Atticus’ best interests at heart. Ruby must know that deep down she’s in denial, but her affinity for Christina clouds her judgment. Later, Ruby chastises her sister, Letitia, for not trusting Christina. She comes across as someone who has forgotten what oppression feels like due to the power gifted upon her by Christina. Since Ruby has been able to change form, assuming the appearance of a white woman, her true colors have shown.
Ultimately, a dividing line has been placed between the two sisters, with Letitia refusing to put all her trust in the institutional power that Christina wields. However, Atticus agrees to the deal in an attempt to save Dee. But surprise, Christina can only partially reverse the curse. To save Dee fully, the gang needs access to the Book of Names. The book was destroyed decades earlier during the Tulsa Race Massacre, and the characters must time travel to said event in order to recover the book… because of course they do!
Unfortunately, timing is working against Lovecraft Country. While based on the 2016 novel of the same name, the show arrives a year after the release of HBO’s Watchmen. Damon Lindelof’s sequel to the graphic novel featured the inciting incident of the Tulsa Race Massacre, tying in a pattern of violence, imperialism, and oppression with the inability to accept black heroes, and a proceeding scheme to capture and assume the identity of Dr Manhattan. As a result, Watchmen not only introduces audiences to the events of Tulsa, but Lindelof connects it to the present day events of the show and establishes a key theme.
However, Lovecraft Country isn’t as efficient with it’s racial reference points. With Tulsa, and Emmett Till in the previous episode, there’s a feeling of Civil Rights time hopping, where we use key events as checkpoints rather than crucial elements of the plot. It also feels convenient that our protagonists knew Emmett Till directly, while living in Chicago, but also happened to be in Tulsa during the Massacre 30 years earlier. Next, they’re going to tell us the Freemans were in the hotel room when MLK was assassinated, and were on the same street in Las Vegas when Tupac was shot.
To be fair, even Watchmen took some shortcuts to tie several historical events with each other. But Lovecraft Country, the show and the novel it’s based on, appears to be a more egregious example of contrived storytelling. As densely plotted each episode becomes, the scramble to tie so many events together can feel overwhelming, and robs each moment of how impactful it can potentially be.
Nevertheless, “Rewind 1921” redeems some of it’s imperfect structure by grounding the episode within Atticus’ most important relationships – with Montrose and Letitia. Montrose, still battling alcoholism and a heavy conscious, confides in Atticus the possibility that Montrose may not be his father. This understandably angers Atticus, putting their already estranged relationship at a crossroads. Meanwhile, during the mission to retrieve the book, Letitia has to rely on her love for Atticus, and the existence of their unborn child, to convince the Freeman matriarch of what needs to be done to ensure the promise of the future.
Both dilemmas are emotional, and are further proof that Jurnee Smollett and Michael K. Williams are the MVPs of the series. But the most memorable development of episode 9 will be the growth from Montrose, who goes on an odyssey of guilt, release, and acceptance. The revelations about his past instill in Atticus that Montrose, despite possibly not being his biological father, is his dad. Atticus eventually reconciles that there is love within Montrose’s complicated heart, thus inspiring Atticus during his last act heroics. The tragedies of the past inform the inspiration and perseverance of the future.
After this whirlwind of an episode, that only leaves the season finale. We’ll see Christina’s plan finally attempted, and the fate of Atticus revealed. Lovecraft Country, thus far, is a complicated mix of stellar production, astonishing images, and great acting. But the series also features its fair share of convoluted writing, poor pacing, ham-fisted dialogue, and a willingness to use the tales of social injustice as a crutch rather than opportunity to build upon their importance and meaning. The season finale finds itself with an unenviable task – succeed at satisfying our love for pulp entertainment, use it’s racial context to create a deeper understanding of the characters and material, or blend both elements together in one fantastic stew. That third option has been the promise of the show’s entire conception, and we’re still waiting for that ritual to be summoned.