“I’m Adam and I’ve worked a very long time to return to Paradise.”
The second episode of Lovecraft Country moves slightly away from the commentary of the Black experience in 1950s America (though that is still there) and turns the dial up to eleven on the weirdness. People who were worried that the show would take its time getting into the magic, rituals, and spells need not worry. It’s episode two and we are immersed in a world of secret sects and portals to other dimensions. And it comes at you like a high-speed train.
The episode opens on a jarringly upbeat scene of Letitia and George dancing around their rooms, to the tune of the theme song from The Jeffersons, “Movin’ On Up”. It becomes quickly apparent that the reason they are so happy is that they don’t remember what happened to them the previous night. The monsters, the massacre of the sheriffs, the nightmarish run through the woods. All of it gone. Only Tic seems to remember – and this is just one of the bizarre things that occurs in this mansion in the middle of nowhere. They are showered in luxury; Uncle George with an expansive library of his favourite books, Letitia with an array of expensive clothes, all in her size. It’s clear that someone has been expecting them and wants them to be as comfortable as possible – or perhaps as docile as possible. When his uncle remarks that he could stay in his room reading all day, Tic observes, “I wonder if that’s the point.”
The hosts soon make themselves known. The estate is owned by Samuel Braithwaite (Tony Goldwyn), leader of the “Sons of Adam”, and dabbler in the black arts. Anyone whose ever read Lovecraft, or perhaps more importantly in this case, played the tabletop roleplaying game, knows a weird collection of cultists when they see them. And the Sons are no different, clad in black robes, strictly following their own books of rules and regulations, and all seeking something insane; immortality via a return to the biblical Garden of Eden. Braithwaite thinks he’s worked it out too. His ancestor, who died performing the same ritual over one hundred years earlier, owned slaves. And he got one of them pregnant. This is Tic’s great, great, great, grandmother, making him the last surviving (male) Braithwaite heir, and the last person imbued with their ancient blood.
Now this is a pretty intricate series of events to wrap your head around. And I wonder how much I was helped or hindered by reading the book beforehand. I’ve seen people saying it was confusing, but many seem to have had no problem following. Looking back at it now, a few days after seeing the episode, I don’t actually think it was all that difficult to follow. It moves quickly, throwing plot point after plot point at us, mixing in some hallucinations and dream sequences for good measure. But the exposition is very rarely sloppy, and I think the overall story is pretty simple. It sort of operates on its own logic, but you just have to go with it. I was astounded by the fact that this show, in it’s second episode was presenting us with all of this fantastical stuff – something I was sure the show would dilute from the book. Like the first episode, it’s impressive and confident and I loved every second. And I think people need to adjust themselves to the structure of this show. These first two episodes were the first “story” in the book, with the Letitia-focused haunted-house story “Dreams of the Witch House” following this. So this episode has a climatic feel, but it is warranted. It’s the end of the first chapter, the first arc.
We get to meet two new important characters this episode. First is the younger Braithwaite, Christina (Abbey Lee). Alluring in a really weird and unsettling way (Lee had the same uncomfortable presence in Neon Demon), Christina seems at odds with her father. She’d never be welcomed in the club, as she is clearly not a Son of Adam, and she seems to actually want to help Atticus. She is a gender-swapped version of the character from the book, and I think that decision was a clever one. It allows the show to delve more into the treatment of women in this time period. She might be powerful, and is clearly adept at magic, but she’ll always be a second-class citizen. I also have a theory about her, so spoiler warning. I think William, the manservant played by Jordan Patrick Smith, is her. In the book, her character has a chapter with Letitia’s sister Ruby, where Ruby is given a potion to become a white woman, allowing her to see the world from a white perspective. I wonder if William is Christina under the affects of a magic spell, seeing all the thing she’s missing by virtue of being born a woman. Though, to be fair, I’m just going off their similar blond blue-eyed features for this theory. But there is something weird about William.
Also introduced here is Atticus’ father, Montrose. He is played by the always excellent Michael K. Williams, a HBO mainstay who is perhaps most known for his role as the iconic Omar Little in The Wire. Here, he is a grumpy and resentful figure, living up to some of the stories Atticus has told about his troubled childhood. He’s introduced crawling through a tunnel and out through the earth, handcuffed, like a man escaping captivity along the Underground Railroad. It’s a powerful image and makes a hell of an impression. It becomes clear that he is not over-enthused about his family coming to his rescue. Fathers and difficult father figures is a recurring theme throughout Lovecraft Country, and by the end of the episode, Tic has lost one of the two father figures in his life. The future is going to be difficult for Atticus and Montrose, but if the show follows the book, they’ve got some adventures together in their future.
The standout scene in this episode is the ritual towards the end. As Atticus is coerced into opening the gate to the Garden of Eden and things quickly go awry, all set to Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken word poem, “Whitey on the Moon”, a poem about how even though man had just walked on the moon, others were still struggling to get the basic rights at home. This idea of (white) people reaching for the stars while things are clearly not right back on Earth fits well with the arrogant ritual of the Sons of Adam, vying for immortality – but only if you’re a white man. The ritual goes wrong, destroying the Sons and flattening the house. The theory seems to be that this was Christina’s doing, with the ring she gave Atticus causing the ritual to backfire. It’s interesting if true, because it takes away some agency from Atticus (who shut down the ritual himself in the book, with some help). But it also develops Christina into a more interesting figure. We’ll find out, as this is far from the last we’ll see of her and the Sons of Adam.
The final scene is a powerfully acted one, as Atticus sees that his Uncle George didn’t make it. It’s a shame to see him go, because Courtney B. Vance was so great in the role. But it ups the stakes and makes the protagonists seem a little less invincible, something that is often a byproduct of pulp stories. And I reckon he’ll reappear at some point. His wife, Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis) has a chapter in the book titled “Hippolyta Disturbs the Universe” that (spoiler warning) sees her going through a portal to distant planets. Despite the spoiler warning, and based on the trailers, this isn’t going to happen in the same way here, but still promises to be something similarly insane. And a situation like that would be perfect for a tearful reunion with Uncle George.
Overall, this sophomore episode continues the bold story laid out in episode one. And judging from the trailer for next week, the story is shifting into a completely different direction for a Letitia-focused episode. The difficulty the show will have will be having these separate horror/pulp stories, and still manage to tie them all together in a cohesive way – something that the book didn’t really need to do. Though, based on what we’ve seen so far, I’m not worried.