Strange things are afoot...
H.P Lovecraft never saw success in his lifetime. He saw the horror genre far differently from those of his time, able to weave terrifying tales out of the seemingly darkest reaches of his creative mind. Now, much of his works are praised by those within the horror genre, serving as inspiration for a whole host of filmmakers, writers and artists. While many found this inspiration in the unfathomable horrors, repulsive monsters, and dark plots that comprised Lovecraft's universe of madness, Lovecraft Country is inspired in part by the man himself, and the prejudiced views that informed his work.
Adapted from the Matt Ruff novel of the same name, Lovecraft Country see's a young former soldier, Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) , return home in search of his father (Michael Kenneth Williams) who's gone missing after he begins digging into his family heritage. Atticus, with help from childhood friend, Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) , and his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), embarks on a quest across 1950's Jim Crow America, as they must contend with the worst parts of racist American society, uncover hidden mysteries, and face dark eldritch powers.
Lovecraft's work is known to be informed by his own racist and homophobic views, which is where the series derives much of its subject matter. The show triumphantly subverts Lovecraft's prejudicially imbued work in a way that is engaging and relevant, overturning many of his tropes and ideas. Many of the horror's in Lovecraft's work were associated as the 'Other', though where Lovecraft's 'other' were horrific monsters, Lovecraft Country's 'Other' relates to the racist white antagonists present throughout the series, who are portrayed in a way that makes them unsettling, sinister and purposefully inhuman. The combined lack of empathy, use of horrific racial violence, and overwhelming sense of hatred make much of the racist figures in the show monsters in their own right; they become the 'Other'. This also happens quite literally early on in the series, when a racist county sheriff literally transform into a Lovecraftian monster. The show even features a dark cult of whites-only magic users, hellbent on using Atticus as an unwilling participant in their ritual. Lovecraft Country does exceptionally well at looking at Jim Crow era America through the lens of someone subjugated by it, one where society is dominated by racist ill-intent, and run by a class of prejudicial beasts, made so by their savagery towards their fellow man, and for their complete disconnect from a shared sense of humanity.
From the moment the series starts it commands your attention. Opening with a bonkers dream sequence featuring aliens, monsters and fantasy action heroes, the first episode does well to peak your interest without it ever feeling forced. What the opening episode promises is clearly well defined story, with characters that feel real and interesting, all the while providing a fair dose of monster movie gore, and a dark look at the horrors of racist society.
Despite opening with such promise, the series soon falls apart into a jarring mess of varying ideas. Subsequent episodes in the series jump from genre to genre with little care for any structural focus. Though every episode is a continuation of the main plot, each feels like it's own standalone adventure, placing the gang in situations pulled straight out of the Hollywood playbook. One episode sees protagonists Letitia and Atticus trying to find why the ghosts of mutilated test subjects roam their newly purchased haunted house, and in another episode, they go on a hunt for long lost treasure, which feels like it was ripped straight from Indiana Jones. I should note that what showrunner Misha Green has tried to achieve in this genre hopping is somewhat commendable. Each of these episodes continue to subvert traditional themes and genres where those in the black community have been pushed to the sidelines, by placing the shows black protagonists in the spotlight for a change. Commendable as that may be, the frequent genre hopping leaves the series feeling like a disconnected mess, poorly stitched together by a lacking main plot that struggles to hold itself together.
Arguably the best aspect of the series comes in its performances. Up and comer, Jonathan Majors, delivers an exceptional performance as Atticus Freeman, capturing the complexities of a character who is courageously strong, empathetically compassionate, yet deeply haunted by his traumatic childhood, and the choices he's made as a young man, often leading to him coming into conflict with several other characters; at times, aggressively. Accompanied by fellow rising star Jurnee Smollett, in the role of endearingly strong yet irrevocably vulnerable leading lady Letitia, the pair do a great job of bringing the couple to life, making for some charming and light hearted moments, while engaging you in their every triumph and crippling defeat.
Michael Kenneth Williams as Atticus's father, Montrose, is without a doubt one of the best acting performances in the show. Montrose is a macho man, who beat Atticus as a child as a means of keeping him tough, traumatizing his son in the process. It's later revealed that Montrose suffered the same treatment from his father as a boy, though this was a result of his homosexuality, of which his father evidently disapproved. Montrose battling with his own sexuality, paired with the guilt of how he took that insecurity out on his son, is conveyed masterfully by Williams. The brief moments where he truly feels free to be who he is makes for some of the sweetest moments in the series, and made tragic when he inevitably retreats back into his tough, lonely shell. In a way, Montrose serves as a vessel for the hate propagated by the society he was raised in, one where his experience as both a black and gay man leave him too terrified to live openly and freely.
Atticus says early on that sometimes we have to learn to accept the deep flaws of the work we love along with the good parts - this is what can be said about the series as a whole. Lovecraft Country struggles to match the level of promise it's first episode laid out, with a jarring series of subsequently genre swapped episodes failing to hold onto whatever attention you had left, but with a highly talented cast and innovative take on an increasingly relevant setting, it would be wrong to say it isn't worth a watch. Though if you want to see it through to the end, you're going to have to accept the show for what it is, merits and flaws alike.