Before it even premiered in August, HBO’s Lovecraft Country promised to be ambitious — in its process if not its story. The series is based on a 2016 novel by a White author (Matt Ruff), set in the Jim Crow era, riffing on the language and tropes of horror writer and noted racist H.P. Lovecraft, now in the hands of Black creators (Underground’s Misha Green as showrunner, with Jordan Peele executive-producing). Even in the adaptation-happy streaming era, that’s a lot of adapting.
The result wrapped on Sunday with a frenetic, scatterbrained finale reflecting a roller-coaster season that jostled viewers’ sensibilities by the hour. The show’s main squad — Atticus (Tic), Leti, Ruby, George, Hippolyta, and Dee — began their adventures in 1950s Chicago with the singular mission of rescuing Tic’s father, Montrose, from a White magical order in the Massachusetts boondocks. Along the way, the crew exorcises White demons, destroys White nationalists’ property, and magically turns the city of Chicago and a host of other realms inside out.
In her pitch to the network, Green insisted that the show would not be horror, sci-fi, or shapeshifting pulp fantasy — all hallmarks of the book, an anthology-like series of stories — but instead one she’d approach by “wondering what it can’t be.” Suggesting, that is, that it could be at once every one of those things and also even more. It’s an admirable charge, one that harkens back to the visual and philosophical feast of the network’s other recent Black adaptation project, last year’s Watchmen. Yet, what it says about Black mainstream art as spectacle, the minefield of cross-racial/sexual/generational adaptation, and the limits of Black symbolism for the sake of being “Buhlack Art” left us unfulfilled — especially after the promise of its early episodes.
The show’s ability to leap from period drama to theme-park ride to time-travel odyssey was one of its most refreshing quirks. But those leaps came at a cost; at times, the ever-increasing need for spectacle flattened the storytelling. As the debut season progressed, Lovecraft grew increasingly polarizing, raising questions about its intent, its connection to its source material, and its care for characters. In an effort to examine some of my own delights and grievances, I decided to revisit the season as a whole, in order to weigh whether it conveyed its main themes and motifs efficiently — and hopefully to answer the crucial question for any piece of Black art: Does it actually care about Black people?
For all of season one’s multidirectional loose ends, Lovecraft Country’s ability to create an all-encompassing universe remains its most compelling selling point. Costume designer Dayna Pink has described the spirit of the show as a stew of timeliness and nostalgia, which seeps into the sartorial decisions. “We wanted everybody to look fantastic,” Pink told Elle. “Just because they don’t have money doesn’t mean they don’t look great.” Early episodes showcase a ravishing vision of our lead characters, from Tic’s mid-century casual wear to Leti’s delicious red-striped petticoat.
The themes and aesthetics gel nicely, offering opportunities for small subversions of expectations. The world of Lovecraft Country is influenced by both the struggles of working-class Black people of the era and the fantastically vivid depiction of Whiteness as a particular kind of monstrosity. But part of this show’s premise, whether showcasing White violence or celebrating Black rebellion, is baked into the fashion. Regardless of what goes on outside, these characters manifested their autonomy, their ways of being, and their eye for flash through Pink’s considered decision-making.
In the debut episode, Ruby sings at a concert in fabrics that aren’t perfectly fitted, which suggests financial instability. But the high quality of the textures themselves — a shining cerulean dress — proves she’s not one to be shaken all too easily. She never looks out of touch, even next to Leti’s lithe, eye-popping reds. The costumes work to explain their characters: Ruby as steadfast if underserved by the outside world, Leti as a silver-spooned hustler.
The worlds of Lovecraft Country become more layered as the season continues. We start in Chicago, road-trip to Devon County, Massachusetts, and battle with black-magic police; we catch up on Tic’s story in war-torn Korea as he tallies up the kill count during his military stint; we jump across hundreds of years, through histories real and imagined, as Hippolyta remembers who she is and has been. Each of these settings presents an opportunity for writers to tell a singular story in an episode’s hour. Hippolyta’s arc feels compelling partly because she felt like a throwaway character early on but also because her time travel finally takes her outside the vast shadow of her late husband, George — and provides a moral center absent in the other arcs.
In an age of stifling, supranatural White supremacy, what does Lovecraft Country view as Black desire? The show’s pulpy guts are most vividly exposed in acts of retribution: Leti going full Jazmine Sullivan on neighborhood racists’ car windows; the cross-generational exorcism of the racist ghost of Hiram Epstein; Ruby’s graphic sexual assault of Paul in episode five. The last of those attempts to get at some of the violent impulses oppressed people carry against their oppressors but doesn’t do anything radical with the anger. It’s a direct attack on maleness, yes, but through a single individual — and in a manner that is remarkably homophobic in its execution.
The sanitization of onscreen Black heroism has made it impossible for protagonists to carry out proper exchange when murderous White people terrorize a film’s runtime; even Black Panther just couldn’t kill the sucker who offed his dad. Lovecraft Country the book and Lovecraft Country the 10-hour cinematic experience part ways at that crossroads. The former isn’t about vengeance but about survival. Those characters aren’t doing much in the way of killing, instead living through circumstances and situations and finding victory in doing so. If their enemies die, there is no mourning — but there’s no glory either. Violence is not revenge but a grasp for freedom.
In Misha Green’s vision for HBO, Black folks rebelling against Whiteness renders us agents of oppression as well: against skin color, against queerness, and in protection of the Black nuclear family.
Divergence from the source material
The creators of HBO’s Lovecraft Country make some curious choices regarding where to veer from the book’s plotline. The more well-received moments tend to stick closely to the source material: Leti vandalizing cars belonging to racists, an at-home exorcism, and Hippolyta becoming more than human. Then there are the changes — many of which leave me wondering about their motivations. A quick, noncomprehensive rundown of ways the show differs from the book and their implications:
- The book’s Caleb Braithwaite becomes Christina Braithwaite. Gender-swapping the book’s embodiment of racism makes Christina damn near an ambassador for second-wave feminism. Her lynching in the show never takes place in the book.
- Leti is shot, not Montrose. This establishes her as a sympathetic character early on and furthers Montrose as a murkier character.
- George is killed. This makes way for Hippolyta’s story to shine through as a tale of finding both victory and selfhood through mourning.
- Montrose isn’t queer. Honestly, given the result, maybe they should’ve kept it that way.
- Montrose kills Yahima. This indulgence leaves more questions than answers.
- Ruby rapes Paul with her stiletto heel. While screaming about being a “nigger bitch”? Matt Ruff would never. In fact, this entire storyline — Ruby hating on Black women while living as a White woman whose only goal is to work at a department store — doesn’t even occur in the book.
When you examine each of these aspects, a throughline emerges: questionable choices in heroism and sexuality. These creative decisions play like superficial, pseudointellectual readings of revolutionary Black art as both vindictive and family first. Neither model seems to be as radical as the sci-fi/horror genre jam that Lovecraft Country’s marketing dressed it as.
However Black it might have seemed in its opening moments — interpolated Gil Scott-Heron and Sonia Sanchez poems and all — by season’s end, it’s clear that the show doesn’t give two shits about its Black characters. Instead, it continues a long tradition of on-screen Black trauma bonding. Wasn’t this show supposed to be doing things that have never been done? In order to do that, Lovecraft Country needed a foundational love for its characters and their many intersections. Everything that comes in lieu of that love works against it.
Lovecraft Country’s handling of sexuality throughout shows how little the show actually cares about its characters. Any exploration is thwarted by exploitation, with queer characters receiving little but loveless violence. A historical setting doesn’t necessitate bringing the mores of the past into the present, yet queer sexuality in Lovecraft Country almost always devolves into antiquated notions of Blackness and patriarchy.
Montrose, for example, is painted as a tyrant of a parent whose vicious handling of Atticus as a kid not only mirrors his own childhood — wherein his father tried to beat the gay outta him — but is perpetuated by his son’s own homophobic dismissal of him. In episode five, “Strange Case,” Montrose uses his own saliva for lubrication before having frustrated, visibly unenjoyable sex with a partner as Frank Ocean’s “Bad Religion” hamfistedly plays in the background. It’s hard not to see this as a purely pessimist depiction of Black lovability.
Montrose’s storyline and drain-circling development, including his wanton killing of two-spirit siren Yahima and his stunted sexual expression, do nothing to redeem him in the eyes of an audience that includes actual Black queer people. Instead, we get a well-trod backstory of sexual repression faced by Black men. Episode nine, “Rewind 1921,” spells out the abusive history of Montrose’s pain but fails to convince us these are traumas he couldn’t have dealt with in the 30 years he’s lived outside of his father’s home. We know that Montrose wasn’t loved in fullness growing up, and, even now, the show continues this practice of non-love with him reinscribing his own father’s violence on Tic’s heart and Yahima’s flesh. All for the cause of some semblance of kin?
Can Black queer persons be loved? Can they be cared for? Lovecraft Country suggests they’re merely a device to strengthen the ties of kinship, revealing its elevation of the nuclear family above all else.
Whatever lesson the show teaches through Montrose — that we cut ourselves into pieces when we believe blindly in the myth of the nuclear family — it continues with Ruby, who uses her queerness for access to Whiteness to keep her own nuclear family safe. She initiates sexual contact with Christina (who was notably not shapeshifted into William). Does she want to have sex with the Aryan caricature? Probably. But that’s obscured by the plotting: The sole narrative aim is to steal Christina’s blood in order to save Leti, Tic, and the others. Worst of all, she meets her fate off-screen, a move that amounts to little more than the writer’s room shrugging and telling audiences to figure it out. Ruby’s road to martyrdom feels both unnecessary and unearned; not once does the show treat her as a person before killing her. She is an object of story, nothing more. And it’s impossible to love an object as a person.
An unfortunate truth of Lovecraft Country’s first season is its many opportunities to convey radical Black love — only to fall back time and time again on violent, nihilist conventions that leave us shocked but otherwise empty. That’s made all the harder when juxtaposed against Ruff’s choices in the novel, which, more often than not, displayed genuine care for his characters.
But that really lays bare the tensions here. Lovecraft Country’s great promise was that it was both adaptation and reclamation — not just from Lovecraft himself, taking horror back from the racist who formed so many of its tropes, but giving a story of Black life over to Black creators. And with Watchmen in the rearview and other White-created, Black-adapted projects on the way — including Nia DaCosta’s Candyman sequel coming next year — it’s fair to question whether this “Black love” trap is inevitable. As big as these budgets are, as glossy and ostensibly Black as these shows end up being, are adaptations able to create something truly original, or do they necessarily uphold the (White, patriarchal) structure that first conceived it? As more racially and sexually transmogrified big art becomes commonplace, these questions are going to keep getting answered. Whether we like the answers is another question entirely.