A review of “Sundown,” the series premiere of HBO’s Lovecraft Country (which I reviewed earlier this month), coming up just as soon as my life is saved by Jackie Robinson…
“I love that the heroes get to go on adventures in other worlds, defy insurmaountable odds, defeat the monster, save the day.” -Tic
A television show doesn’t have to lay out its themes, style and/or influences in its opening scene, but it never hurts. Think about Jimmy McNulty hearing the sad tale of Snot Boogie at the start of The Wire, or Walter White’s pants floating through the air to kick off Breaking Bad, or Fleabag talking to us throughout her booty call with Arsehole Guy. Those scenes certainly didn’t introduce every character or plot point, but they more or less laid out the kind of series you’d be watching.
The Lovecraft Country pilot, written by Misha Green and directed by Yann Demange, opens with a scene on a far grander scale than any of those, but it still gives you the show in a nutshell. The picture is black and white, and we are at war, as a unit of African American soldiers battle it out in the trenches with their North Korean opponents. As the combat intensifies, we hear the sound of old-timey movie narration, and audio clips of scenes of a black man enduring racist insults. These are passages from 1950’s The Jackie Robinson Story — in which Major League Baseball’s first black player was cast as himself, opposite Ruby Dee as his wife — and their inclusion will make sense in a few moments. First, though, an explosion brings color to the screen, like out of an ultraviolent remake of The Wizard of Oz scene where Dorothy opens the door to Munchkin-Land. Now our military movie is a science-fiction movie, with flying saucers and War of the Worlds-style tripods filling the screen. A beautiful alien woman with dark red skin descends from one of the saucers and hugs our hero, right before they are threatened by an enormous winged monster, which is promptly split in two by…
Jackie Robinson himself, his trusty Louisville Slugger covered in green alien blood?!?!?!
Suddenly, our hero, Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors from Da 5 Bloods) wakes up from an absurd nightmare into a far more ubiquitous one: He is a black man in mid-Fifties America, sitting in the back of a segregated bus headed north from Kentucky.
And that is how you make an entrance, ladies and germs.
It’s all right there in that wonderfully wild opening. Lovecraft Country will blur boundaries between eras, genres, and subjects. Tic’s very real service in Korea is transformed into a vision from his beloved pulps. But unlike the tales from his favorite — and extremely racist — author H.P. Lovecraft, this is a version where black men get to be the protagonists, and where Number 42 himself is an outright superhero. If outfielder Enos Slaughter’s raised spikes or manager Ben Chapman’s vicious taunts couldn’t stop Jackie from conquering the Big Leagues, then what hope does a winged monster from outer space possibly have? And in the cut from fantasy to reality, we are quickly reminded that real-life monsters — even low-level ones, like the truck driver who doesn’t want Tic and a fellow black passenger riding in the back of his pickup after their bus breaks down — are often far worse, or at least far tougher to conquer, then the imaginary kind.
It’s a contrast of which “Sundown” remains conscious throughout, as Tic reunites in Chicago with his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and old friend Leti Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) to go off in search of his missing father Montrose (longtime HBO all-star Michael Kenneth Williams, glimpsed in family photos).
Tic’s stay in the city with George, Aunt Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis) and their young daughter Diana (Jada Black) is a relatively peaceful, even fun one. There’s time for him to open the fire hydrant at a block party and enjoy watching Leti and her sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) inject a bit of extra soul into their live performance of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” He gets an unglamorous picture of Montrose’s life when he visits his father’s favorite watering hole to ask after him. But the city has a vibrant, relatively protected black community. It’s a haven compared to what the trio encounter on the road to Ardham, the remote Massachusetts community to which Montrose has apparently journeyed.
The Chicago scenes, and the characters we meet there, feel warm and fully realized. There are tensions between the sisters, and anxiety between George and Hippolyta about her desire to join him on the road to help research the guide book he writes for black travelers. We get a strong sense of the Freemans as a literarily-inclined family. Both Montrose’s tiny apartment and the garage that George runs are full of books, and among the sources of tension between Montrose and Tic, we learn, is Tic’s fondness for Lovecraft, even as Montrose pointed out the disgusting, racist language the man employed in his work. Diana writes and lavishly draws her own line of comic books with black heroes and heroines that the others gladly bring to read on the trip.
But once the group piles into George’s ancient, seemingly invulnerable old woody wagon (nicknamed, of course, Woody), they are no longer in the familiar embrace of the neighborhood, but out in the ugly, segregated reality of America at that time, when the deck is stacked against them and danger lurks in seemingly innocuous places, like Main Street diners and old country roads. And as the familiar violence of this racist world mounts, a more unsettling, supernatural blend starts to meld with it.
The beginning of the trip is one of the pilot’s masterstrokes. Visually, it’s constructed like a traditional montage meant to compress the relatively uneventful part of a long odyssey into a few lively minutes. Ordinarily, though, such a sequence would be accompanied by a song, perhaps something upbeat and period-appropriate. The pilot has already broken the laws of time by playing “Clones” by Tierra Whack as we see Tic explore the old neighborhood, though other songs like “Whole Lotta Shakin’” and Sarah Vaughan’s “September Song” (which Tic plays on Montrose’s phonograph) are era-specific. The montage, though, eschews music altogether and is instead paired with a monologue: James Baldwin’s opening remarks from his famous 1965 debate with public conservative William F. Buckley. (The passage excerpted starts around here.) It is, like “Clones,” a moment out of time, but one that so clearly speaks to the images on display on this voyage: of the separate line for black people at the snack bar or the movie theater, of a sign threatening travelers like the Freemans not to be found after the sun goes down (foreshadowing the episode’s climax), of the racist pump jockey comparing Tic to a monkey (with a smiling Aunt Jemima billboard in the background), of the long line of weary black working folk waiting for the morning bus in front of a billboard featuring a smiling white family who of course have their own car (“There’s no way like the American way,” the sign boasts). This is the “separate but equal” America through which Tic and his loved ones must try to find their way, and the stark reality of those images, combined with the coolly determined rhetoric of Baldwin, work beautifully together to lay a foundation for all the wildness that’s to come. The surreal parts of the series work because an unmistakable baseline reality has been established first.
The car chase in Simmonsville — kicked off when Tic and Leti realize the diner they’re in had its previous black management driven out through violence, much like what’s about to be applied to them — is the warm-up act. It’s crisply shot and edited, and scary, but the supernatural element doesn’t really kick in until the very end, when their lives are saved by the intercession of a silver Bentley, driven by an intensely blonde woman (played by Australian actress Abbey Lee), that somehow has the power to force the racists’ truck to flip over while the Bentley itself, which should have been T-boned, is unharmed. (It’s as indestructible as George claims Woody is, though Woody will acquit itself very well in a bit.)
It’s the much slower chase which gives the episode its title that’s actually the hour’s most terrifying sequence — yes, even more than the shoggoth attack that follows it. Lost on a backwoods highway en route to their destination, the group has pulled over to study the map (and for Tic to relieve himself) when an infamously racist sheriff pulls up and points out that they’re in a sundown county, where their very presence after sunset would make them subject to arrest — and, almost certainly, something far worse. (Like so many of the awful things depicted in the series, sundown towns and counties were a very real thing in our not-too-distant past.) They only have seven minutes to clear the county line, and, to make matters even more fun for him and terrifying for them, he promises to follow them the whole way and arrest them if they go above the speed limit. Where Lovecraft Country has already played around a bit with time and space, Tic doesn’t have that luxury, and so they have to drive away, inch by agonizing inch, bound by the laws of physics on top of the threat of the vigilante-style lawman who is riding their tail — and, eventually, bumping into it, just for extra kicks. And, of course, the entire game is rigged, because even when they barely cross the border in time, they’re arrested by the cops on the other side, who’ve been alerted by their racist brother in arms.
When the shoggoths — undead creatures introduced in Lovecraft’s fiction, and part of his larger Cthulu Mythos — burst out of the trees and attack the cops, it’s almost a relief. Both monsters are the type that the Freemans and Leti recognize. But where our heroes are utterly powerless against the cops on a mortal playing field, on the supernatural one, they figure out that light (whether Woody’s headlights or the flashbulb from Leti’s camera) can drive away these white, ravenous beasts. They are terrorized by the shoggoths, but also saved by them, and the boundary between the two kinds of monsters vanishes when one of the cops transforms into a shoggoth after being bitten.
It’s a thrilling sequence, more cathartic than either of the car chases, because Tic and Leti and George get to be more active in saving themselves. And it brings the premiere to a suitably unnerving close, as our travelers appear to find their destination: the Ardham Lodge, a hulking Gothic structure, where they are greeted by a man (Jordan Patrick Smith) so white and blonde, he might as well be the twin of the woman from the silver Bentley — which is conveniently parked out front. Letters Montrose left behind had suggested he was on the trail of their family history. The man at the door is happy to address Tic directly, saying, “We’ve been expecting you, Mr. Freeman. Welcome home.”
Best of luck, Mr. Freeman. Nothing about this situation looks good.
Some other thoughts:
* This week’s songs included: excerpts from the soundtrack to The Jackie Robinson Story, by Herschel Burke Gilbert; “Sh-Boom,” by The Crew-Cuts; “I Just Want To Make Love To You,” by Etta James; “Clones,” by Tierra Whack; “Alley Corn,” by Earl Hooker; “September Song,” by Sarah Vaughan; “You Upset Me Baby,” by B.B. King; “Recipe For Happiness,” by Jimmy Self; “Cobb’s Corner,” by Arnett Cobb; and Alice Smith’s cover of “Sinnerman.”
* Meanwhile, that was really Wunmi Mosaku and Jurnee Smollett singing “Whole Lotta Shakin’” together. Mosaku sang in the Manchester Girl’s Choir for years, while Smollett comes from a family with musical talent, and she also sang as Black Canary in Birds of Prey. There’s clear tension between Leti and both her siblings over her absence in the aftermath of their mother’s death — among other things — but the sisters definitely tore through that number at the block party.
* Montrose, meanwhile, looms large even in his absence. He’s the reason for the road trip, and also a difficult figure from Tic’s past. George tries to defend his little brother by acknowledging that Montrose is part of a cycle of generational abuse, which only makes Tic resent the fact that George did nothing to protect him when he was on the receiving end of Montrose’s fury.
* I confess to knowing precious little about Howard Phillips Lovecraft himself, but his name and work has had a recurring presence on HBO for a long time. There was the 1991 HBO movie Cast a Deadly Spell, a mix of film noir and supernatural horror with Fred Ward as a private dick named Harry Philip Lovecraft. And the first season of True Detective referenced Lovecraft so often that many viewers were disappointed the mystery had an all-too-human villain at the center. Knowledge of his life and work isn’t essential to appreciating this show, but if you want to know more — particularly about Lovecraft’s white supremacist leanings — you can start here and here (the second one with a bonus appearance by Matt Ruff, author of the Lovecraft Country novel, which I also haven’t read).
* Finally, we’ll be recapping each episode of the series like this. The show has strong serialized elements, while also being very much in the Buffy or X-Files tradition of mixing Monster of the Week stories in with the bigger questions. So there will be lots to talk about on both a macro and micro level. Buckle up.