[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Lovecraft Country, Season 1, Episode 1, “Sundown.”]
The season premiere of Lovecraft Country couldn’t have come at a better time. In a year marked by vehement public outcries against the entrenched, racist systems which uphold every aspect of American life with a life-changing election on the horizon, the newest HBO series from creator Misha Green (Underground) and executive producer Jordan Peele (Get Out) is here to entertain and confront in equal measure. Adapted from Matt Ruff‘s 2017 novel of the same name, Lovecraft Country serves up a potent concoction of sci-fi, horror, and some not-so-distant American history which makes it all the more timely and engrossing. In Episode 1, “Sundown,” we meet our heroes and the many forms of monsters they will encounter on their quest, some human and some, well, not-so-human.
Lovecraft Country‘s story begins in the middle of a dream. American soldier Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) fights his way through the trenches during a brutal battle, one of many fought during the Korean War. A voiceover narrates for us, instructing that “this is the story of a boy and his dream. But more than that, this is the story of an American boy in a dream that is truly American.” (Lovecraft Country‘s thesis is now writ.) A red-skinned woman (Jamie Chung) descends from a flying saucer and robots and squid-like creatures populate the battlefield. She touches down, embraces Atticus, and, as a creature emerges ready to strike them dead, a bat cleaves it in two. Jackie Robinson steps forward, Dodgers uniform covered in green goo with fireworks erupting behind him. Are you paying attention?
We snap back to the harsh light of day in the 1950s, where our hero sleeps in the back of a segregated bus. It’s the first of numerous reminders we’ll get this episode about the endemic racism accepted by all. As the bus rattles out of the godforsaken south, Atticus opts for flipping the bird at the “Welcome to Kentucky” sign on the side of the road, a small move of rebellion I co-sign. An unexpected bus breakdown leaves the passengers stranded. Atticus and another Black passenger opt to walk rather than take the alternate travel sourced by the bus driver — a pick-up truck owned by a local white man — since it’s clear from a few sideways but meaningful glances the pair would not be welcome. It’s at this point you should start putting yourself on high alert. Lovecraft Country might play some moments for subtlety, but it’s not going to let you, the viewer, relax when there are life-changing racist encounters around every turn. As the pair walks, Atticus tells his companion he’s heading home to Chicago after receiving an odd letter from his father, Montrose (Michael K. Williams). He’s also asked about the book he’s reading, A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Atticus, a bookworm at heart, is excited to share his passion but is met with skepticism as he tries to defend former Confederate soldier John Carter. You don’t just give people a pass, fictional character or not, when they’ve done oppressive work toward Black communities.
Cut to the South Side of Chicago. George Freeman (Courtney B. Vance) and his wife, Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis), make quick work turning business talk —the couple is in the midst of assembling a travel guide for Black Americans (recalling the actual Green Book used by Black travelers for 30 years) — into some very sexy body talk. I mean, when you have Courtney B. Vance whispering sweet nothings in your ear, all you can do is relent, right? As we move out to the rest of the Freeman apartment, we see the family keeps portraits hung on the walls, a way of honoring the generations of Freemans who’ve gone before them. We also meet George and Hippolyta’s daughter, the whipsmart Diana “Dee” Freeman (Jada Harris), who is busy illustrating her newest comic when she overhears her parents. As she relocates to the kitchen, she’s surprised by her cousin Atticus.
George and Atticus meet in George’s makeshift travel guide office. Technically a desk, a table, and a few metal shelves packed to the gills with pulpy novels, it shares its space with an auto-repair shop. It’s at this point Atticus reveals the specifics of the letter: Montrose believes he’s finally found answers about his late wife’s (Atticus’ mother) ancestors and that Atticus has a “secret birthright” he is owed. Montrose indicates he’s gone looking for those answers in what Atticus refers to as “Lovecraft Country,” what he believes is Arkham, Mass. (as in Arkham House, the imprint for published Lovecraft works). George quickly disabuses him of the connection, correcting to “Ardham” after decoding Montrose’s messy script.
A brief check into Montrose’s favorite watering hole reveals a few days before Atticus’ return, the younger Freeman brother went willingly with a white, well-dressed man in a top-of-the-line car. As day turns into night, a block party kicks up as South Side residents take to the street and we meet Leticia “Leti” Lewis’ (Jurnee Smollett) and Leti’s older sister, Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku). Ruby is a natural performer, taking a page out of Sister Rosetta Tharpe‘s playbook as she makes quick work of a few songs.
Back to Atticus as he and George reconvene. Atticus thumbs through an atlas featuring Dee’s drawings, which include symbols indicating Klan haunts, safe havens for Black travelers, and beyond, a clever visual twist which should tell you Dee observes far more than she lets on — and she is very clear-eyed about the world she lives in. The pair resolve to go Ardham together in search of the missing Montrose. Atticus returns home, hoping to find clues in the Alexandre Dumas novels Montrose loves. Instead, he finds his father’s gun, which will come in handy later, and makes a call to Ji-ah (also played by Chung), who tells him he never should have left Korea.
In the morning, Atticus finds Leti packing her things into George’s car, hoping to hitch a ride. Time has separated these two childhood friends, but the comfort and care is still there, under the surface. The trio gets on the road as Lovecraft Country takes us into the heart of a divided America sitting in plain view, with James Baldwin‘s non-diegetic narration the only soundtrack offered. The genius of the montage lies in what is not said. A pit stop for ice cream focuses not on George, Atticus, and Leti, but rather on a Black father and his children trying to not look too visibly impatient as they wait to be served while the white waitresses are engrossed in conversation. When the trio stops for a bathroom break, the exit through the “Colored” entrance, just another daily indignity to be endured in a world that consistently others them. As our trio drives off into the night, they pass a sign with a warning about sundown towns in the area with no ostensible scruples from the signmaker in addressing Black Americans by the racist slur. Monsters are everywhere and not all of them have tentacles or man flying saucers.
A pit stop in the whiter-than-white small town of Simmonsville kicks off the biggest setpiece of the premiere. After a road trip spent eschewing hot meals in an effort to not linger too long in one place, the trio decides to make a stop based on George’s recommendation. The dinette George suggests now has a different sign out front and, when the group goes in to sit, discovers it’s now under white ownership, not Black as George had assured. A curious twist, but George shrugs it off. So what if it’s under new management? They have every right to sit down and get a hot meal, he argues. George peruses the menu and Atticus looks around the interior, the whitewashed walls suddenly clicking something into place.
“Uncle George,” Atticus asks, “remind me why the White House is white?”
As George begins to reply, it dawns on him: The dinette didn’t just peacefully change ownership. The previous Black owners were run out of town (or possibly worse) and their business burned to the ground. As Atticus confirms evidence of the cover-up by sliding a floor tile back, Leti rushes out from the back. It’s time to go, the cavalry’s been called. A heated car chase out of Simmonsville with Leti at the wheel provides an opportunity for Atticus to see a sleek silver car pull out of nowhere, magically inserting itself between the Freemans’ car and the Simmonsville horde, crushing the latter’s car mysteriously. Enter a young woman (Abbey Lee), who gets out and watches them drive off.
George, Leti, and Atticus make it to Leti’s brother’s, Marvin (Demetrius Grosse), house. Marvin has access to records about Ardham and a neighboring town, Byddeford. George points out that there are no safe places for them to stop should any trouble arise (take note, take note…). Marvin also educates them on Byddeford’s local sheriff, Eustace Hunt (Jamie Harris), a nasty piece of work who takes no pains to infuse his police work with the requisite overt racism. Family wounds erupt both inside and outside of Marvin’s home that night. As Marvin and Leti fight, George and Atticus hash out some of their own. Atticus tells his uncle about the last time he was with Montrose, the men getting into a physical fight over Atticus enlisting in the army. Lovecraft Country‘s interest in pulling back the curtain on the kinds of generational pain families carry with them seems to be a thread worth tracking, starting with this exchange between uncle and nephew. It’s clear there is more to Montrose and Atticus’ final encounter than Atticus lets on, although it’s understandable why Montrose would have strong reservations about his son enlisting to serve in a war commanded by high-ranking white men.
In the final act, George, Leti, and Atticus make the final push to Ardham. They quickly get lost in the woods between Ardham and Byddeford, stopping on the side of the road to figure out what to do. Naturally, the mention of Sheriff Hunt just a few scenes back means this pasty asshole is going to show up right now and, right on schedule, Hunt appears. A tense exchange between the trio and Hunt, who reveals the entire county is a sundown county, leads to Atticus driving as quickly as possible to get out. They make it just in the nick of time, only to be arrested by Hunt’s men on the other side of the county line and led into the woods. Before Hunt or his deputies resort to violence, a mysterious creature leaps out to attack, taking off the arm of a deputy and sending the group scattering. Atticus, George, and Leti take shelter in an abandoned cabin with Hunt and one of the deputies. Leti resolves to make a run for the car and, in that time, a monster bite sustained by Hunt transforms him into one of the monsters.
George, Leti, and Atticus manage to make it out of the woods in the more, bloodied but in one piece. They make their way into Ardham and up to a sprawling mansion. At the front door, they’re met by a young man, who welcomes them and leave the group thoroughly confused.
As the credits roll on Episode 1, “Sundown,” I can’t contain my excitement for this season. I am invested in the well-being Atticus, Leti, George on a real level. (Side note: 2020 is the year of Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett, praise be!) The show doesn’t hold back in its depiction of Jim Crow-era America, and while it might be cringe-inducing for some viewers, it’s downright necessary to the story; I would say the episode is stronger for not dodging around the issue about and getting right to the point. Lovecraft Country makes great use of pouring tension into moments where we can suspect the worst-case scenario. You know in your gut what’s going to happen the second Atticus connects the dots at the Simmonsville dinette or when the trio tries to get the hell out of the county before sundown. The show is already playing on your dread because you know the broad strokes of history; one wrong move and our heroes are screwed. With all this in mind, I still have some mixed feelings about the sudden transition from, “White people are monsters,” into “Oh shit, there are actual monsters,” but hopefully Lovecraft Country can artfully circle that square in Episode 2.
New episodes of Lovecraft Country will air on HBO every Sunday at 9/8c. For more on the season premiere, here’s our breakdown of the episode’s opening sequence.
Allie Gemmill is the Weekend Contributing Editor for Collider. You can follow them on Twitter @_matineeidle.