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Everything, All the Time: ‘Lovecraft Country’ Has a Huge Storytelling Problem

The HBO series, which wraps up on Sunday, has tried to cram in too much meaning and character motivation. The results are often muddled.

HBO/Ringer illustration

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story is a 2007 faux-biopic comedy starring John C. Reilly as a Johnny Cash–adjacent musician turned creative recluse. The film’s most essential sequence happens when Cox is burnt out, bath-robed, grasping at straws and actual livestock to finish his magnum opus. “I’m hearin’ ... more Aboriginal percussionists. And I want an army of didgeridoos. 50,000 didgeridoos!” The band, tired of being strung along on metaphor and not having any conception of what the finished product could possibly sound like, quits. Why couldn’t they just jam like they used to? Where was all this going? If you needed to assimilate a goat section, wouldn’t you want to know?

In the penultimate episode of Lovecraft Country, after heading to space, and an idealized, besieged cradle of civilization, the gang (Atticus, Montrose, Leti, Hippolyta) does a time heist. Their long and costly search for the Book of Names—a book of spells and incantations that could make you younger, richer, stronger, more powerful, immune to death—has brought them to Tulsa in 1921, where Montrose comes face-to-face with all of his traumas and character motivations, tidy and in good order. Every other character has had theirs; with only Sunday’s finale left after this, it was time for the “Montrose Episode.”

He stands helplessly as: his father beats Young Montrose for posing in the mirror while wearing his brother’s prom jacket, like a “sissy”; his younger self rejects his first love, choosing a long life of denial and repression; and finally as his hometown, his life, is decimated in the Greenwood Massacre. Through a window up above the smoldering main drag, he tearfully recalls the names of the slain: “Dr. Jackson, best Negro surgeon in all America. Shot in the face! Mrs. Rodgers lost her invalid daughter … Commodore Knox. They did him in the worst.” I’ve enjoyed Michael K. Williams’s ability to make Montrose’s presence this season both splintery and big enough to fill a room—the way his furled brow turns slightly upward with concern, the way he strains to raise his voice, the remorse he hides in everything. The bright orange glow of the flames reveals the full contortion of his face, which is pulled in a few different directions: disgust, sorrow, exhaustion, fear. Watching it I was moved, but I wasn’t sure where: If Williams wins an Emmy, then surely that was the showrunners’ primary goal. If he isn’t rewarded for his performance this season, it may be the biggest casualty of Lovecraft Country’s writing: Like many scenes and arcs in the show, this one felt abrupt, commercially “powerful,” and overly emphasized. Why did he get this solo?

Jordan Peele’s second directorial outing, Us, spent so much time meticulously tracing a class allegory and building away from a climax that he felt he needed to explain the movie’s existence in the final act with a monologue. Lovecraft, which Peele produced, suffers from the same expository problem. In order to allow the show to do all of the many things it wants to do, characters constantly have to explain why they’re here, doing what they’re doing. This specificity, however, also shatters the veneer of 1921 Tulsa, of a complicated father-son relationship, and again I’m watching a TV show that gives me homework and checks my answers: After all of the beatings Montrose handed out to “toughen” his son up, and the fraught, clandestine, loveless relationship he maintains with a bar owner named Sammy, we have confirmation that, yes, Montrose’s freedom of self-expression was just “one of many sacrifices he made” to be Atticus’s father. Considering the Ballad of Ji-Ah the Kumiho in “Meet Me in Daegu” and Hippolyta’s (Aunjanue Ellis) galaxy-traveling journey toward self-actualization and godhood (?) in “I Am,” coherence is a sacrifice Lovecraft was eager to make to be weird and deep, but the show’s weird and deep feels effortful, cacophonous, and thus wasteful. I’ll explain with a brief summary of last week’s episode, “Jig-a-Bobo”:

Diana (Jada Harris), Hippolyta’s daughter, is in thrall to a curse that was spit onto her by a cop. The spit-curse intimidates Diana, a young black girl, into silence; that silence is maintained by two Golliwog-like phantoms that seemingly appear out of the cover of a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that was sitting on a bathroom shelf and chase her all over the South Side of Chicago; phantoms that only she can see, and thus, cannot prove the existence of. When she’s inevitably bitten by this unnamed evil she falls gravely ill, but none of the adults know what’s going on, and figure the Book of Names can fix it, but the known location of the Book is in the past, hence the time heist.

Later that same episode, Christina Braithwhite (Abbey Lee Kershaw) is lynched the same way, down to the barbed wire noose attached to the cotton gin, that Emmett Till was. She survives because of an invincibility spell.

Being that Lovecraft explores segregated America through witchcraft, ancient legend, and eldritch horror, some of this crampedness and confusion is unavoidable. But how much of it is necessary? An actual, frantic note I took while catching up on the show over the long weekend: “TOO MANY THINGS MEAN STUFF.” The result of weirdness being forced: Characters have too many motivations. Pained expressions could be filled with too much meaning. The finale has too many scattered arcs and Easter eggs to pay off, and the show has even more skeletons. During a recent Twitter Q&A, showrunner and series creator Misha Green apologized for failing to do anything of substance with Yahima, an indiginous Two-Spirit character that showed up, briefly relied on Atticus for translation, and then was killed by Montrose at the end of Episode 4, “A History of Violence”; another one of his sacrifices.

By contrast, a show based on a book which explores race theory through melodrama, whose weirdness isn’t so effortful or wasteful, is The Good Lord Bird. The Jason Blum–produced Showtime miniseries shares its title with the award-winning novel by James McBride: The story is told from the perspective of Henry “Little Onion” Schackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson), a newly freed slave who follows abolitionist John Brown (Ethan Hawke) on his gory, holy, and slapstick crusade to end slavery. Johnson assumes the role of an unreliable narrator, and Hawke plays Brown to foreordained, quixotic, liver-spotted perfection. Like Lovecraft, Good Lord takes big, imaginative swings; unlike Lovecraft, they’re confident cuts. Unlike Lovecraft, it jams.

Thus far in Good Lord, Onion has spent as much time off of that crusade as he has on it: In the second episode he ends up at a brothel which also has a pen of slaves for menial household tasks and potential sale. One of those slaves is Sibonia, who may get about 15 minutes of screen time in all: She first appears to be touched in the head, but we soon learn that it’s only to throw the townspeople off the scent of a long-gestating plot of insurrection. Before the episode is finished, Sibonia gets her literal day in court: When she refuses to give up her co-conspirators, the white townspeople bring in the visiting pastor who taught Sibonia how to read, in an attempt to soften her resolve. After quoting scripture and expressing her gratitude to the pastor and his loving wife for their generosity, Sibonia says that if her plan had succeeded she’d have killed them first, just to show that she meant business. When she’s stood on the gallows to be executed later that day, she takes a running jump off the front and hangs herself first. It’s such a statement death to give to a minor character, whom we just met. These are choices; ones that take on a fun meta-significance if you imagine Crystal Lee Brown, who plays Sibonia, made them of her own accord.

Like many scenes so far in the show, Sibonia’s death is sudden, unexpectedly lingering, and emphasized just enough to allow John Brown and his free-state immortals to get the drop on some slavers. Now that was a solo that made sense.