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‘Lovecraft Country’ Was Undeniably Flawed. Maybe That’s the Point.

In its first season, the show often drowned out its most interesting points with heavy-handed plotting, but the expectation to be perfect is unfair to begin with, and one that most shows aren’t burdened by

HBO/Ringer illustration

“This is a beginning, not an end,” Tic’s mother, Dora, reminds us at the onset of “Full Circle,” the season—and perhaps series—finale of HBO’s Lovecraft Country.

A slew of dialogue populates the episode. Some of it foreshadows a world to come. Mostly it is froth. There’s one of the more cringeworthy conversations in the show’s brief history, in the Freeman family kitchen, when Tic lists, in bullet-point form, all of the noteworthy adventures the gang has been through together. In a failed attempt to imbue the moment with added significance, the scene ends up unveiling the very degree to which it lacks meaning. There’s the last real conversation between Ruby and Leti, midway through the episode, in which Ruby refuses to steal a vial of blood from Christina Braithwhite, saying that Leti’s request is another example of the transactional nature of their relationship. Her reticence would make sense ... except for the fact that Leti is simply asking her sister to help save the life of her unborn child’s father. Ruby eventually changes her mind, but is caught and killed by Christina in a scene depicted only in a brief flashback. It is not a fitting send-off.

Nestled in the muck of all these interactions are attempts at important points about colorism and family and other weighty themes, but it all gets bogged down by heavy-handedness and miscalculation. The conclusion of “Full Circle” should be a testament to Dora’s words: Tic is dead but his people have harnessed their magic; out of the ashes of the old order something new, something better, is born. But by the episode’s end, I couldn’t help but wonder why I stuck around to see it in the first place.

Lovecraft Country has always been unabashed in its commitment to blending historical fiction, magical realism, and melodrama. Showrunner Misha Green broke into the mainstream with her work on the WGN America drama Underground, which followed the lives of seven enslaved people and their attempted escape to freedom. Much like Lovecraft Country, Underground had a flair for stylistic and narrative choices that subverted the traditional tenor of its source material. In an August interview with Awards Watch, Green noted that she was especially inspired by the anxiety-inducing nature of heist films when formatting Underground. “I used the heist genre to appeal to people who thought, ‘Ugh, I don’t want to watch a slavery show,’” Green said. “But you did want to watch this one because we used genre as a doorway into something deeper.” Lovecraft Country’s appeal functions similarly—it takes a story centered on the trauma and legacy of the Western colonial project and condenses it into a pulpy, episodic horror. And yet, that’s partly why it so often careened into narrative ditches.

Years ago, in one of the more compelling portions of their decades-long beef, Spike Lee publicly lambasted Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist-Western Django Unchained. As critics rightfully questioned Tarantino’s proclivity toward using the word “nigger” in his films, Spike lodged a different, equally biting, critique. “American Slavery Was Not A Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western. It Was A Holocaust. My Ancestors Are Slaves. Stolen From Africa. I Will Honor Them,” he tweeted. Lovecraft Country is not Django. The showrunner and many of the main writers for the series are Black women. And after “Full Circle,” we know that unlike in Django, the Black protagonists in Lovecraft Country do not owe their liberation to a benevolent white character. The show is a story of, by, and for Black people. But the tension Lee hinted at—the bitter balancing act between entertainment and trauma—still plagues it.

There is undeniable meaning in Lovecraft Country’s commitment to a history that has long been excluded from the Hollywood pantheon. But the inclusion of that history alone does not make it a good show. Take the season’s penultimate episode, for instance, when Montrose, Tic, and Leti are transported back in time to Tulsa, on the eve of the great massacre of 1921. Like most of the other installments in Lovecraft Country, the episode is fraught. Montrose’s backstory is finally fleshed out in full, but there is virtually no attempt to grapple with the brutality he perpetrated as an adult. Just a year ago, another HBO Show, Watchmen, tackled many of the same themes, up to and including a depiction of the very same event in Tulsa. But where Watchmen’s characters were handled with an uncommon level of rigor and empathy, Lovecraft Country’s were never given that chance, and the story often felt derivative as a result.

That is not to say that a history like Tulsa’s isn’t deserving of more than one retelling. Since Lovecraft Country premiered in August, I’ve spent much of this season documenting the purposeful ties between the series and the most quintessential of American legacies. In 10 episodes, in and across landscapes that have generally avoided reference in popular culture, Lovecraft Country focused on topics like slavery and the looting of the Americas, sundown towns and housing segregation, scientific racism and social passing. They were—they are—stories that “deserve” to be told unflinchingly, and Lovecraft deserves recognition for doing so. But those stories also deserve to be unflinchingly critiqued.

No matter how important or radical a retelling of the atrocities of American white supremacy is, TV shows like Lovecraft Country are not educational resources. They are art within a capitalistic marketplace; for-profit entertainment shaped and constricted by the fallible humans who produce them. In a piercing article for The New Yorker, former Ringer staff writer Victor Luckerson revealed that the real-life family whose story served as the narrative inspiration behind Watchmen’s Tulsa roots were never actually consulted by the show during its production. Only after the premiere did they find out that one of Watchmen’s main characters, Will Williams (he later changes his last name to Reeves), was modeled after their grandfather. His story had been mined by an institution that did not care enough to ask for his family’s permission.

In the last five years, stories centered on Black life have become increasingly prized in a thematically crowded marketplace. This is not due to some belated epiphany on behalf of networks and studios, or some moral quest for equity—it’s due to Get Out making $255 million on a $4.5 million budget; it’s due to Girls Trip becoming one of the sleeper hits of 2017. That does not mean that shows like Lovecraft Country or Watchmen cannot be real, worthwhile examples of storytelling. It does mean, though, that even while they have the capacity to be graceful accounts of Black experiences or stark challenges to social institutions, they do not have to be those things to exist. These shows’ mere presence is not enough. However subversive the inspiration behind a series is, that inspiration does not make that series impervious to flawed storytelling.

Lovecraft Country has struggled with this since its premiere. In the first few episodes of the season, the show depicted Christina helping a cow give birth to a wriggling worm-calf, a scene that turned out to be utterly (I swear this pun was an accident) useless to the narrative. Later in the season, in ways that were equal parts awkward and galling, the show frequently connected plot points to larger historical events. In one completely random scene, Christina appeared to hire a group of white men to kill her and throw her body into a lake in the exact same way that Emmett Till was murdered—but the events were never discussed afterwards. Lovecraft Country’s high point came when the narrative shifted toward a character, Ji-Ah, who was as far away from the rest of the story as possible. The show then immediately sidelined her until the last sequence of the final episode.

These are undoubtedly signs of a flawed series. But seen another way, those flaws are part of the point. Back in the season premiere, after their segregated bus broke down, Tic and another Black passenger were forced to walk to the nearest town with their luggage. While they sauntered past slopes of cornfields they talked about the nature of stories and of accepting their limitations. “Stories are like people,” Tic said. “Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try to cherish them, overlook their flaws.” Not every television show has to be immersed in brilliant social commentary, and not every show that attempts to do so has to be completely successful in those efforts. But shows like Lovecraft Country, shows about Black life, are still implicitly expected to be. What do you call a flawed drama, or comedy, or action show, that’s about, produced by, and marketed to white people? Well, you call it TV.

Maybe we’ve been looking for meaning in the wrong place with Lovecraft Country. Maybe what matters most about the show is that it exists. That it was an attempt. That Misha Green was actually given the space to shoot for the moon rather than the fact that she often missed. Maybe the most important thing about Lovecraft Country is that it didn’t have to be perfect, that it might be a harbinger. I’m not sure if that’s entirely good or bad—more of a reminder, I guess, that “this is a beginning, not an end.”