Toward the end of the premiere of HBO’s Lovecraft Country, a cop car creeps to a halt on an old, winding road in 1950s Massachusetts. It’s dusk, and three Black travelers have pulled over to observe the adjoining woods. Two of them—the show’s main characters, Tic (Jonathan Majors) and Leti (Jurnee Smollett)—stand on the roadside, staring off into the mass of trees. Tic’s uncle, George (Courtney B. Vance), rests wearily in their vehicle. That’s when he sees the police car approaching.
What ensues is a well-trodden narrative. The officer, who is white, walks up to their car with a loaded gun in hand. He demands that the group state their business and informs them that if they are not out of the county by sundown it will be his “sworn duty to hang every single one of you from these trees.” As they attempt to flee the county, he follows close behind, occasionally ramming his front bumper into the back of their vehicle. It is not a false depiction. Things like this did happen, in places like these.
That’s the point that Lovecraft Country builds toward in its first installment. In the roughly 40 minutes beforehand, we are introduced to a world of rigid extremes. Segregation and sundown towns exist because of exceptional racism. Black people are herded by a cabal of über-racist whites. Killer cops, arsenous firemen, teenagers with penchants for performing ape impressions—they all drive this world. The specter of whiteness at its most malevolent rules supreme.
The first time we see Tic, it is in a dream. He is a soldier in a battlefield that resembles a scene from War of the Worlds. After a UFO beams down a woman painted in red and a Kraken-like monster bursts out of the ground (a reference to the show’s namesake, H.P. Lovecraft), a Jackie Robinson stand-in attacks the creature and splits it in two with his baseball bat. But the monster re-forms, because of course it does; the game is rigged. Then Tic wakes up.
The episode begins, in real life, on a segregated bus that has just entered Kentucky. The scene is the first entry into the world that Lovecraft Country hopes to transmit on screen. The bus breaks down, and Tic and another Black traveler are forced to walk into town—the emergency shuttle is for whites only. We learn that Tic is a Korean War veteran and an avid fan of pulp-horror novels, despite knowing their racist lineage. “I love that the heroes get to go on adventures in other worlds, defy insurmountable odds, defeat the monster, save the day,” he explains, unaware that he may be inadvertently describing his own fate. Tic is returning home from Florida, to Chicago, to search for his father, who’s mysteriously gone missing. The last Tic heard from his dad was via a strange letter urging him to claim a “long-lost inheritance” from his deceased mother’s family in the fictional Ardham, Massachusetts. The relationship between these two men is a cloud that hangs over the series.
In Chicago, Tic’s Uncle George is the writer and publisher of the Safe Negro Travel Guide, a fictional spinoff on the real-life Negro Motorist Green Book, or for short, the Green Book—a guidebook for Black travelers to avoid segregated restaurants and hotels along the vast American expanse during the Jim Crow era. His wife Hippolyta wants a larger role in the publishing process, or at least to accompany George on the research missions for the guide. He initially demurs because of the “danger,” but later relents. Diana, their daughter, is an aspiring illustrator who sketches out comic strips for each of George’s road trips. Showrunner Misha Green structures the neighborhood they live in as a place of respite in a world where families like theirs are uniquely vulnerable. Unfortunately for them, this is a story about other perilous and unknown worlds, and we don’t stay in Chicago long—George agrees to help Tic find his father, while Leti, a childhood friend whose backstory is left glaringly unexplained, tags along.
During the journey portion of the episode—when the group travels from the Midwest to the Northeast—a James Baldwin monologue plays in the background. The group stops at segregated restaurants and orders at “colored” entrances while Baldwin remarks that “the inequality of the Negro in the United States has hindered the American Dream.” At a gas station, a white teenager howls like a monkey at Tic, who is eating a banana while pumping fuel. At one point the group passes a long line of Black women and men, waiting at a bus stop directly in front of a sign that depicts a white family in a car. The sign, which has been utilized in other pieces of pop culture over the years, reads “There’s No Place Like America Today!”
The Baldwin monologue ends abruptly just before the group enters Simmonsville, where they are promptly chased out of town by a group of German shepherd–owning firemen. In sequence, these images show a constant, unending gauntlet of a world—one that the group faces as a mere fact of their existence. For Tic, Leti, and George, the encounter with the police officer on that old winding road in Massachusetts is not an anomaly; it is a normal, everyday occurrence.
There is a moment, right after the group fails to escape the sheriff, that should be the episode’s crescendo. They are escorted by him and his deputies into the woods, where they will be killed. But like the Baldwin clip that precedes it, the scene feels naggingly incomplete. Instead of focusing on the everyday people who condoned and fostered segregated landscapes like New England’s, Lovecraft Country centers the group’s journey on the worst among them, who are cartoonishly evil. In the final minutes of the episode, when a pack of poly-eyed Lovecraftian vampires interrupt what would have surely been the group’s execution, the show is, essentially, asking the viewer the age-old question of the horror genre: “Who, really, are the monsters here?” The problem for Lovecraft Country is that, in eschewing the mundane features of American racism, they have created two equally burlesque terrors.
History Lesson: Sundown Towns
This episode is aptly titled “Sundown,” a reference to the dark history of “sundown towns” in America. Despite the popular Hollywood narrative, segregation was not a wholly Southern phenomenon. After the Civil War ended, and the racial breakthroughs of Reconstruction were lost to a combination of white backlash and apathy, Northern, Western, and Midwestern towns began to expel their Black populations. During these decades, referred to by historians as “the Nadir,” the seeds of Jim Crow were planted around the entire country. That distinction is integral to the world that Lovecraft Country is attempting to portray.
In the South during this period, institutional racism was defined by a combination of exploitative labor practices (convict leasing and sharecropping) and rampant racial terrorism (lynchings, the emergence of the KKK, “race riots”). And while many of these things did happen above the Mason-Dixon Line, the main area of dispute in Northern race relations during this period was housing. During the same time frame in which white Southerners were overthrowing duly elected Black government officials, Northern and Western towns were threatening and, in some cases, killing their Black neighbors in hopes of racially purifying the areas in which they lived. With their Black population removed, rural towns and municipalities around the country passed laws making it illegal for Blacks to own property, or to even enter after sundown. Many towns put up signs explicitly warning Blacks not to “let the sun set on you here.”
Sundown towns existed in every Northern, Western, and Midwestern state in the country. Even now, their legacy lives on in the form of de facto segregation. Because generations of Black families were excluded and purged from Northern white suburban and rural communities, now—even though laws explicitly banning Black residents are illegal—the descendants of those excluded Black families have a fraction of the generational wealth that their white counterparts do. As local governments still lack the resources to integrate these costly suburban and rural towns (and in combination with the racial steering in real estate), the modern American landscape is still inextricably linked to the legacy of sundown towns.
The physical terrain that Lovecraft Country relies on for its settings is indebted to this same history. A journey from Chicago to Massachusetts in the 1950s—like the one Tic, Leti, and George embark upon—would have been impossible to make without encountering a sundown town. It’s why George would publish The Safe Negro Travel Guide in the first place: to help Black travelers avoid the spaces on the map where their citizenry was most in doubt.
Book Report: The Count of Monte Cristo
About midway through the premiere, there’s a scene where Tic walks into his father’s abandoned apartment. He picks up a book from one of his dad’s shelves and takes it into the bedroom with him. The book is The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Roughly summarized, the book revolves around a member of the French elite who, a few days before his wedding date, is framed for treason and thrown in jail. Eventually he escapes and (after finding buried treasure on an abandoned island) renames himself the Count of Monte Cristo. Emboldened by his newfound resources, the Count takes up a decadeslong quest for revenge against the men responsible for his imprisonment.
One of the biggest themes in Dumas’s book is injustice. The Count is a person of color in antique French society who has been wronged and cannot turn to the law for help, and therefore must make his own justice. The character was inspired by Dumas’s father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas—a man born into enslavement who went on to become the highest-ranking Black military commander in the Western world (until Colin Powell). If there is one link between the book and Lovecraft Country it is this: All of these characters—Tic, the Count, Leti, George—have to create their own justice in a society bent on destroying them. Doing so has twisted and morphed them into something different than what they would have been if they had the privilege not to fight. If Dumas’s work is a clue to viewers, it’s that at some point Tic, Leti, and George will all have to deal with what they’ve had to become in order to survive.
One Lingering Question
Here is where we stand after one episode. The group—Tic, Leti, George—has survived a truly horrific road trip. They’ve been insulted, debased, and shot at. They were held at gunpoint by a white sheriff who was so racist that even after getting his shoulder bitten off by a vampire, he was somehow still capable of hurling more slurs at them. But right when it looked like they were all going to perish, a bunch of weird dog whistles went off in the surrounding woods and the vampires just ... ran away. The next morning our crew, still soaked in blood, saunters over to a giant mansion and is greeted by a blond-haired, blue-eyed mystery man who indicates “they’ve” been waiting for them. So this is the question: If the monsters in Lovecraft Country really are the people, why should Tic, Leti, and George trust their newfound saviors?