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‘Lovecraft Country’ Recap: Whose History Will Survive in America?

Or: A Night at the Museum of Colonization, starring Tic, Leti, and Montrose

HBO/Ringer illustration

The fourth installment of Lovecraft Country is aptly named “A History of Violence”—and it does not take long to understand whose “history” the show is referring to. Midway through the episode, as Tic, Leti, and Montrose investigate a museum in Boston, a tour guide heaps praise on the institution’s original benefactor, Titus Braithwhite. According to her, Braithwhite was an “explorer” who came into possession of the “many artifacts ... in exchange for teaching the savage tribes the ways of civilized man.” Of course by now we know better than to believe that. The specter of settler violence is the canvas on which Lovecraft Country argues our history is etched. The guide’s words are a reminder of whose world this is, and the tools that are used to ensure that.

If the original plunder of the Americas—slavery, genocide, land theft—is what undergirds the series, what drives “A History of Violence” in particular is the survival tactics people adopt to escape the reach of violence in the present day. After three episodes, the group has navigated segregated American landscapes, attacks from exterminatory police officers, gaslighting and abuse from Aryan mystics, and the exorcism of a Josef Mengele–esque spirit. When this week’s entry begins, in the wake of Tic’s failed attempt on Christina Braithwhite’s life in the previous episode, it is clear that the desire for self-protection will be a driving force from here on.

For Montrose, that takes the form of burying the past. In the first scene, we see him, yet again, drunkenly brooding in his apartment (at least my guy is consistent). But this time something is in his hands: the bylaws to the Order of the Ancient Dawn. As his dying wish, George gave the text to Montrose in the hope that he would use it to protect their family, but instead of sharing the insights of the tome with Tic and Leti, Montrose tosses it into a garbage can, soaks it with brown liquor, and burns it. It is the act of a man who is simultaneously consumed by the past and obsessed with avoiding it. Consider what we know about Montrose up to now: While in Ardham, he discloses that his father abused him as a child; in that same conversation, George suggests that Tic may not be Montrose’s son; and increasingly, the show has hinted that Montrose is still coming to terms with his own sexual identity. Every stage in his life has led Montrose to the conclusion that it is simply safer to opt out of this world, to hide from the piercing light of brutality. In “A History of Violence” he tries to convince Tic to do the same.

But where Montrose hopes to erase any links to Ardham, Tic searches to solidify them. After failing to kill Christina, Tic commits himself to co-opting the tools the Braithwhites used to dominate his family. We first see him in the library, searching for any resource to help find a way to access the mystical birthright at his fingertips. When Leti confronts him for not telling her that Christina is alive and is the one responsible for sending her the money to buy her home, Tic says he held his tongue because he wanted to spare her the worry. Later, Leti convinces Montrose to help them find Titus’s lost pages—which he thinks are located in that museum in Boston—so Tic can attempt to learn how to cast his own spells for protection. As if sensing something is out of place, Hippolyta tags along with Diana (and later encourages Tree to join them). Once in the museum Tic, Leti, and Montrose split off from the rest of the group and, with the help of a security guard, find their way into Titus’s vault. At one point, after the group has entered the subterranean maze that holds Titus’s old ship, Tic tries to convince Montrose and Leti to leave via the elevator to her home—it has somehow appeared in a flooded catacomb, thousands of miles away from Chicago—while he continues the search on his own.

Although they manifest it in different ways, both Tic and his father are obsessed with safety. The contradiction that “A History of Violence” exposes is that in their single-minded quest for protection, both Tic and Montrose end up harming those closest to them. Hippolyta is left twisting herself in knots because Montrose keeps her in the dark about the true nature of George’s death. And from Tic’s very first decision to try to kill Christina on his own, he stripped Leti of her agency and minimized what she has endured and overcome since their time in Ardham. It takes Leti reminding him that they’ve all weathered pain for Tic to realize that he is going down the same road as Montrose, letting his fear hurt those he claims to be protecting.

Toward the end of the episode, when Montrose kills the two-spirit Guyanese person who had been perpetually imprisoned on Titus’s ship—they were held prisoner and forced to assist Titus with his spells—what we are seeing is the fully formed version of his response to the threat of violence; paternalism taken to its logical conclusion. Whereas Tic has learned and grown from the lessons of their journey, Montrose has burrowed ever deeper into his toxic abyss. By taking the protection of the group into his own hands and using the very tools he fears will be wielded against them, Montrose has turned himself into exactly what he claims to be fighting against. In his quest to fortify himself and others, he has become violence incarnate.

History Lesson: The Triangular Trade

If, as is hinted, Titus was a merchant in the slave trade, it should come as no suprise that he came into contact with Carribean and South American colonies. Slavery, particularly in North America, was indbeted to the triangular trade—a commerce pattern in which resources from Western powers were used to purchase enslaved people in Africa, who were then sold in the colonies for the products that they would go on to produce (sugar, rum, cotton, rice), which were then dealt to Western consumers, thus reperpetuating the same cycle. Although the order and specifics of the triangular trade differed based on regions, the one consistent theme in each context was the intertwining of colonial economies in pursuit of capital.

In “A History of Violence,” we learn that the indegenous people Titus encountered were Guyanese. Although Guyana is part of South America, during the period in which Titus was operating, the country operated similarly to the islands of the Greater Antilles. Guyana had a vast population of enslaved Africans, who labored in concert with a similarly extensive indigenous population (many descendants of that group still occupy a politically fraught position within the nation today). Guyana did not outlaw slavery until 1834, so it’s not a stretch to believe that Titus would have an economic connection to the country. If there had been any doubt that the power resources at the core of Lovecraft Country were not simply the monopoly of Western society, “A History of Violence” erases that. Not only are we reminded of the extent to which Titus was connected to the broader history of colonization, we are shown the extent to which his own achievements are indebted to that same history. In doing so Lovecraft Country is, once again, using Titus’s backstory as a commentary on the legacy of the actual American experiment.

Conquerors Collection: Museum Repatriations

A few years ago, while living in London, I visited the British Museum. I can’t recall why I decided to go; I suppose it was one of those touristy impulses, where you’re drawn to an attraction out of this nagging sense of guilt that you should at least see it. While I waited for some of my friends to arrive, I bought some roasted peanuts from a street vendor. They were amazing. The weather was still warm, but it was London, so it was raining. And while I waited in that muggy rain, scarfing down peanuts, I saw a sign advertising the museum’s new collection of Egyptian sarcophagi. As I stared at it, I couldn’t stop thinking, “Why are Egyptian artifacts in a museum in London?”

There is so much going on in the museum-tour scene in “A History of Violence,” but if you look closely you’ll see something similar: Virtually all of the artifacts displayed in the Braithwhite exhibit are from the indigenous people of Guyana. And by “from” I mean “stolen from.” Like so many of the show’s hidden gems, this sidebar is based on a real-life phenomenon, and it doesn’t just implicate the British Museum. In the wake of European colonization, the artifacts and cultural monuments of nonwhite populations around the world have, for centuries, “ended up” in their colonizers’ hands. In a 2018 study commissioned by the French government, researchers estimated that “90 percent of African cultural property resides in European museums.” Countries ranging from England to the U.S., Germany, and Australia have all seen museums pressured into returning stolen artifacts. In the past year and a half alone, museums in New York, Manchester, and New Zealand have repatriated multiple collections back to their homelands. In Lovecraft Country, it comes as no surprise that the artifacts in the Braithwhite wing would belong to those crushed under the boot of colonization. Like the mystical resources extracted from indigenous people in the show, the museum itself is a reminder of the bounty of settler colonialism. For a show obsessed with legacy, Lovecraft Country pinpoints exactly what the American inheritance is rooted in.

One Burning Question

As we near the midway point of the season, it has become increasingly clear that Christina Braithwhite is akin to Lovecraft Country’s shadow ruler. In a seemingly successful attempt to kill her social-Darwinist father (given the fact that this show includes decomposed skeletons that come back to life, I’m gonna need some more time before I accept that Samuel is actually dead), Christina engineered Montrose’s kidnapping and Tic’s arrival in Ardham. In the time since, she somehow escaped the whole Braithwhite mansion collapsing, manipulated Leti and Co. into moving into a haunted house in an attempt to gain access to the previous owner’s “time machine,” and now seems to be making a move to displace a rival Sons of Adam lodge.

Behind her calm veneer and ever-extravagant headwear, Christina is Machiavellian, willing to do anything necessary to gain access to the very power structure she claims to have been excluded from. She has consistently shown little desire to pursue actual allyship with the Black people of this world and is instead committed to only furthering her own narrow interests. But after all of her maneuvering, the power she so desires still appears to be out of touch. The orrery that Christina hoped to get from Epstein’s house is now in Hippolyta’s possession (she stole it during the last episode) and Tic, Leti, and Montrose have just captured Titus’s hidden translations from the Book of Names. There’s no way she’s simply OK with all of this, and there’s no way she’s not plotting her next scheme. The question is: What, exactly, will it be?