At some point, fictional universes inspire expectations from their audience. If HBO ever gets around to making a miniseries about Tales of Dunk and Egg, George RR Martin's most prominent series of short stories based in Westeros, there are going to be things you simply expect. It's going to be mostly swords and not much sorcery. People are going to talk about the noble houses that we're all familiar with. And there's going to be sexposition to explain the political situation almost a century before the events in A Game of Thrones and the subsequent novels. We're all cool with this. We know the world and we know how his stories (or screenplays) in Westeros usually proceed and we've become accustomed to certain aspects of it. Lovecraft fans are the same way.
The reason that HPL is even remembered today is because of the mythology he created around the Ancient Ones and the Outer Gods. Unlike contemporary, friend, and pen pal, Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft didn't write series of stories based around a singular character like Conan the Barbarian or Kull the Conqueror. He tended to write singular stories that all took place in a world that was ostensibly our own, if only slightly shifted into darkness. Later writers expanded upon that world/universe and the Lovecraft Mythos was born. So, people that have spent some time hanging out in that universe, whether by reading or playing games or some combination thereof will probably have some expectations about what they'll be seeing. You shouldn't be seeing knights in armor or bubble helmets and rayguns in a Lovecraft-style story. In most cases, they'll be based somewhere between the late 19th century to contemporary times (such as the ones written by yours truly) and tend to involve some weird-looking creatures or at least the impression of those creatures, somewhere in the shadows. Those could be servants of the aforementioned dark beings, alien races battling them, manifestations of the gods themselves, or some other departure on the weird and tentacly. What they're usually not is bog-standard ghost stories. So, we come to tonight's episode: "Holy Ghost"...
Now, it's key to keep in mind that Lovecraft Country isn't intended to be a boilerplate retelling of HPL's stories. It'd be kind of boring if they did take that approach, since you can easily find casual ripoffs like Annihilation if you really want something like that (or note-for-note renditions like Color Out of Space.) Instead, as noted before, it's about that cosmic horror combined with the very real racist horror faced by Black people in this country. So, while you could've suggested that the second episode kind of jumped in with both feet first, with the Gate to Eden and so on, the most recent episode drew way back from all of that and stuck to far more familiar horror themes; specifically, a haunted house. Lovecraft absolutely engaged with those themes over the course of his career. Indeed, one of the best genuine horror stories he ever wrote, IMO, was In the Vault, about an unfortunate encounter in a mausoleum. But I have to say that I was left wanting in some respect by this latest episode because, with my expectations still loaded by my knowledge of HPL and how the first two episodes had moved along, to be confronted with another Amityville Horror or Poltergeist tale was a bit of a drag.
Making up for it in some respects was not only the continued engagement with the themes of racism on Chicago's north side, but the continued development of not only our two leads, but also Hippolyta, as she struggles with the aftermath of George's death. Indeed, we see some of those standard horror themes extended as she takes out her grief and frustration on a copy of Dracula, George's favorite book according to his brother, and seems intent on mangling another copy to keep that inner fire burning. Those racist themes are overt, in terms of the actions of Leti and Ruby's neighbors, and also subtle, where the opening title card is presented in typical fashion, implying blame for the disappearance of three people on the presence of non-Whites. One could almost have plucked that lede from the pages of the modern New York Times; always ready to frame things in a way that won't offend their proper, White audience.
In the end, we discover that the acquisition of the house that led to the odd (and not so odd) events of this episode was, once again, initiated by a spell of Christina Braithwhite... which is starting to become a little deus ex machina to me. The thing that really excited me about the first episode was the fact that we had a series based on Black characters who actually had agency. Despite the fact that one of them was writing a Green Book-like travel guide, this wasn't Green Book, the film, where the Black character had to wait for the White guy to save him in every situation he encountered. Indeed, here, pretty much all of the White people are threats, as a central theme of the story, so Christina is simply carrying on the supernatural angle of that White threat. But she's also robbing our leads and their associates of that agency, because suddenly they're dancing on the strings of first her father and now her to have any motivation, outside of their own emotional ties, to do anything.
Thankfully, those emotional ties are still present and we learn a lot and see a number of good scenes involving Hippolyta, Leti, Ruby, Dee, and Tic, as they sort through everything that's happening around them and between them. The moment where Dee is about to set a place for George and stops herself was particularly good. Also, the moment where Tic ruefully mentions that the tactics the neighbors are using (heat and noise) to try to drive them out are the same things they used in Korea; to which Leti asks: "For what?" and Tic decides he'd rather not get into that. War can get you to do things you might not be proud of. And, honestly, I'd probably still be interested in a story that simply involved regular Black folks struggling with 1950s racism, a brilliant example of which was finally resisting the neighbors' harassment (a burning cross in their yard), and still having to assume the "cooperative position" (kneeling, hands behind their heads)... but that's not why I started watching a series that involved Lovecraft.
I was a little put off by Leti's (and, presumably, everyone else's?) arrest being so graphic as the cops allow her to be injured in the back of the paddy wagon, but she's right back at home the next day. The process usually didn't move that swiftly, especially for Black people, unfortunately. And this kind of ties in to this whole Christina thing, where it seems like some shortcuts are being taken to fit each of the stories from the novel into a single episode. Again, I haven't read the novel, so I don't know that that's exactly what is happening, but we're three episodes in now and, despite the personal stories being interesting and following what seems like a natural rhythm, the overall plot seems much less symmetrical, culminating in this episode with the villain-explains-their-entire-method-to-helpless-hero scene between Tic and Christina. ("Do you expect me to beg?" "No, Mr. Bond! I expect you to die!") In contrast, Hippolyta's encounter with the weird orrery (and apparent departure with it?) was at least a crumb to follow that was a little more exotic.
So... yeah. I'm still interested and I'd like to see how things develop with these characters, but we're in a difficult moment here and I'd either like to see a bit more on the tentacular side or something else that tells me I'm not just watching a period drama about racism with occasional fantastic flourishes. Again, there's nothing wrong with that, but it's not what l walked into the theater expecting.