Review: Lovecraft Country Creates a Whole New System of Reality in “Sundown”

© HBO

HBO’s much-anticipated Lovecraft Country starts off strong with series premiere “Sundown,” directed by Yann Demange and written by Misha Green, which serves up a buffet of horror, fantasy, and American history. The source material, Matt Ruff’s hit novel Lovecraft Country, is steeped in the horrors of Jim Crow and H.P. Lovecraft, andshowrunner Misha Green (Underground Railroad, Heroes, Sons of Anarchy) skillfully remixes Ruff’s work to make compelling television. 

Spoilers for the episode below:

From the opening scene, “Sundown” wants us to question reality. The show opens with Atticus “Tic” Freeman (Jonathan Majors) on a black-and-white battlefield in the Korean War. But before we can settle in, another reality quickly shifts into view. Suddenly, we are in a neon sci-fi landscape, andnstead of fighting a foreign nation, Atticus is now battling a plethora of space invaders. UFOs light up the sky. A Martian princess descends from the heavens and speaks to him in an unknown language. Suddenly, a monster attacks (Cthulhu himself, no less)! But Tic is saved at the last second by Jackie Robinson armed with a bat. 

Then Atticus wakes up. 

Instead of being on a battlefield, he has dozed off in the back of a bus. It was all a dream. Right? 

When the bus breaks down, Atticus and the only other Black passenger are forced to walk to town while the white passengers board a service truck. On this walk, he reveals that he’s headed to Chicago to find his father, Montrose Freeman (Michael K. Williams), who has been missing for the past two weeks.

In Chicago, we meet the rest of the Freeman family. George Freeman (Courtney B. Vance), his wife Hippolyta Freeman (Aunjanue Ellis) and their daughter Diana Freeman or Dee, (Jada Harris). George publishes and maintains “The Safe Negro Travel Guide” (based on the real-life “Negro Motorist Green Book”), which helps Black motorists find safe havens in their travels. Inspired by his trips, Hippolyta offers to make a trip of her own to contribute to the guide. George deflects by reminding Hippolyta of the dangers, but the question stays in the air.

It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which your life and identity has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you.” 

James Baldwin, “The American Dream and the American Negro”

Atticus recruits George to help him decipher the mysterious letter Montrose sent just before his disappearance. Montrose’s obsession with Atticus’ mother’s ancestry has led him to the Massachusetts town of Ardham (initially misread by Atticus as Arkham, a fictional city that appears in many of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories). Montrose believes that, in Ardham, Atticus has claim to a “secret legacy.” Ardham doesn’t appear to be on any maps, however–the nearest they can get seems to be Devon County, a place marked by death in the Atlas (a map inspired by the Guide, illustrated by Dee). Still, the pair head out to start their search.

Before they leave, Letitia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) hitches a ride east with them. Reappearing in town after a long absence, she has quickly worn out her welcome with her half-sister, Ruby Baptiste (Wunmi Mosaku), and needs a ride to stay with her brother Marvin. When he also turns her away, Letitia joins George and Atticus on their journey to Ardham.

On the way, our trio stop in Simmonsville at a diner that is supposedly friendly to Black travelers. However, they realize that the previous diner has been burned down for just that reason. A fresh coat of white paint covers its scorched walls. Armed men pursue our heroes past the city limits. Just as the men are gaining ground, the pursuit is brought to a violent end by a mysterious woman in a silver car. Atticus, Letitia, and George speed away unharmed, and silently agree not to speak of what they just witnessed.

Despite the frequent warnings about Devon County, our trio enter and search for the road to Ardham. Assunset nears, infamous local sheriff Eustace Hunt (Jamie Harris) approaches them. He lets them know that they are in a Sundown county–meaning they have until sundown to leave the county limits. If not, their lives are forfeit. Careful to obey the rules of the road, in a low-speed high-stakes chase, our heroes slip past the county line with seconds to spare. But just as we feel their collective relief, they are stopped by a group of officers. This time, there’s no silver car to save them. 

The officers walk them deep into the woods. Before the imminent police brutality can come to an ugly head, another kind of monstrosity occurs. Vampiric monsters descend on the group and begin to tear the officers apart. Thanks to George’s quick thinking, Atticus’ nerves of steel, and some serious sprinting by Letitia, the three survive the night. They emerge at dawn covered in blood. When they finally find the bridge to Ardham, they cross it and stumble upon a castle. There they are greeted by William (Jordan Patrick Smith), who welcomes Atticus home.

Courtney B. Vance, Jurnee Smollett, & Jonathan Majors © HBO

As evidenced by the episode, the show has made many changes from the book. Most notably, Caleb Braithwhite is now Christina Braithwhite (Abbey Lee), the driver of the mysterious silver car. Similarly, George and Hippolyta’s son, Horace, is now their daughter Diana. So far both characters seem to directly mirror their novel counterparts. Also, the Freeman family all share the same surname, making George and Montrose brothers, instead of half brothers. Ruby is now a singer and no longer a domestic worker. Finally, in a subtle shift, George’s age is manifested in his knees. His previously shattered kneecaps are brought up early in the episode. This nuance dictates how he moves in the world and leans on Atticus in their journey. It will be interesting to see how all these changes inform the show over the season.

While Ruff’s book is episodic in nature, Green’s adaptation weaves in the threads of coming storylines from the beginning. In “Sundown,” we get hints of Ruby and Letitia’s family dynamic and Letitia’s desire to own a house. We also get our first glimpses of Dee’s Orithyia Blue comic and Hippolyta’s ever-present telescope in the kitchen. These moments give us flashes of the season to come. They also hint that what happens to our trio on the road will follow them home to Chicago.

Overall, the series looks beautiful. The color palette and costume design evoke the time period and the tone of this pulpy horror show. The soundtrack is as smart as it is catchy. The episode opens with audio from 1950’s biopic “The Jackie Robinson Story”. When the trio make their way east, the images of a segregated America are underscored by James Baldwin’s speech “The American Dream and the American Negro.” Musically, we get snippets of Etta James and B.B. King mixed in with contemporary artist Tierra Whack. Green’s Lovecraft Country is equally interested in delighting us and engaging us in a deeper discussion.

Performances are top-notch all around. Jonathan Majors’ Atticus is observant, subtle and haunted. Smollett shines as a fiercely fiery Letitia, refreshingly resourceful, determined, and equally as formidable as her male counterparts. Courtney B. Vance brings a wonderful sageness to George. He walks away with some of my favorite moments of the episode. His scenes with Hippolyta and Dee are full of genuine love, and I found them to be delightfully wholesome.I’m hyped for the rest of the season of Lovecraft Country. Personally, I’m excited for Hippolyta’s journey and I can’t wait to see Letitia face off with the Winthrop house. With “Sundown,” Lovecraft Country comes out swinging. It’s a solid start to a series that looks to be thought-provoking, thrilling, and a wild ride.



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