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Thursday, February 15, 2024

No, 'Lovecraft Country' Didn't Need a Second Season

In the seventh episode of Lovecraft Country, a Black woman, surrounded by a sea of glowing equations, scribbles frantically as she works out the fix for a machine that will soon warp her across dimensions of space and time. Viewers watch as Hippolyta, a housewife played by Aunjanue Ellis, names herself a discoverer of new worlds—embracing an identity not usually afforded to Black Americans in sci-fi (and one that is more historically associated with white colonizers). It’s a potent example of the show’s biggest selling point: the transcendence of tropes that all too often plague Black characters in cinema.

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Produced by showrunner Misha Green, Lovecraft Country is a dark fantasy series that premiered on HBO in August of last year. It’s based on Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel of the same name, a book that reimagines the otherworldly horror of known racist H. P. Lovecraft through the eyes of Black folk in the Jim Crow ’50s. Jonathan Majors plays Atticus “Tic” Freeman, a Korean war vet who has returned home to search for his missing father, Montrose (the late Michael K. Williams), with help from love interest Letitia “Leti” Lewis (Jurnee Smollett). The trio is soon sucked into a tale driven by monsters, racialized horror, and the inherited magic that is Tic’s unexpected birthright.

In July, HBO announced abruptly—to the disillusionment of fans—that the series would not be returning for a second season. Not two weeks later, the Television Academy nominated Lovecraft Country for a whopping 18 Emmy Awards, news that made HBO’s decision look even more ill-advised. Outraged viewers took to social media to express their discontent. “Lovecraft Country got 18 Emmy nominations and HBO canceled it,” one Twitter user wrote. “Shit don’t make no sense.”

But maybe it does. Lovecraft Country made its point. It empowered a cast of Black heroes to take on the forces of magic, racism, and privilege wielded by evil white folks. Rather than the imminent death of Black characters we have come to expect at some point in horror flicks, it instead disposed of its white characters with Quentin Tarantino levels of pulp gore. And Lovecraft Country did it all with a stellar cast, beautiful cinematography, top-notch visual effects, and a genre-bending soundtrack spanning everything from Nina Simone to Cardi B. Perhaps it doesn’t need a Season 2; considering how much it fell apart at the end of its first run, a second might only besmirch its good name.

A gripping story has its twists and turns, but those winding roads have to be coherent enough to follow. Lovecraft Country is jam-packed with an abundance of storylines, many of which are haphazardly planted and never satisfyingly fleshed out because there’s just no room for actual depth. It made a mission of squeezing in every Black historical event and cultural reference that it could into its convoluted plot: the Tulsa race massacre, Chicago's Trumbull Park riots, the lynching of Emmett Till, the existence of sundown towns, and the publishing of the Negro Motorist Green Book, to name a few. Sometimes it worked; other times it felt contrived. Always, it felt like too much.

This could just be an artifact of the source material—the book was, after all, an anthology of intertwined short stories. But it was as if the writers of Lovecraft Country couldn’t decide if the show should be serial or episodic, so it ended up being a weird mix of both. Or perhaps it’s a case of too many cooks in the kitchen: The plot starts to get unnecessarily thick around episode four, when Misha Green is no longer the sole name listed on the story credits. By the time we reach Hippolyta’s montage of exploration in episode seven—as stunning as it was to witness—the plot has really gone off the rails. It feels murky and disjointed; the pieces don’t come together until a repeat watchthrough, when viewers already have an idea of what’s to come.

And for a show lauded for its subversion of cinematic stereotypes, Lovecraft Country sure does reinforce some damaging tropes. Tic’s former love interest is a woman revealed to be a kumiho, a nine-tailed fox spirit who seduces men and eats their souls, playing into the hypersexualization of Asian women in Hollywood by subscribing to the “dragon lady” archetype. There’s also the portrayal of the only Indigenous character in the show, a two-spirit person who is presented as frozen in time, contributing to the harmful lack of contemporary representation of Native Americans in media. Not to mention that this character, who arguably holds the most marginalized identity in the series, is senselessly killed almost as quickly as they are introduced (and by a closeted Black man, no less).

Lovecraft Country didn’t completely ignore intersectionality; this is clear from the sentiments of Leti’s sister Ruby, played by Wunmi Mosaku: “I don’t know what is more difficult. Being colored, or being a woman.” Alongside the main arc of the series, viewers watch a familiar dynamic of desirability play out between the fair-skinned, slim-framed Leti and her darker-toned, heavier-set sister. The juxtaposition is predictable at best, but the show’s writers never break free from this common depiction. Leti never fully unpacks the privilege she holds, and Ruby validates her worth in an interracial relationship and uses magic to parade the world as a white woman before being killed off-screen in the finale. Distasteful, to say the least.

Not all of Lovecraft Country’s attempts at subversion land, either. The most emphatic example of this is a scene in episode eight, when the show’s main antagonist, a white woman named Christina (Abbey Lee), hires two white men to reenact the killing of Emmett Till—on herself. Maybe it’s supposed to be cathartic, like some sort of revenge for the role a white woman had in Till’s murder. But all it really does is show us in real time the horrific torture experienced by a 14-year-old boy, a unique iteration of the obsessive consumption of Black death.

It’s a shame the series won’t get a second season to improve. Future episodes may have deepened the storytelling, or done a better job in depicting intersectional identities. Lovecraft Country was good for what it was, and the awards it may win at the Emmys are well-deserved (though, notably, the only nomination it received for its writing was for the first episode). Green, shortly after the show’s cancelation, teased her vision for Season 2 on Twitter, saying it would’ve been called Lovecraft Country: Supremacy and taken place in a “new world.” Perhaps a second season wouldn’t have resolved the show’s frayed plots, but it could have honed its premise.

In August, just prior to his passing, Gold Derby asked Williams about the show’s impressive list of Emmy nominations. “To have it be acknowledged on this level,” he replied, “it gave me hope.” It should give us hope, too. Shortcomings aside, Lovecraft Country is yet another confirmation that Black people have a place in the horror genre, with stories as rich and enthralling as the more classic tales. The show’s legacy is not in the stories it will never get to tell—it’s how its success has paved new paths forward for future creators to venture out and discover.

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