Lovecraft Country Episode 4 Recap: “A History of Violence”

Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett & Michael K. Williams in Lovecraft Country (HBO)

Atticus & the others return to Massachusetts in a shaky episode that swaps out horror for high adventure.

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Warning: don’t read until you’ve watched the entire episode!

So much has happened at a breakneck pace in Lovecraft Country that some of the more subtle (and eerie) references end up overlooked until someone with a keener eye points them out later. Perhaps the most spine-chilling so far is that one of Diana Freeman’s young friends, the one who asks the Ouija board if he’ll enjoy his upcoming trip, is none other than Emmett Till. In an even more morbid twist, the trip he’s asking about happens to be the one in which he’s murdered for the crime of allegedly whistling at a white woman — so indeed, the Ouija board was correct, he most definitely was not going to enjoy his trip. For audiences who may not know of Emmett Till other than his becoming a gruesome symbol of race-based violence, it’s jarring to see him just being an ordinary kid with no idea what’s about to happen to him, and it’s what Lovecraft Country does best — merge the real with the fantastical, but always acknowledging that the real is far more terrifying.

That being said, this week’s episode, “A History of Violence,” takes things down a notch as far as terror is concerned, choosing instead to be an affectionate homage to 1940s Indiana Jones-style adventure movies. It also wedges in some conflict between Atticus (Jonathan Majors) and Leti (Jurnee Smollett) that unfortunately feels both artificial and labored, and a clumsy moment near the end of the episode that comes off as cheap. Still, as with every other episode of Lovecraft Country so far, it’s exciting and still leaves you guessing just how in the Sons of Adam they’re going to pull all these threads together and make it work in the end.

Confirming that Leti was misled about the source of the money to buy her house, she’s less than pleased to receive a visit from Christina (Abbey Lee). Rather than mention missing spell book pages, as she did to Atticus, Christina is now looking for an orrery (I learned a new word!), a mechanical model of the solar system which can apparently be used for time travel. We’ve seen this already, in George’s home, when he used it to try to communicate with Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis) (or so we assume it’s George, but who even knows at this point). It’s interesting to note the limits of Christina’s powers: she’s evidently unaware of Hippolyta’s existence, and she’s confronted with nothing but resentment and disrespect by the remaining members of the Sons of Adam. It doesn’t matter that she’s a direct descendant of their lodge’s founder, what matters is that she’s a woman. 

It’s a difficult line to walk suggesting that Christina, a wealthy white woman, faces the same amount of prejudice as Atticus, a working class Black man. How exactly the audience is supposed to feel about Christina is unclear — merely suggesting that she’s a villain, but not quite as villainous as, say, her father, or the endless line of shitbag law enforcement Atticus and his friends and family are forced to tangle with, is an easy cop-out. She’s clearly only interested in Atticus and Leti for the help they can offer her, but she seems vaguely interested in them as well, if nothing else than in an anthropological way. I’m not saying that the entirety of Lovecraft Country will live or die depending on how Christina’s character and motivations play out, but a lot rests on that.

It’s a difficult line to walk suggesting that Christina, a wealthy white woman, faces the same amount of prejudice as Atticus, a working class Black man.

Already shaken up by her encounter with Christina, Leti is further rattled by the discovery that (a) Atticus had his own run-in with Christina, (b) he’s planning on returning to Massachusetts to find a second set of the spell book pages, and (c) he intended on telling Leti neither of these things. The sudden furious in-fighting between Atticus and Leti is perhaps the weakest part of the episode, and seems to exist mostly so they can have a big romantic moment at the end, complete with sweeping theme music.

Leti herself comes off differently in this episode, reckless and stubborn to the point of endangering both herself and others. One can assume that being reminded several times of the existence of a dangerous and terrifying world beyond ours has put her a bit on edge, but one of the things that works so well in Lovecraft Country is the core relationship and deep, abiding love, whether romantically or otherwise, between Atticus and Leti. Though their big kiss at the end of the episode is corny as heck (especially since they’ve already had sex), one can hope things are back to “normal” for them by next week.

Though Atticus is reluctant at best about taking Leti with him to find the second set of spell book pages, she can do the one thing he can’t: guilt-trip Montrose (Michael K. Williams) into going with them. Despite Montrose’s adamant refusal to help, it’s clear he knows a disturbing amount of the answers Atticus is seeking, including where the spell book pages are, and who he needs to talk to in order to get to them. Though he claims that George slipped him a copy of the by-laws and precepts of the Sons of Adam before he died, it seems that Montrose is at least as interested in protecting its secrets as he is in protecting Atticus from the remaining members of the lodge. If he’s even interested in that — like Christina, one gets the impression that while Montrose may not intentionally mean Atticus harm, he’s also not unfamiliar with the phrase “acceptable loss.”

The trip to Boston is off to a less than ideal start when Hippolyta invites herself, Diana (Jada Harris), and an irritating neighbor named Tree (Deron J. Powell) along for the trip. George’s death, not to mention the unanswered questions and outright lies about it, hang over everyone, and when they split up at the museum, Hippolyta and Diana unaware of the real reason for the trip, the relief is palpable. Though George remains dead (and I remain convinced he’ll come back in some way or another), his ghost is in almost every frame of the episode, guiding his family, and you mourn how excited he would be about the museum, and the adventure Atticus and the others have in it, as terrifying as it is at times.

Meanwhile, back in Chicago, Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) learns that she’s been passed over for the long hoped for job at Marshall Fields department store. She soothes her wounded ego by having a sizzling encounter with a man she meets at a bar — none other than William (Jordan Patrick Smith), Christina’s manservant/presumed lover/something or other. Evidently having survived the events at Ardham, he’s now making promises to Ruby in exchange for, it’s got to be said, a much hotter sex scene than Atticus and Leti got in last week’s episode. What does he promise her? It’s not clear yet, but it’s safe to assume that it’s not anything good in the long run.

Squabbling between the characters aside, the scenes in Lovecraft Country during which Atticus, Leti and Montrose cross over literal abysses, escape certain death several times, and decipher codes are wonderfully filmed, and really do feel like an old-fashioned “how will our heroes escape this?” serial. It’s so absorbing that it’s easy to miss more sobering history lessons, like a museum docent praising Titus Braithwhite’s selflessness in trying to civilize “savage tribes” around the world, bringing back “artifacts” of his trips. Their efforts lead them to a locked room filled with the skeletons of indigneous tribe members forced by Titus to translate ancient texts, one of which, Yahima (Monique Candelaria), regenerates when Atticus attempts to pull a scroll from her hand. 

It’s this scene that (rightfully so) may meet with no small amount of eyebrow raising from some viewers. Yahima describes herself as a “Two Spirit,” a real-life term (though not coined until 1990), and bears both male and female biological characteristics. That Yahima is intersex isn’t really relevant, and seems to exist mostly as a “shock the normies watching at home” moment (especially considering how fake the, ahem, apparatus looks). That she’s brutally murdered at the end of the episode, without really adding anything to the story, is yet another disappointing example of a non-cishet character who’s treated as a symbol of something (in this case Titus Braithwhite’s bottomless cruelty) rather than an actual person.

Atticus and the others do manage to get what we hope, considering all the trouble, turns out to be the missing spell book pages, and, in a clever, creepy twist, escape the vault by elevator — the very same elevator in Leti’s house. They inadvertently leave Hippolyta and Diana behind back in Massachusetts, but that’s okay: after finding the atlas George kept notes in during his fateful trip, they’re about to go on their own adventure.

Dispatches From Kingsport:

  • So can we assume that Tree was left behind in Boston too? Does his character really serve any purpose?
  • I know I’ve already mentioned this, but Jonathan Majors’ ability to express a lot without actually saying anything is unmatched. Those of us with difficult relationships with our parents will immediately recognize the tight smiles and uncomfortable shifting around during a scene with Montrose early in the episode.
  • Adding to the general “not rightness” of everything about Lovecraft Country, Christina drives her car on the wrong side (well, wrong in the U.S., at least).
  • Though “A History of Violence” is presumably a reference to the terror Titus Braithwhite wreaked while doing “research” for the Sons of Adam, I can’t help but recall that the Viggo Mortensen movie of the same name also has an absurdly hot sex scene on a staircase. Hey, come on, this is the exact kind of thing that a “random thoughts” list is for.
  • Left field theory that I just pulled out of my butt: is William just Christina in another form? Have we seen them together yet?
  • Amusingly anachronistic music cue: Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money.” There’s also a perhaps a bit too on-the-nose use of Marilyn Manson’s cover of “I Put a Spell On You.”
  • Though I sincerely wish Yahima had been given more to do than act as a tragic martyr, it’s a nicely nasty twist that Titus cast a spell on her that, once she’s outside the vault, all she can do is let out ear-splitting shrieks. He essentially stole her voice, perhaps the cruelest act of violence imaginable.
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