Phantoms trouble the survivors of Ardham in an outstanding episode that pays homage to classic haunted house movies.
Warning: don’t read until you’ve watched the entire episode!
PROTIP: if you’re recapping a TV show based on a book, maybe try reading the source material first, just for the heck of it. Though adaptations, particularly those written for TV, rarely follow books to the letter (indeed, The Outsider was significantly different), it’s at least good preparation. Otherwise you’ll end up flailing around in the dark like me with last week’s episode of Lovecraft Country, which seemed to have enough plot to carry it halfway through the season.
I was a little puzzled by how quickly everything seemed to unfold, and how soon certain mysteries, like Atticus’s mother’s “secret legacy,” were solved. If I had read Matt Ruff’s novel, however, I would know that it was structured like an anthology involving the same characters, and that the Ardham plot was simply one of several stories. Things slow down to a more reasonable pace in “Holy Ghost,” a Leti-centered episode of Lovecraft Country that meshes real life horror with a haunted house movie.
It’s some weeks after the events at Ardham, and George, surprisingly, is still dead (though I remain certain that it won’t be the last we see of him). Atticus (Jonathan Majors) and Montrose (Michael K. Williams) are struggling with guilt over his death, Montrose by drinking and Atticus by temporarily moving in with Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis) and her daughter, Diana (Jada Harris), to help out around the house. He quickly wears out his welcome with Hippolyta, however, who suspects that Atticus and Montrose are hiding the truth behind George’s death. Nonetheless, Montrose refuses to tell her, because she doesn’t need to know that “white folks have magic on their side.”
Leti (Jurnee Smollett) is doing okay, though, even great, considering what she’s been through. Though cagey about where she got the money to pay for it, she’s bought a dilapidated house in the North Side of Chicago that looks like nothing if not the Bates house in Psycho, but it’s hers free and clear. Leti has big plans for it, though, asking her skeptical sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) to move in and help her turn the house into an artist’s colony. She’s literally not even fully moved into the house before her white neighbors begin a campaign of harassment, parking outside the house and laying on the horn at all hours of the day (which surely must be annoying for their other neighbors as well, but these morons don’t care either way). Leti is too excited about the house and all its potential to be anything more than annoyed, though, at least at first.
His plans to return to Florida briefly on hold, Atticus moves into the house as well. If you were wondering when he and Leti were going to act on their scorching chemistry, it happens in this episode, in a signature HBO weirdly aggressive and not very sexy sex scene (but at least it doesn’t happen from behind this time). It ends with the reveal that Leti is (or was, rather) a virgin, and though it presumably puts to rest the misconception that she’s been around, it doesn’t really seem to be much of a relevant plot point. It also, curiously, doesn’t seem to change the dynamic of her and Atticus’ relationship, such as it is.
Leti doesn’t really have a lot of time to think about it, though, because just as the harassment from her neighbors begins escalating, so too do signs that malevolent forces exist in her house. They may not mean to do her harm, specifically, but they’re angry about something, and they’re particularly active in the ominous looking basement, which has a kill floor and a trap door that probably wasn’t mentioned in the real estate ad. Speaking of spectral presences, George is still around, communicating via Ouija board and sending messages to Hippolyta, setting up what is presumably a separate story in which Hippolyta will light out on her own to find out what really happened to him.
The ghosts in Leti’s house aren’t the only ones who are angry — Hippolyta is angry too, angry at George for leaving her, angry at Atticus for lying to her, and angry at the world that makes it impossible for her family to live in peace. For all of George’s compliance and “get along to get along” attitude about the racism he was confronted with his entire life, where did it get him?
A party Leti throws is interrupted by a show of force with a burning cross on her front lawn, which she confronts in a very un-George-like fashion, by smashing in her neighbor’s windshields. This, not surprisingly, gets her arrested and thrown around inside the paddy wagon, not unlike what happened to Freddie Gray in Baltimore, although Leti survives with a few bruises and her pride wounded. After demanding to know where she got the money to buy her house, one of the cops tells her, while all but licking his chops in delight, that it’s the site of the mass murder of Black Chicagoans some years earlier, “and if history is any indication, you last much longer there either.”
Leti’s research reveals that a previous owner of the house, Dr. Hiram Epstein, was the subject of a scandal in which he ran “unethical experiments” on individuals he essentially kidnapped, assuming no one would miss them. The ghosts in the house aren’t just his victims, but Epstein himself, who forms a phantom face in photographs Leti’s taken, demanding that she leave. With the help of a medium (and Atticus, who, oddly considering what he’s been through, is skeptical about the whole thing), she performs an exorcism, just as her neighbors break into the house seeking revenge for a situation they themselves started.
This leads to an episode climax that is both terrifying, and incredibly satisfying (not unlike the end of episode one). We finally see the ghosts of Dr. Epstein’s victims, bearing the hideous wounds of his “experiments” (including one who’s a horrifying yet hilarious combination of an adult man with a infant’s head), as the reap their vengeance on Leti’s neighbors, while leaving her to do battle with the vile ghost of Dr. Epstein himself, who first possesses the medium, and then Atticus.
Epstein’s victims circling him to send him to Hell (or wherever racist murderers go), while their bodies are made whole again, is one of the most powerful TV moments I’ve seen so far this year. It’s oddly beautiful, it’s spine-tingling, and it’s sorrowful, in a way that’s difficult to articulate. One can only hope that when fate finally comes to collect, bad people will be forced to face those who they’ve hurt, as their power to cause so much pain is drained out of them.
After recovering from his temporary possession (or so we hope), Atticus, while running an errand in the city, spots someone he hadn’t expected to see again: Christina Braithwhite (Abbey Lee), who’s neither surprised or particularly unhappy to see him. Though Leti claims she bought the house with money unexpectedly inherited from her late estranged mother (a reveal that seemingly destroys the already tenuous relationship she has with Ruby), Christina is her benefactor, but not out of kindness. The original owner of the house, Herman Winthrop, was also of Son of Adam, like Christina’s father, and stole pages from a spell book, hiding them in a secret vault somewhere in the house. It’s not quite clear why she needs Leti, but given what’s happened so far, it’s probably not for anything that would end well.
Speaking of spells, Christina casts one on Atticus that stops him from shooting her. “You know, you really have to be smarter than this,” she purrs, smooth as silk. “You can’t just go around killing white women.”
Dispatches From Kingsport:
- I’m sure I’m missing a few less obvious ones, but I particularly enjoyed the references to The Shining, The Amityville Horror and Thirteen Ghosts. Some of them, like the ticking off of how many days Leti has stayed in the house, seem to be done with tongue firmly planted in cheek.
- Given Leti’s reaction to accidentally telling Ruby where the money for the house came from, can it be assumed that she really does believe that, and this is more of Christina’s tricks?
- I will never recover from the stunning teal fringed dress Leti wears at her party.
- I keep mentioning Jonathan Majors as a rising star of Lovecraft Country, but this episode belongs strictly to Jurnee Smollett. Her defiance masking sorrow and fear is one of the heartbeats of the show, and her terrified keening at the sight of Atticus possessed by Dr. Epstein is one of the most gripping moments of the series so far.
- Wonder what the significance of Hippolyta tearing pages out of a copy of Dracula (George’s favorite novel, it’s pointed out later), and then replacing it with a new copy?
- Much like Watchmen opening with the Tulsa riots and the destruction of Black Wall Street, Lovecraft Country also offers sobering lessons on the long history of white people inflicting horror upon Black people. If you have the stomach for it, read about J. Marion Sims, the “Father of Modern Gynecology,” who practiced his techniques on slaves, without anesthetic. It also uses its period setting to reflect on how little things have actually changed in the modern era, as reflected by the story of Jennifer McLeggan, a Long Island nurse who endured a three year-long campaign of racist harassment by her white neighbors, who were finally arrested earlier this month. Her crime? Buying a house across the street from them.
- On a lighter note, there’s a “Chekhov’s broken elevator” in this episode of Lovecraft Country, and it is great.