Lovecraft Country’s pilot, “Sundown,” was an ambitious combination of historical world-building, excellent acting performances, commentary on race relations and family dynamics alongside introductions to horrors of both cosmic and Jim-Crow era proportions.
We’re introduced to the lead, Atticus “Tic” Freeman, through a nightmare sequence that superbly characterizes him and sets the tone for the premiere. The scene begins in black and white trench warfare but quickly evolves into a colorful display of sci-fi madness. Flying saucers hover overhead while menacing creatures zip through the sky.
In the midst of chaos, a red woman (Jamie Chung) descends from a spaceship, embracing our hero and warning him of a Cthulhu rising behind him. Tic is saved by Jackie Robinson, who appears and smashes the cosmic deity with one swing of his bat. Immediately, though, the Elder God starts to reform, but before the battle can continue, Tic wakes up on a Greyhound leaving the south.
I loved this introduction because it was weird, wondrous and contained a wealth of subtext.
It clearly establishes that our hero, a Korean war veteran, will soon face enemies of otherworldly proportions and creates a sense of him feeling overwhelmed by starting with such a creative flair, ensuring that later sci-fi elements don’t seem out of place.
Our hero leaves the bus, and we’re introduced to a far less wonderful world: 1950s America. Tic eventually returns home to Southside Chicago, where he’s reunited with his Uncle George Freeman, Aunt Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis) and cousin Diana (Jada Harris). He doesn’t stay for long, after some investigating he sets off on a journey to Ardham, Massachusetts, to find his missing, estranged father, Montrose (Michael K. Williams).
Before he leaves, he’s reunited with a former childhood friend, Leticia “Leti” Lewis, who joins his quest. She’s introduced when she joins her sister, Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku), onstage in a street concert that clearly illustrates their dynamics — Ruby’s the responsible sister, Leti’s the free spirit — and treats the audience to a wonderful duet.
This episode does an amazing job of both introducing characters to root for and establishing stakes. All three leads, Tic, Uncle George Freeman and Leti, have clear motivations, conflicts and characterizations that make them feel unique, human and relatable. Even Montrose, who doesn’t appear in the first episode, carries a mysterious aura and descriptions from second-hand sources that make him feel alive.
Much of the second half of the episode is spent traveling from town to town from the Midwest into the Northeast. During each stop, the characters confront different forms of discrimination, whether it be white citizens racially abusing Tic at a food stop, racist townies from whom they’re only saved by Leti’s excellent driving and a mysterious white woman in a magical Bentley or racist cops who set them up toward the climax.
These instances, alongside a powerful sequence narrated by James Baldwin, show that monsters are real before the Shoggoths — HP Lovecraft monsters who are blobs of eyes and viscous like rottweilers — arrive.
Lovecraft’s influence can be felt through much of existential horror entertainment. Another show that takes cues from Lovecraft is Rick and Morty, which often features themes of dread, human insignificance and social commentary.
The difference between Lovecraft Country and Rick and Morty’s adventures is that while Adult Swim’s hit simply takes inspiration from Lovecraft’s work, HBO’s soon-to-be hit takes not just visuals and themes, but also a responsibility to subvert and confront the legacy of one of the most influential and horrifically racist writers by centering Black characters with agency, intelligence and humanity and showing the beasts of their times weren’t just restricted to the cosmos.
“Sundown” superbly sets the stage for a series that is helmed by JJ Abrams, Jordan Peele and the superbly talented Misha Green, and if later episodes are of this quality, it could have a profound effect on American entertainment like the creator of its namesake.