In a world enveloped by Lovecraftian lore, Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors) goes in search of his missing father, uncovering a plethora of secrets about his past and future in the process. Accompanied by his friends, family and enemies it’s up to Atticus to thwart the evil from enacting their heinous plans.
Lovecraft Country came right out the gates with a pilot episode that did not miss a single beat. Phenomenal in every sense of the word, that initial episode set up the story, the tone and the characters in a way that not only implored you to watch on, but demanded you to. The issue with starting on such a high note is that it’s only down from there. Don’t worry, I’m not saying Lovecraft Country gets bad, however, it does have its fair share of missteps that prevent it from being the completely mindblowing series it looked to be. As I said, the story and tone are set up very delicately early on; there’s mystery, intrigue, danger and monsters, which all works for drawing you into the story. The story is a blend of Lovecraftian horror and the exploration of racism in 1950s America, so in other words – twice the horror. Neither of those two elements drop the ball, rather it’s the tangent journeys the characters take and some bold tonal shifts between episodes that are the biggest hinderances.
After you get through a couple of episodes, it’s very clear that the approach for the season is that each episode is directed in the style of a different genre. There’s supernatural horror, mystery thriller, sci-fi adventure… there’s even a National Treasure-esque cave-exploring adventure slammed right in the middle of the series. All of this is great for diversifying a series and I loved it for the varying cinematic techniques used in each episode, however, it leads to the biggest thing holding this series back… an identity crisis. It’s almost as if this series doesn’t know exactly which elements of the Lovecraft Country novel to focus on, so it just tries to tackle all of them. It wants to explore the Lovecraftian horror, while delving deep into the magic elements, while also going down character-centric arcs and touching on systemic racism in the US. It’s a lot to cover and I have to say it feels quite crammed and inconsistent with how often it jumps around. It loses its way though the middle of the season, still delivering great episodes, but ones that don’t feel connected to the main story and the main mystery at hand.
It does turn itself around going into the final few episodes, with the setup leading to the finale providing some incredible stuff. The penultimate episode does what a penultimate episode should do – be the biggest episode of the season – and it does that incredibly well. Then, just as things have been on the up again, the finale comes along. It’s by no means a bad finale, I would in fact say it’s a very good finale, but it’s not nearly as satisfying as I’d hoped. Everything comes full circle in this one episode and unfortunately the payoff can’t live up to the expectations it set before it. It puts a cap on what is a rollercoaster of highs and lows, with some absolutely stellar highs and a couple of meh lows.
If not for the story, the series excels due to the absolutely stellar performances from the immensely talented lead cast. Jonathan Majors leads the way with an absolutely spellbinding performance, depicting raw emotion and terror so authentically that you buy into his character’s journey almost immediately. His performance only continues to get better with each passing episode, in part due to the building relationship he shares with his father, played by Michael Kenneth Williams, who at times completely steals the show when it comes to raw emotion. Jurnee Smollett, alongside Majors, is a powerhouse through this entire series, with an incredible performance that commands the spotlight across a number of key episodes, especially going into the final stretch. More than the individual performances, it’s the chemistry the main group of characters shares and the relationships they build that really shine. That’s what makes the finale really work, is that by that time you’ve become heavily invested in every character to the point where no matter who is being focused on, it’s intriguing stuff.
Every character has an intriguing arc through the series, with each one having time spent dedicated to fleshing out their past and drastically developing their character. Some backstory-centric and character-centric moments are weaved very well into the series, however, some stand out as being very drastic detours. Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis) has an episode dedicated to her growth which is quite good, but in hindsight it just feels like one of the least memorable episodes. The impacts of the episode are astronomical, but the events themselves are just good. It’s more obvious with the mysterious Ji-Ah (Jamie Chung) whose episode, as a standalone, is undeniably incredible. However, in the context of the overall season, it adds almost nothing to the wider story. This is part of that identity crisis, where her character is a part of the book but she doesn’t really have time in here to develop into a compelling character.
In the end, despite its issues with a quite obvious identity crisis, Lovecraft Country still manages to deliver a season of TV that is exciting, engaging and thrilling… at least for the majority. It kicks off on a high note and delves into a couple of “just good” episodes before ramping back up to a finale that doesn’t quite hit the mark. The way it kicked off, it really had the potential to be one of the best series’ of the year, but it just couldn’t maintain that level of quality. The performances across the board are absolutely stellar, with both Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett to no doubt get even more starring roles going forward. The blend of Lovecraftian horror and the horrors of the US in the 1950s is still one of the best and most well executed elements of the series, and worth the watch alone. This is another hit for HBO that, if it receives a second season, would be freed from the bounds of its source material… something that could be both good and bad.