There’s perhaps no clearer example of this uneasy divide in priorities than in the series’ overt juxtaposition of historically accurate diegetic performances of songs like Roy Brown’s “Boogie at Midnight” and Louis Jordan’s “Is You is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” and jarringly anachronistic needle drops like the appearance of Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money” and Jade Josephine’s “Get ‘Em” in this week’s episode.
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It’s been a recurring trend so far, and it’s difficult to discern what, if any, thematic purpose or aesthetic function the latter choices serve in relation to the former. It’s a creative decision that winks incessantly at the audience, as if to elicit admiration by dint of sheer recognition. If anything, the tracks themselves feel like the show signaling a subliminal message that we, the audience, should be taking what happens to these characters seriously, but not too seriously, which in essence feels like Lovecraft Country fundamentally undercutting its own emphatic aspirations to treat the real-life horror of Jim Crow-era America with as much gravitas and attention as it does its outlandish plotline of magic-wielding grand wizards and man-eating shoggoths. Of course, this isn’t all that far afield from what Misha Green has done in the past, particularly in her 2016 period drama Underground, though the assorted song choices in Lovecraft Country and the intended effect in how they are used often feel either frustratingly obtuse or entirely too on-the-nose.
Be that as it may, “A History of Violence” itself is an entertaining episode, picking up the serialized plot format last seen in “Whitey’s on the Moon,” albeit now with a far more satisfying spread of moment-to-moment plot and character beats throughout. This week’s episode features its own abbreviated take of “Abdullah’s Book,” one of the early chapters of Matt Ruff’s original novel. With George’s death, the challenge of uncovering the arcane vault of Titus Braithwhite falls to the series’ core trio of Atticus, Leti, and Montrose, who journey to Boston with Hippolyta and Dee in tow under the pretense of a family day trip.
The episode juggles this storyline alongside Christina’s quest to challenge the Chicago branch of the Order of the Ancient Dawn, and Ruby’s seduction at the hands of Christina’s henchman William, who apparently survived the destruction of the Braithwhite lodge in Ardham. This equation of parts ultimately squares to the sum of a subterranean pulp adventure that nods to films like National Treasure or Raiders of the Lost Ark, complete with its own riff on the latter’s iconic Staff of Ra scene. The score for the episode is just as evocative as the visuals, with an ensemble of trumpeting brass horns, fanciful flutes, and lush violin swells unmistakable in their likeness to John Williams’ signature style.
“This is some Journey to the Center of the Earth-type shit,” Atticus utters in sheer astonishment at the scale of the underground maze of tunnels beneath Titus’ museum wing. In contrast to the series’ baffling music choices, the self-aware dialogue and jokes here are definitely one of the episode’s strong points, doubling as not only another example of Lovecraft Country playing with the affordances of pulp and genre fiction, but circling back to Atticus’ abiding love for that type of literature. “If we follow the logic of adventure novels,” Atticus announces at one point, acclimating with more visible confidence to the extraordinary circumstances of his and his family’s predicament.
The relationship between Atticus and his father Montrose, which could generously be described as “embattled” up to until now, is another prime point of focus for the episode. When we last saw Montrose, before his confrontation with Hippolyta, he was stewing in his heartache at the loss of his brother. “A History of Violence” picks right back up on that thread, opening with Montrose lying on his back in a stupor of grief-ridden inebriation. Everyone’s got their own way of dealing with grief— some healthier than others. Montrose’s just happens to be getting piss drunk and lighting things on fire, namely the Order of the Ancient Dawn bylaws George gave him before he died in order to protect Atticus and the rest of their family.
“Smells like Tulsa,” he mutters over a flaming trash can, presumably in reference to the infamous Tulsa Massacre of 1921 which played a prominent role in HBO’s Watchmen series last year. Whether Lovecraft Country will attempt its own exploration of that same sordid event is anyone’s guess, but what’s unmistakable is that Montrose is haunted by several traumas of his own: whether it be his emotional shortcomings as a father, his own tumultuous upbringing, or the terrible forbidden knowledge of…something that he desperately wants to withhold from his son in an effort to protect him. At any cost. The place this episode leaves his and Atticus’ relationship may not be perfect, but it’s a long-overdue step on the road to reconciliation. At least for now.
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Touching back for a moment on last week’s episode, there’s something I overlooked in my review of “Holy Ghost” that feels especially pertinent in light of the events of this week’s episode. As cited by critic Joelle Monique in her review for The A.V. Club, the words spoken at the beginning of “Holy Ghost” were not originally those of Leti’s mother’s, but rather a spoken-word poem delivered by Precious Angel Ramirez in a 2017 Nike commercial dedicated to the life of trans Afro-Puerto Rican vogue dancer Leiomy Maldonado, cleverly interpolated to take on a new meaning within the context of the episode, not unlike how the late J-Dilla flipped an innocuous sample of The Singers Unlimited song “Clair” into one of the most iconic rap beats of his career. All of which is to say that the appearance of a mummified two-spirit Guyanese spiritualist in the bowels of Titus’ vault is not as far out of left field as viewers might assume at first blush. They’re a fascinating character, unprecedented in Ruff’s own novel, and one whose very existence offers a new dimension to the series — their untimely death notwithstanding. Though admittedly the chances of them coming back, in some form or another, are about as good as George’s – or perhaps even better given the state in which they were found.
And then there’s the story of Leti’s sister Ruby, which we’ll probably see more of in next week’s episode. While peripheral to the episode’s A-plot of finding Titus’ vault, Ruby’s seduction at the hands of Christina Braithwhite’s henchman William sets the stage for the series’ own rendition of “Jekyll in Hyde Park,” one of the stranger chapters of Lovecraft Country’s source material. It’s been interesting to watch the series remix the elements of Ruff’s writing into a story that pays respect to the original without deferring to it verbatim. If Hippolyta’s revelation and reaction at the end of this episode is any indication, things are clearly about to reach a head for the Freeman family.