This week, HBO’s adaptation of Lovecraft Country took an adventurous turn with an Indiana Jones-esque episode that promised to be a fantasy fan’s dream. After last week’s quintessential horror show featuring a haunted house, spirits and an exorcism, this episode’s more upbeat plot fostered anticipation for a lighthearted experience.
Although the fourth episode borrows from a different genre, the show does not stray too far from its supernatural backcloth and intent to explore America’s past and the “horror of white supremacy” (as told by Naila Aroni in the E3 review). Even when we are presented with a new assortment of strangeness, the string that is racial terror and those that dread it ties a knot through all four episodes. With the title “A History of Violence,” this week’s episode likely refers to Titus Braithwhite’s violent imperialist history, that continues to unfold for viewers every episode. So far we know that he was in the shipping business (read: slave trade) and that he explored foreign lands teaching “the way of the civilized man” (read: colonised and destroyed).
The main events of the episode unfold when Atticus, Leti and Montrose head to a museum in Boston in search of a vault that holds Titus’ pages from the Book of Names. Apart from the fact that a museum is probably the most fitting location to find lost artifacts, initially stolen by an insatiable “explorer,” it also offers the perfect set-up for all the fantasy tropes imaginable.
But when the trio return to the museum at night, the narrative almost immediately becomes tortuous to follow. Events take place, and clues are deciphered so quickly that I felt entirely left out of what could have otherwise been an engaging adventure for the audience too. We never get the chance to see cues of information (literally it’s like we are purposely not being made privy to the brochures or symbols on the doors etc. with the dim camerawork) that would have us yelling a possible answer out at the screen before the actors do. And in some of the cases, not even an aforementioned clue could have helped me connect the dots in the moment. For instance, Leti recognised the floating dead body as her missing neighbour incredibly quickly, which was supposed to alert us to the fact that although they are technically in Boston, the underground is actually located in her mansion’s basement; subsequently making it make sense that an elevator somehow appears underground. Yes, watching it play out felt as complicated as explaining it just did.
I appreciate the desire for intricacies and I even find the disregard for the workings of time and space as we know it, pretty cool. But the price of obscurities that make for an “aha!” moment long after the episode is over, is a missed opportunity to almost break the fourth wall and invite us along on this super fun adventure. I have to say, I’d have much preferred the latter. I guess the assumption is that Titus set up the booby traps and the magic spell of the disappearing plank to keep people from accessing the vault with the pages, but there is no way to be certain just yet (another aha! moment pending perhaps).
The vault, we come to find out, also hosts Yahima, who only lasted about ten minutes before experiencing an unnecessarily violent death. An Arawak person who describes themselves as “woman, man, two-spirit,” first shown as a corpse-like figure before they contort into a recognisable being with a non-gender conforming body. There is uneasiness over the nature of their body, that was probably exacerbated by the aforementioned alien-like contortions. Montrose’s “what are you?” confirms that the trio is uncomfortable. And although it is not made clear, when the characters refer to Yahima as she/her going forward, it feels like a misgendering.
Yahima then reveals that they were imprisoned, and have witnessed murders of their people at the hands of Titus- making them understandably sceptical of Tic (Titus’ blood relative). To which Tic responds that Titus was “a monster,” a feeble attempt at empathy after the show’s already insensitive treatment of them. But even after this insensitivity, I was in absolute shock when the newly introduced character was disposed of in the scene right after they escape the vault. So, not only did the show introduce a non-gender conforming, indigenous character and handled their appearance carelessly, they also killed them off violently- all within ten minutes?
There is the fact that Montrose, a main character, doing the killing is supposed to signify that there is likely a grander purpose that will be later revealed to the audience- but given the horrific history of trans representation on TV (and that it has gotten increasingly dangerous for trans people to survive anywhere in the world), this choice (both the killing and the manner it is performed) feels incredibly sinister. And I don’t know that there is truly a purpose that would justify it.
I must say, I have so far enjoyed seeing black protagonists being the heroes at the end of each episode. It has brought me joy to watch them outsmart their opponents (the supernatural as well as the plain ol’ racists), while holding space for each other to the extent possible. That is not the case in this episode and it makes me apprehensive for what is to follow.
The rest of the sub-plots similarly present loose ends of their own. Back in the southside of Chicago, Ruby gets entangled into this ever-expanding storyline by way of sleeping with Christina's loyal aide, William. He claims he could change her life, and from experience we know that that interaction will be nothing short of transactional- it is hard to tell what William (or Christina) wants in return from Ruby just yet. Honestly, I’m just shocked that she went ahead with it after seeing the branding on his chest.
To say next week’s episode has a lot on its shoulders would be an understatement.