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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

On Lovecraft Country, “Whitey’s On The Moon” and we’re in love

From left to right: Jurnee Smollett, Jonathan Majors, and Courtney B. Vance star in Lovecraft Country
From left to right: Jurnee Smollett, Jonathan Majors, and Courtney B. Vance star in Lovecraft Country
Photo: Eli Joshua Ade (HBO
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Lovecraft Country serves up another dish of oh-my-god-what-the-fuck as biblical imagery, science, and magic collide in this haunted house episode, “Whitey’s On The Moon.” Once again, Misha Green’s pen pushes a horrifying narrative mixed with macabre gore, insightful exploration of Black American life in the mid-20th-century, melding the popular voices that spoke truth to power with the images that defined the era. Daniel Sackheim’s direction helps strengthen the show’s roots of Americana and traditional fantasy-adventure elements. We’re moving on up to a family drama with a lot of dark secrets.

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“Now we’re up in the big leagues, getting our turn at bat,” booms the classic theme song of The Jeffersons as Leti (Jurnee Smollett) and George (Courtney Vance) twirl about their new deluxe rooms. The mansion in the middle of nowhere seemingly provides what the heart desires most, by daylight. For George, stacks of books; for Leti, a bespoke wardrobe. But as George and Louise discovered back in 1975, just because they arrived in a better neighborhood, doesn’t mean they’ve escaped their problems. Costume designer Dayna Pink highlights the parallels between these families’ situations by dressing Smollett in a pink dress with a matching jacket, similar to the one actress Isabel Sanford, who played Louise, wore when she first arrived at the East Side apartment. But, Atticus (Jonathan Majors) isn’t distracted by the piece of pie offered to him. He remembers the vampiric beasts out there, and his father’s still mysteriously off in Boston.

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By night, we learn, the mansion offers only horrors. The locked room transports Atticus back to the war. Gunshots ring out and Ji-ah (Jamie Chung), the woman he spoke to on the phone in “Sundown,” attacks him with a knife. She gives him the business, slicing into his shoulder, forcing Atticus to fight back, reducing him to the brute strength that comes with the survival of the fittest. Leti, on the other hand, lives out a romance with Atticus (at last, a love story with the insanely hot leads.) Omg, Leti spills her heart out about her abandonment issues with her mother, and “Atticus” promises complete devotion on the spot.

But haunted houses will not let them know peace. The images of Adam’s snake penis should have been the first clue that these were more than just illusions. In H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, even when a demon unleashed their cruelty on the world, there was always a human holding the reins. And what’s dinner without a show? In making the lodge members privy to what’s happening in the house’s rooms, the Braithwaites make a sex worker out of Leti, a spectacle out of Atticus, and an emotional sadist’s dream out of George. “They want to terrorize us. Make us scared,” George instills in his younger traveling companions. “But Letitia Fucking Lewis doesn’t get scared, does she?”

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Abbey Lee
Abbey Lee
Photo: Eli Joshua Ade (HBO

The mansion, home to the Braithwhites, stands proudly in an open field that is surrounded by woods. The builders situated the brick building so that it would be secluded enough that no one would stumble upon it, yet not guarded like a fortress. No high gate to keeps local youths from snooping around. The behemoth looks more like a university than a home, with its glass domes and Renaissance paintings of white angels descending from the heavens decorating the halls. In other words, this place holds secrets that the owners aren’t concerned about getting out. The law cannot touch them. Perhaps they are the law.

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Titus Braithwhite built this ancestral home. His name, of course, evokes images of the Roman Emperor Titus of Utica, most famous for leading the charge against the first Jewish rebellion. The close-up on the portrait of Titus B. features the same square head as the Roman emperor, and a large white ring that screams cult founder gives Atticus the heebie-jeebies.

Like the emperor, Titus’ loyal subjects dictated his legacy. Titus Braithwhite made his fortune in “shipping,” which Leti quickly declares as code for slavery. William (Jordan Patrick Smith) continues that loyalty by explaining how kind Titus was to the people who worked for him. Later, it’s revealed that kindness was a polite way of saying rape. Given that every burned building reference in the show so far links back to the revolt of slaves and subsequent cover-up of that damage, it’s clear that this is not a welcome place for Black Americans. A fire in the house killed almost everyone inside in the 19th century. Now, a gathering of lodge members heads to the mansion. Leti and George can’t remember their daring escape the night before. Ah! It’s Get Out all over again. Run.

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Jonathan Majors (left), Courtney B. Vance (right)
Jonathan Majors (left), Courtney B. Vance (right)
Photo: Eli Joshua Ade (HBO

Luckily the trio abides by the Black horror movie survival guide’s number one rule: stick together. With that in mind, they agree to check out the town to see if anyone knows more about Atticus’ father. John Fogerty’s “Bad Moon Rising” plays in the background; rumor has it Fogerty wrote the song about an impending apocalypse. Everything looks ancient in town, with wooden one-story shacks with doors that hang slightly off their hinges. Leti, George, and Atticus look like they stepped out of a time machine in their ’50s garb. The townsfolk wear the same attire one might expect to find in a 15th-century French fairytale. I exaggerate, but you get the point. As they weave through the village, none of the townspeople seem particularly concerned about the three new Black people walking through their yards. Leti and George become lost in thought over whether or not Atticus has shell shock. But then they all hear the whistle Atticus described to them earlier.

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Atticus races off to find the source of the whistle. What he stumbles upon is a tall tower made of stone, filled with pig heads, and guarded by a tiny bigot name Dell (The Deuce’s Jamie Neumann). George points out a stone foundation means a dungeon-like basement. This leads Atticus to conclude that his father is trapped down there. Remember, Atticus’ father came to this land seeking his son’s birthright. It’s at this point in the early evening, in the middle of the woods, that George recalls Atticus’ mother saying her ancestor, an enslaved woman named Hannah, escaped while pregnant—and during a fire. It’s not just Dell who owns a magical vampire-stopping whistle. Christina Braithwaite (Abbey Lee) has one, too. Now we have a conspiracy.

George discovers a book of laws for the Order Of The Ancient Dawn just as Atticus meets Samuel Braithwhite (Tony Goldwyn)—son of Titus, father of Christina—in some kind of science dungeon. There’s a lot happening: First, Samuel’s getting a piece of his liver snipped without any anesthetic, in what feels like an attempt to prove his masculinity. For Samuel, the word of God intermingles with the test tubes and journals—he quizzes Atticus and Christina on Genesis 2:19. Both a painting that hangs in the lab and a bible verse, Genesis 2:19 depicts the ordering of the beasts by God’s first creation, Adam. By doing so, “Adam is sharing in creation,” Samuel states. “Assigning each creature its final form and its station in its hierarchy in nature.” Sam envisions himself as Adam: The next best thing to God, and the person to bring order to man.

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Jordan Patrick Smith
Jordan Patrick Smith
Photo: Eli Joshua Ade (HBO

As dinner begins, Titus offers the members of his order a piece of his liver. The show leans into the idea of Black Americans being picky about where they eat, and from whom they accept food. Leti wasn’t afraid to ask for salt at breakfast, knowing it would be necessary to make the meal edible. Atticus stops George from even sniffing the liver the same way a parent would stop a child from eating at a dirty friend’s house. Segregated in their seating chart, George rises to circle the seated attendees to give them a history lesson on Prince Hall. By the end of the speech, George places himself at the head of the table, having proven himself not just educated, but prepared for the order’s schemes. Tic is a son of sons; as such, he orders all of the members other than Samuel out of the room. I held my breath: Tic shot and killed a sheriff, and now ordered a room full of wealthy white men around. As the show’s already displayed, white people kill Black people for far less serious actions.

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Though Tic locates his father, Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams), their reunion isn’t a happy one. Montrose claims he wrote the letter under duress. George’s pain for his brother is evident in crestfallen face and slumped shoulders. He later remembers watching the Negro League players roll into town with his brother. They’d draw colorful signs and cheer for their favorite players. This sign of devotion angered their father, who beat Montrose terribly. Montrose shut his heart away as an act of self-defense. There’s a finite amount of abuse the soul can endure. Many modes of self-defense present in healthy ways, but the destructive ones are easier to come by. Hiding away in a bottle, staying angry at the world—this is how Montrose has survived in a country that hates him, with a father who beat him and a brother who couldn’t stand up for him. This mental state is the safest he’s ever felt. His life is a haunted mansion, where all the rooms beget resentment and physical pain. He can only produce the same feelings for his son, and Tic may not even be his.

In the final scene of splendid horror, Lovecraft Country careens back into allegory as Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey’s On The Moon” plays over a scene of mystic horror. The song articulates the distance Black Americans feel they must travel to reach equity with their white neighbors. Atticus agrees to try to open the door to the Garden Of Eden in exchange for saving George and Leti’s lives. Surrounded by the wealthy elite, too high up the food chain to associate with Klan, George’s body is ripped asunder by an electrical current. George is dealing with some form of PTSD, he’s trying to make amends with a father who is completely lost to the world, and his only real companions are his books. Yet he must pay with his body a toll for Samuel to enter the garden where Samuel might live forever. No one even thinks to explain the possible damage that could befall Atticus. He’s valuable, but not expendable, as Samuel explained in an earlier scene.

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Courtney B. Vance
Courtney B. Vance
Photo: Eli Joshua Ade (HBO

As the door opens, it’s a pregnant Hannah that Atticus sees, not a white Adam. The spell backfires turning Samuel into stone, and once again bringing the house down onto its foundation. Hannah’s ghost escapes, guiding Atticus’ way out of the house. In her hands, she clutches a book that I can only assume is the Book Of Life, which seems like perfect timing after the heart-wrenching loss of Uncle George. Hopefully, this isn’t goodbye, because Vance is slaying this role. I need more.

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Stray observations

  • William, the guy who swears he isn’t the butler, and shows up everywhere unannounced, has to be a hologram. How can he be that quick and quiet? Something don’t seem right about him.
  • Perhaps engineering cows to give birth to demon vampire dogs is part of Samuel’s plan to bringing order to the world? Christina certainly thinks they’re cute.
  • A cult has never been so easily killed. Everything happened so fast. I wonder if Atticus isn’t still caught in some kind of dream simulation.
  • Wait...is Uncle George Tic’s father?!
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A contributor for Playboy and Hollywood Reporter Joelle writes about film, television, and comic books. A speaker, host, and avid podcaster her reviews have been featured on NPR, BBC1, and ET.

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