IN "WHITEY'S ON THE MOON," LOVECRAFT COUNTRY INTEGRATES ITS HEROES INTO A BURNING HOUSE

One of my literature professors was fond of saying that every good book teaches you how to read it. Watching "Whitey's on the Moon"—the second episode of Lovecraft Country—I was reminded that this handy maxim applies to television as well: Every good TV show teaches you how to watch it.

With most shows, this subtle process of viewer on-boarding occurs over the first couple of episodes, and then it's done: Once we get the gist of a show's direction and themes, and once we are accustomed to its tone and tempo, we know more or less what to expect from the series going forward. (With a show like Deadwood, for example, the learning curve may be steep—it takes us a few episodes to acclimate to the show's structure and language—but we only have to travel it once, because the rules and rhythms of the show are consistent throughout.)

With other shows, however, the learning curve is more of a sine wave, an oscillating rise-and-fall we must travel from episode to episode. What we need to get used to with these shows is never getting used to anything, because the show may reinvent itself—partially or totally—from week to week. Anthology shows, obviously, reserve the right to completely change their narrative rules from episode to episode. Black Mirror has an overarching subject—how human nature is revealed through, and affected by, technology—and a more or less consistent editorial perspective. However—even though at least some of its episodes take place within a shared universe—we not only get an entirely new cast of characters each week, but the show's stylistic tone and level of realism may vary wildly from story to story. One episode may cling relatively closely to the logic of the real world, while the next may veer into dystopian fantasy or tongue-in-cheek satire. We have to adjust our narrative expectations anew at the start of each new story.

The trickiest thing to pull off is the serialized anthology show: one long, supposedly continuous story composed of very diverse chapters. The all-time champion in this department may be the science-fiction/fantasy series Doctor Whowhich for 57 years has reinvented itself nearly weekly, while maintaining a continuity throughout. Though the show maintains a permanent main character, and a revolving cast of regulars, it picks them up and drops them, at the beginning of each story, into a completely new locale, with new supporting characters, new problems to solve, and—quite frequently—new narrative rules. One week might be darkly cerebral; the next might be cartoonishly absurd. Thus, what we should expect from each episode needs to be established early, and what we will accept as narratively logical changes with each new entry. (Something completely preposterous according to the rules of one story might work perfectly fine in another, because they are effectively working in completely different genres.)

The rewards of such a format should be obvious, and so should the risks. (I've frequently called Doctor Who "a high-wire act," because the results are dazzling when they work, disastrous when they fail.) The creators of such shows have the freedom to tell a broad spectrum of stories in a vertiginous range of styles, but they also constantly risk alienating some, or all, of their audience. (Imagine, for example, if Game of Thrones had suddenly decided to become a musical-comedy for one episode. The results might have been memorable—even charming—but they also would have been jarring to the point of absurdity.) Suspension of disbelief, emotional investment in characters, patience with season-long storylines, can all be accidentally sacrificed on the altar of experimentation and variety.

However, it's clear from "Whitey's on the Moon"—written by Misha Green, and directed by Daniel Sackheim—that Lovecraft Country is going to be something of a serialized anthology, and it is not going to be afraid of taking these sorts of chances. Last week's episode already took us through a fairly intense adjustment period, as Green acclimated us to this disorienting world through a dizzying array of styles, genres, and narrative devices. But she was, it turns out, just getting warmed up, because, right out of the gate, "Whitey's on the Moon" feels like almost a completely different show.

Some viewers may find that off-putting. Personally, I find it thrilling. Nerve-wracking, to be sure, but thrilling nonetheless. Lovecraft Country is going to take big risks, in search of big rewards. It may not work every week—I'm not sure "Whitey's on the Moon" completely works—but the experiment, clearly, will be fun to watch.

"We finally got a piece of the pie."

Jurnee Smollett in LOVECRAFT COUNTRY 1x02 - Whitey's on the Moon

With shows like we're discussing—the ones that take big, disorienting narrative leaps from episode to episode—the secret weapon in the creator's arsenal is the pre-credits teaser known as "the cold open." (Full disclosure: I happen to love cold opens. I am probably going to talk a lot about cold opens. If I thought anyone would read it, I'd like to write a book about cold opens.) Shows like this need to teach the audience how to watch them again every episode, and—done well—the first couple of minutes can provide a concentrated crash-course, tuning the viewers to the necessary frequencies and managing their expectations accordingly

I spent a lot of time last week unpacking the first two minutes of "Sundown," a dream-sequence tour de force that laid out the project for the entire series with invigorating efficiency. I'm afraid I'm going to spend nearly as much time on the opening of "Whitey's in the Moon": It is a simpler and more efficient opening, but in some ways a more audacious and resonant piece of work. (It also makes me—every single time I watch it—grin like an idiot.)

For even with all its narrative layering, historical references, and genre-homages, nothing in "Sundown" prepared us for the sight of Jurnee Smollett and Courtney B. Vance dancing gleefully to "Movin' On Up," the iconic theme song to the '70s–'80s sit-com The Jeffersons. Certainly, the last shot of that episode didn't prepare us, for we left all three of our heroes exhausted, traumatized, and literally covered in blood. So "Movin' On Up" works as a signal to us that we shouldn't try to adhere too closely to realism and internal logic when watching Lovecraft Country. (Not even the in-story explanation we are eventually provided explains the dance number, after all: It's pure meta playfulness.)

This is also Misha Green putting us on notice that she reserves the right to hit the reset button at the beginning of each new story. (Literally, in this case, since—as we'll discover—Leti and George have forgotten nearly everything that happened last week.) If this is jarring to us in our modern age of heavily serialized drama, it's also worth remembering that this is more or less how episodic television worked for decades: Until the 21st century, most TV was designed so that a new viewer didn't need to know anything about what had happened previously.

Courtney B. Vance in LOVECRAFT COUNTRY 1x02

So this sequence functions as a palate cleanser, an emotional and narrative clearing of the decks before launching into a new tale. But I think it works on a couple of other levels, as well.

First of all, obviously, it begins to establish the themes of the episode. "Finally made it to the Promised Land," Maybelle said last week, as she and Tic left behind the Jim Crow laws of the Old Confederacy and entered the part of America where Black citizens would (theoretically) be free to fully participate in the American dream and achieve prosperity. That's what The Jeffersons was about: George and Louise Jefferson (played by Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford) began life as neighbors of Archie Bunker in a working-class section of Queens, but the success of George's dry-cleaning business moved them on up to the Promised Land, the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The Jeffersons were the first upper-middle class Black family most of America had ever seen, and the song was a celebration of that: "We finally got a piece of the pie."  

Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford as George and Louis Jefferson
Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford as The Jeffersons (CBS, 1975–1985).

So here Leti and George seem to wake up in the Promised Land: They're surrounded by finery, they're waited on hand and foot, and they each have everything they could ever want. (This means George has all the books he could ever want to read, and Leti has all the clothes she could ever want to wear. We'll leave aside, for the moment, the slightly sexist framing of aspirations here, but I suspect we'll come back to it eventually.)

But "Whitey's on the Moon" will deal, in part, with the insidious nature of wealth in America: what it is really based on, and what it means to aspire to participate in it. (George Jefferson—it is worth remembering—was no progressive hero. More anti-hero than hero, he was rude, dishonest, and in his own way just as politically and socially conservative as Archie Bunker had been. This is part of what made him an iconic and somewhat revolutionary character for television, but George was a scheming, small-minded capitalist, and getting his hard-fought piece of the pie did not make him more empathetic towards anyone else.)

So one question the episode raises—without necessarily answering it—is: What should "the American dream" look like for Black Americans? Remembering the Margaret Bourke White photo Lovecraft Country reproduced last week, should it really be as simple as stepping out of the relief line and into the billboard? Shortly before his death, Martin Luther King Jr. had begun to plan the next phase of his activism, which would have focused less on the evils of American racism and more on the (interrelated) evils of American capitalism. "We have fought hard and long for integration," he told his friend and fellow activist Harry Belafonte. "But I've come to believe we're integrating into a burning house." King died while planning the Poor People's Campaign, a multi-racial, multi-ethnic initiative to fight for economic justice. King knew systemic poverty and systemic racism were twins that fed and fed off of each other.

Jonathan Majors in LOVECRAFT COUNTRY 1x02 - Whitey's on the Moon

In our overture, this week, it is only Tic who is troubled by their sudden deliverance into the lap of luxury. And this is because Tic is the only one of the three who remembers. Last week took us on a cross-country road trip in which we hit several of the many racial-injustice landmarks along American highways and by-ways. Last week we heard James Baldwin, asking a key rhetorical question: Is the American Dream at the expense of the American Negro? And last week we discussed H.P. Lovecraft's assertion that "the most merciful thing in the world…is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents." Leti and George are enjoying that merciful ignorance during the cold open: They're just enjoying the prosperity, and their minds have been freed from the memory of what it took to get here. (When they get their memories back, later in the episode, they immediately begin screaming.)

But Tic remembers it all. He remembers the hate, he remembers the struggle, he remembers the blood, and he remembers the monsters. Therefore, he can't enjoy this sudden security and comfort, as George and Leti do—and, arguably, as wealthy Black capitalists like George Jefferson do, seduced by the "spell" of capitalism into forgetting the real horror at its roots. He's inside the American Dream now, looking out, but he knows the cost of getting there, and he knows what it is built on, and he knows it was built at his expense. If the white people have let him inside, that's something to worry about, not celebrate. He's either become part of something evil, or else he is—as he appears to be, gazing out the window—a prisoner of that evil, not a guest or an inheritor.

Tic (Jonathan Majors) in LOVECRAFT COUNTRY 1x02

I don't mean to suggest that Misha Green expects us to consciously process all of this as we watch these two gleeful minutes of television. (I don't even mean to suggest that she necessarily intends it all to be there, though I do think most of this subtext is conscious and deliberate.) But Lovecraft Country is a show that understands the power of the cultural signifiers it assembles, layering them one on top of the other in combinations that resonate, evoke, and provoke.

I suspect this is part of why the actual plots of each episode, and to some extent the actual character arcs, are kept relatively simple and self-contained. Though there is almost certainly a larger, series-spanning arc at work here, for the most part story and character may just be the control rods that focus all the cultural fission and fusion occurring around them. It's in these associative reactions, I think, that all the real power of Lovecraft Country lies.

"My father and his associates would never fraternize with the Klan. They're too poor."

Abbey Lee in LOVECRAFT COUNTRY 1x02

In this spirit, I am beginning to suspect that the best way to approach an episode of Lovecraft Country is probably not linearly. Assuming everyone has watched the episode—If you haven't, what are you doing here?—there's no need for me to recap it, so I think there's more value in tackling the ideas than in proceeding scene-by-scene. (Just as every show teaches you how to watch it, it also eventually teaches me—I always hope—how to write about it.)

So the first thing to tackle this week—as "Movin' On Up" suggested—is the topic of class. The Braithwhites—father Samuel (Tony Goldwyn) and daughter Christina (Abbey Lee)—are old money white people. (They refer to this gigantic mansion—practically a castle—as "The Lodge," and use it as their "summer home.") Their wealth goes back at least as far as the early 19th century, when Titus Braithwhite built The Lodge with a fortune he amassed in "shipping." ("That's code for slaves," Leti observes, and she is almost certainly correct.) So as far as American capitalism is concerned, the Braithwhites are pretty much its heart.

And so—translating this concept into pulp fiction conventions, as Lovecraft Country is wont to do—they are also the heads of a secret society, a nationwide cabal of privilege and power that more or less rules the country. (That part, in fact, barely sounds like fiction.)

And, in being the heart of capitalism, of course, they are also the heart of racism: America's twin demons, working arm-in-arm. The obscene generational wealth they've inherited represents the ill-gotten gains of hundreds of years of oppression and plunder. But they're the architects of racism, and so they don't need to traffic in the petty, day-to-day prejudices of the common man. As privileged white people so frequently are, they are unfailingly polite, acting as if they see no color, and as if everyone is welcome to partake in the luxury they enjoy. The visitors find this disorienting—"When did you ever show up uninvited to a white man's house, and he didn't try to get you out in 2.5 seconds?" Tic asks aloud—but William (Jordan Patrick Smith) says he was told to look out for the visitors, and "treat [them] like family." Christina assures Tic that "Not all us white folks are out to get you.” When Tic suggests that the Braithwhites might be KKK—not just Grand Wizards, but actual wizards—Christina scoffs at the notion. "My father and his associates would never fraternize with the Klan," she explains. "They're too poor."

And this is important, because we are on a whole different stratum of racism than the ones we were occupying last week. There we just encountered the foot soldiers of white supremacy: the disposable pawns like Sheriff Hunt and the rednecks in Simmonsville. There are a few of those people around this week—people like Dell (Jamie Neumann), who speaks of black bears as "blacks" in barely coded racial insults—but they work for the Braithwhites. And so, it is implied, do all the others, in every corner of America, whether they know it or not: They're the pawns, and the Braithwhites are the kings and queens. If the sloggoths are, as I suggested last week, monstrous manifestations of America's racism, the Braithwhites are the ones who birth these monsters, and they're the ones who control them. Out in the everyday world, the sloggoths run wild, consuming white and Black alike—but it's here they are born, nurtured, and raised. They come when the Braithwhites whistle, and they almost literally dance to the Braithwhite's tune.

Christina and a newborn sloggoth in LOVECRAFT COUNTRY 1x02

Like many things in Lovecraft Country, this is actually a fairly sophisticated political point, translated into the accessible language of pulp fiction: White supremacy is an invention of capitalism, a virus birthed and spread to further the interests of greed and economic inequality. This has always been true, everywhere we look in American history. It was used to justify the kidnapping, torture, and enslavement of generations of Africans and their descendants to provide free labor. It was used to justify the mass genocide of Native Americans and the theft of the entire country. Since the Civil War, it has been used to create a permanent underclass of cheap labor. It is used today to drive the lucrative "War on Drugs," and the multi-billion dollar prison-industrial complex, and wars for oil in foreign lands, and successful presidential campaigns. Racism is a tool, wielded by the rich, to advance and protect their own interests.

Michelle Alexander, in her essential book The New Jim Crow1, writes about how—since the 17th century—the rich in America have repeatedly, and deliberately, fostered racist attitudes as a strategy to prevent the poor of all races from allying against their common enemy: the wealthy. She quotes the 19th century populist leader Tom Watson, in a speech he gave to Black and white farmers in 1892, urging them to work together:

"You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system that beggars both."

So yes, as Baldwin told us last week, "the American dream is at the expense of the American negro." But America's tremendous wealth and prosperity is built on the exploitation of the poor, in general, and racism is a convenient tool—a con job—designed to keep poor white people from realizing it. It grants them small privileges in the hierarchy, and affords them the optimism to think they can rise even higher, but it's the people like the Braithwhites who are the real beneficiaries. They're the owners and puppet-masters of the whole damned show.

"He put everything in its place."

Tony Goldwyn in LOVECRAFT COUNTRY 1x02

And so here we get this larger socio-political point condensed and expressed through horror tropes. Samuel Braithwhite is one of the leaders of "The Sons of Adam," a magical secret society of the powerful and privileged, with orders all over the country. The full scope and agenda of the Sons of Adam is not clear yet—I assume they will recur throughout Lovecraft Country—but here Samuel's scheme is simple: He wants to open a gateway to the Garden of Eden, which he believes will make him immortal. And—in keeping with the customary strategy of white capitalism—he will need to sacrifice a Black man, Tic, to do it.

When Adam was alone in the Garden of Eden, Samuel explains, he shared in creation: Through the act of naming, he was tasked with assigning each creature its final form and—importantly—its station in the hierarchy of nature. “He put everything in its place,” Tic says. “Everything was where and as it should be," Samuel agrees. "From god to man, to woman, down to the lowest wriggling creature.” When Tic suggests Samuel sees himself as God in this parable, however, Samuel corrects him: "I'm Adam," he says. "And I've worked a very long time to return to paradise."

As the plot to a horror story, Samuel's plan is hokum, of course, albeit no less plausible hokum than most such plots. (From an in-story perspective, I confess I do not really understand why Samuel thinks it will work, and I do not really understand why it ultimately fails.) As metaphor, however, it's more interesting. Paradise was when man was given complete dominion over the world, and empowered to put everything in its place: to grant the names, to assign the roles, to establish the hierarchy of power with him at the top. This, the Sons of Adam consider their legacy and birthright, a return to the "elegant hierarchy" that existed before it got screwed up by women and "a mess of tribes and nations."

It works on several, uniquely American levels, I think. It's a "fundamentalist" reading of scripture that somehow justifies a naked lust for power, and the total subjugation of everyone else in the world. This is a purpose to which the Bible has been used in America since the first white men arrived, after all. (And it is a nice touch when we discover that Samuel is not really a believer: "I am not a zealot, Mr. Freeman," he says. "The limits of my belief in tradition and ceremony stop at the fact that the others believe it." Religion—like racism—is just a convenient way for him to manipulate others in his quest for power.)

The Sons of Adam's agenda is also a workable metaphor for the agenda of American white supremacists todaya longing to return to the time "before the fall"—before the civil rights movement, before the sexual revolution, before LGBTQ+ rights, etc. As we mentioned last week, when conservatives speak of the Ideal America, they inevitably speak of the fantasy of the 1950s: when things were prosperous for white men, when women stayed at home and raised the children, and when Jim Crow was the pervasive law of the land. They long for a return to the absolute authority to put everyone in their place, to make all the rules, and—not least of all—to control the language and naming. (Just this week, in his second Republican National Convention speech, Trump appealed to his deplorable base by complaining that "Many things have a different name now" and "Americans are exhausted with trying to keep up with the latest lists of approved words and phrases." Language is power, and the idea that anyone but they should have a say in the naming of things continues to trouble conservatives greatly.)

Jonathan Majors in LOVECRAFT COUNTRY 1x02

So reclaiming the legacy of Adam, to these men, means reclaiming their unchallenged, unquestioned dominion over the world. Unspoken of course, is one fundamental truth that should complicate the self-serving theology of the Sons of Adam: To the extent that he existed at all, Adam, like Jesus, was Black. And this is more than simply a rhetorical point, because "Whitey's on the Moon" has at its center one key question: Whose legacy should all this be? Tic, we learn, is a direct descendent of the order's founder, Titus Braithwhite, who sired Tic's ancestor upon (read: raped) a Black maid named Hanna (Joaquina Kalukango). Hanna and her unborn child were the only survivors when the original lodge burned down, during the order's last attempt to perform this ritual, in 1833. (I doubt it is a coincidence that this would have happened just a few months after England passed the Slavery Abolition Act, outlawing the enslavement of human beings in the British Empire. The Sons of Adam may have felt their power slipping a little in 1833.)

So the legacy of the Braithwhite fortune arguably belongs to Tic more than it belongs to Samuel and Christina. ("Just because they don’t want you here, doesn’t mean you aren’t supposed to be,” William tells Tic.) George explains this to the gathered Sons of Adam, and in doing so he also recounts the story of Prince Hall, a Black abolitionist in 18th century Boston. Prince Hall fought for Independence, and helped sign up his fellow enslaved and freed Black men to do so as well, even though the British were offering to set enslaved people free if they fought for the King. Hall and his men hoped they'd have equality in the newly formed country they fought to create—and they were wrong, of course. After the war, Hall couldn't even join the Freemasons (alongside fellow revolutionaries like Benjamin Franklin and George Washington): He had to found his own secret order of Black Freemasons.

So here, George and Tic are invited to the dinner for the Sons of Adam, but—despite Tic's heritage—they do not really have a seat at the table. (They are seated by themselves at their own, separate but equal table.) They will never have a seat at the table, as Samuel makes clear when he more or less rejects Tic's claim to membership and authority under the by-laws. ("Do not mistake useful with indispensable," he says.) The larger point, then, is that Black people have been instrumental in every step of America's formation and flourishing, but at every one of those steps they have been excluded from the prosperity and generational wealth their "usefulness" generated. They built America, but they did not inherit America. It has always belonged to the Braithwhites.

Which brings us to the episode's climax, and to Gil Scott-Heron's extraordinary spoken-word poem "Whitey on the Moon."

"How come there ain't no money here? (Hmm! Whitey's on the moon.)"

Majors in LOVECRAFT COUNTRY 1x02

When Samuel's manipulation fails, he resorts to another always-reliable strategy: violence, and the threat of violence. After the dinner the three visitors attempt to leave the Lodge, now joined by the newly "rescued" Montrose (Michael K. Williams), whom they find tunneling out of his prison in the cellar of the town silo. (Even these little touches are relevant and poignant: The silo is the town's harvest—its proud bounty—but its foundation literally rests on the imprisonment of a Black man.) They have knocked out Dell, they have stolen Christina's silver Bentley, and they are making their escape—but they discover the hard way there is no escape, as they slam into an invisible barrier. (I won't belabor the metaphor of the unseen influence of people like the Braithwhites, or the "invisible empire" of the KKK. Sometimes a force-field is just a force-field.) They are quickly apprehended by Samuel, who promptly shoots Leti and George. He will magically heal them, Christina informs Tic, so long as Tic cooperates with the ceremony.

Even in small elements like this it's possible to read metaphors for how white power functions in America. (When all else fails, there is the threat of retaliation against community as a punishment for rebellion, and there is the promise of rewarding compliance by partially healing damage that power has itself caused.) But let's focus on the grand plan here, and how Tic, a Black man, is once again being sacrificed to reinforce and solidify that power.

Tic undergoes the ritual in LOVECRAFT COUNTRY 1x02

I'll return again—briefly, and with great distaste—to Trump's second convention speech this week. It was, as everything the man says is, designed to reinforce white supremacy. It reassures America that it is "the most free, just, and exceptional nation on Earth," and categorically refutes those who see it as "a land cloaked in darkness" or "a wicked nation that must be punished for its sins." This notion of American purity and exceptionalism is, and always has been, essential to America's self-image, but it is a fantasy that absolutely requires—here we come back to "Movin' on Up"—forgetting everything we actually know about how this nation was built and the horrors that are fundamental to its prosperity.

If it sounds as if I've wandered away from the point, I can only say that Lovecraft Country brought me here, because it understands that this is all the same conversation. Samuel Braithwhite's longing "to share in creation," and Trump's claim that that "our country is blessed by God and has a special purpose in this world" are the same fantasy, with the same purposes: To gain money and power, and to confirm the historical hierarchy in which white men are supreme.

And if you listen to anyone argue for American exceptionalism, you will nearly always hear them go very quickly to one proud moment: We went to the moon. Even now Trump plays that card, promising a return to that comforting, self-aggrandizing vision of America as a country that reaches for the stars. "We will launch a new age of American ambition in space," he said. "America will land the first woman on the moon, and the United States will be the first nation to plant its beautiful flag on Mars." (Trump, like Lovecraft Country, also understands the power of pulp-fiction fantasies: How else can we explain his ridiculous creation of "Space Force," with its Star Trek inspired logo?) And we did go to the moon—but every great thing America has ever done has not only excluded people of color, and required the sacrifice and exploitation of people of color, but has also been used to excuse, justify, and thus perpetuate those injustices.

The American dream, in other words, is at the expense of the American Negro. In the climax of this episode, Lovecraft Country reminds us of this through the lyrics of the great spoken-word poet Gil Scott-Heron, who found nothing to celebrate in the grandiose and expensive achievements of white men:

A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face and arm began to swell.
(but Whitey's on the moon)
Was all that money I made last year
(for Whitey on the moon?)
How come there ain't no money here?
(Hmm! Whitey's on the moon)

Scott-Heron's poem does more than simply provide a counter-narrative to the received triumphalism of the Space Race. It is not simply a matter of his reality existing alongside the reality of white Americans: "Whitey on the Moon," like this episode, powerfully underlines the parasitic relationship between the two. There is no moon landing without the rat-infested slums: One narrative is impossible without the other.

Is this, in a strange way, what causes Samuel's ritual to fail? I've already confessed I'm confused about what exactly happens here from a straight plot perspective. Christina has previously told Tic that "our destinies are not decided by fathers and grandfathers." She gives him a sigil ring of the order—a ring she, as a woman, can never wear herself—and tells him that "the smallest, most inconsequential thing can take you on a new course. You just have to see it, and seize it.” The ring is a symbol of the fact that Tic is a rightful inheritor of America, every bit as much as—or more than—the Braithwhites.

And during the ceremony, as Tic seems on the verge of burning up, he looks down at this ring, which begins to ooze a black smoke. The gateway opens—not to Samuel's "paradise"—but to the Lodge of 1833, and to Tic's own ancestor, Hanna.

Hanna (Joaquina Kalukango) in LOVECRAFT COUNTRY 1x02

It is through Hanna that Tic makes his escape, following his great-great-grandmother out of the collapsing house of capitalism and white supremacy. She is the deliberately overlooked complication in Samuel's vision, the ugly incontestable truth at the heart of his grandiose, self-serving lies. Samuel thought Tic's power came from Titus, and was only "tainted" and "diluted" by Black blood. But Tic will never have, and should not want, a seat at that table: His power will never come from embracing whiteness, from attempting to integrate himself into a burning house. His power is in his Black ancestors. People like the Braithwhites have attempted to make us all forget them—to erase their presence from the narrative, and to deny their rightful inheritance—but they won't be forgotten. Their sacrifice and exploitation built this system, and acknowledging their reality has the power to tear it all down.

Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits

  • I skipped over a lot of stuff this week, I know. Most importantly, I skipped over the death of George: Leti got her magical healing spell—her reparations—but George, the older generation, did not. Is the great Courtney B. Vance really done with this show? (He is listed in all eight episodes on IMDB, for what that's worth.) I confess I winced a little at the construction here: The moment one father-figure (Montrose) re-enters the story, it no longer seems to have room for the other one. But the scenes between George and Montrose were powerful, and felt very real. We learn how the two men processed the brutality of their childhoods (and the world) very differently: Montrose channeling his pain into anger and isolation, George creating his guidebook to attempt to keep their people safe. “You were brimming with love as a boy, despite being afforded so little,” George says. "There's nothing wrong with loving that much." This is the kind of powerful character development I was not sure we were going to get from Lovecraft Country, and I take it as a very good sign.
  • I also skipped what I think of as the "Three Temptations" sequence: the hallucinations all three characters have, apparently for the prurient entertainment of the white people (who watch through magical mirrors in the dining room). George is reunited with Tic's late mother Dora (Erica Tazel), with whom he had an affair. (He may, he later confesses, be Tic's father, something Montrose apparently already knew.) Tic is attacked by a Korean woman named Ji-Ah (Jamie Chung—who also, significantly, played the Red Martian Princess in last week's dream sequence). Is this the woman he called last week? Or is this—as the scene implies—someone he killed? ("Something happened in the war," he says afterwards. "Something bad.") And finally Leti has a vision of Tic, coming to make love to her. This last is the most problematic: Even assuming this is all for the white people's entertainment, Tic's literal "trouser-snake" was a bridge too far for me, and I object to how Leti—though otherwise smart, funny, and tough—seems reduced too often to very stereotypically feminine functions. (She likes clothes, and she longs for a man.) And while the conversation she and Tic have about her mother is nicely done—and beautifully acted by Smollett—its impact (in terms of character and relationship development) is lessened for me by the fact that they didn't really have this conversation.
  • George's take-away from these hallucinations, however, is important: "You know who you are," he tells the young people. "Don’t you ever let them make you question yourself. That’s how you win. They want to make us crazy. Terrorize us. Make us scared. But Letitia-Fuckin’-Lewis don’t get scared, do she?”
  • A fun side-note, just to bring the story of Tic's bloodline full-circle back to where we began: In a 1976 episode of The Jeffersons, George—in a battle with a rival dry-cleaner—conceives an ad-campaign in which he claims to be the great-great-great grandson of Thomas Jefferson and his maid, Sally Hemings. (George finally drops the idea because he doesn't like the idea of being tainted with white blood.)
  • I'm no etymologist, but the word braith seems to have a couple of different meanings. In Welsh, it means speckled, as in an animal that is a mixture of black and white. That etymology is tempting for our purposes, certainly, but I'm inclined towards the Irish meaning, which is to betray: "Braithwhite," then, can be read to mean "white betrayal."
  • How did I get through this entire post without mentioning The Wicker Man homage? It's a bit of a throwaway, but it amused me to see the wicker statue in the village, and the children dancing around it like a maypole.
  • Am I supposed to trust Ivanka—I mean, Christina?  (I do not, for the record, trust Christina.)
  • Ouija boards, haunted houses, and restrictive housing covenants next week? Bring it on.

Notes

  1. Alexander, Michelle, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, New York, The New Press, 2010.

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1 thought on “IN "WHITEY'S ON THE MOON," <I>LOVECRAFT COUNTRY</I> INTEGRATES ITS HEROES INTO A BURNING HOUSE”

  1. A delight as always to have your presence at the virtual water cooler for these amazing shows! Your point regarding the attempt to "control language" made think specifically about both racial slurs and coded language/dog whistles. Those White voices that try to insist that they can control what words and behaviors mean are often so irritated by the fact that not only are they not the sole arbiter of meaning, they sometimes have no say whatsoever in the interpretation of their language. I was struck by the contrast between the "everything in its place" exchange and the story of Prince Hall. The former was structured as a "so we understand each other" discussion. Any such discussion strikes me as an implicit threat. "There will be consequences if you make me say it." Because one can control the meaning of words that don't get said. No one can dispute their meaning. In the case of the Prince Hall story, George was explicit about the racial element of the anecdote. Instead of suggesting a threat, it de-escalated the moment (to my ears). And his meaning was beyond dispute by virtue of the clarity of his words rather than his own control. Thank you again for the essays!

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