It has been clear from the beginning that Lovecraft Country would feed us historical fact and horror fiction in more or less equal measures. What has been less clear—as I said at the end of my piece on the pilot episode "Sundown"—is which ingredient was really the base, and which was the flavoring. "Is it primarily a horror-adventure series lent weight by reframing systemic racism in horror tropes?" I asked. "Or is it primarily an examination of systemic racism made exciting through the use of horror conventions?"
And it has been unclear how successful the show would be in translating either its horror or its history into emotionally compelling drama. As fascinating as Lovecraft Country's storytelling has been, I think, if pressed, I would have described the actual plots of the first couple of episodes as "serviceable but crowded," and the characters as "engaging but underwritten." Overall, this has been a show, for me, where the presentation and the subtext were far more interesting than the text itself. So, to be honest, I was really hoping "Holy Ghost" would slow things down a bit, spend some much needed time fleshing out its characters, and perhaps provide some good old-fashioned scares. I was ready to see a slightly simpler episode, that is to say, and see if Lovecraft Country could do one or two things very well, rather than trying to do quite so many things at once.
As it turned out, "Holy Ghost"—written by Misha Green, and directed by Daniel Sackheim—gave me a lot of what I wanted, but it also turned out to be something even better. Though no less resonant than previous entries, "Holy Ghost" is a more solid, consistent, and coherent hour of television, and a near perfect merging of the show's storytelling and social-commentary sensibilities. It is full of historical references and cinematic homages, of course, but "Holy Ghost" is the first episode of Lovecraft Country that feels like its own unique thing, not just a pastiche cleverly assembled from other materials. And—if it lacks a few of the dizzying narrative heights of "Sundown" or "Whitey's"—it is also the first episode that really drew me into the story and made me genuinely care about the characters as more than devices.
In short, "Holy Ghost" feels like Lovecraft Country hitting its creative stride. And—between a powerful, character-based script, and a truly stunning performance by Jurnee Smollett—it assuages any doubts I had about whether this show can do emotionally compelling drama well.
"Which angels gave you their wings?"
After two episodes that centered Tic as the central character, Lovecraft Country wastes no time in letting us know that "Holy Ghost" is going to be Leti's story, from start to finish. The cold open this week finds her at George's funeral, the sole attendee sitting still and crying while all the other mourners sing and dance around her. She alone is not moved by the holy spirit; she alone is not joining in the celebration of George's homegoing; she alone is not at one with, and in sync with, her community.
There's a reflection, here, of last week's cold open, when Leti and George were dancing, and Tic was the one sitting still and darkly contemplating. Throughout Lovecraft Country—in fact, it was the very first thing I discussed in my reviews—there has been a question of how you go on with your life in full awareness of all the horrors and injustices and dangers around you. How do you reconcile these realities? How do you stay right in the head while still processing all the wrongness around you? "The most merciful thing in the world is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents," Lovecraft told us, and here Leti sits correlating everything she has seen and everything she has been through. She was attacked by monsters, and she witnessed magic, and she endured the gross inhumanity of normal white people, and she herself—as she reminds Tic later in the episode—died. "And honestly, since I been back, I felt like a ghost. Like something's missing."
But it is, I suspect, more than even all of that. Throughout this episode, and from snippets we've gleaned in the past, we get the impression that Leti herself has always been missing: estranged from her family, disconnected from her community, somehow above and apart and away. She left her home, she didn't come back for her mother's funeral, and she doesn't use her mother's name. She's taken money from her brother and sister—lying about why she needed it, and what she used it for—and then (as we learn) didn't even share with them what she thought was an inheritance from their mother. She has always—as Ruby accuses her later—looked out for Leti first.
It's this disconnection we feel as we see Leti sitting at George's funeral, looking for all the world like a dispossessed ghost at her own funeral. And laid over this scene is the narration (by Precious Angel Ramirez) from the 2017 Nike Pride Month ad celebrating vogue artist and transgender pioneer Leiomy Maldonado:
What did you do, to make a mark on this world?
What mountains did you climb?
Which angels gave you their wings?
Which skies have you flown?
When you reached the heavens, who was there to catch when you fell?
And did they tell you that you saved them too, like you saved me?
That they are mending their wings and holding them up to the sun, just to step back and watch you fly.
So go ahead, Lei: fly.
I confess I didn't immediately recognize the reference, and, once I looked it up, I was not immediately struck by its relevance. And yet—as she has already demonstrated with the Baldwin speech in "Sundown," and the Gill Scott-Heron poem in "Whitey's"—Misha Green is a deft hand at this sort of textual layering. The ad is a celebration of both individual achievement and community, but here, as a representation of what's happening in Leti's mind, it becomes a sign of both self-awareness and self-reproach. What has she done, to make her mark on the world? What gratitude has she shown to the people who caught her when she fell, and what has she done to, in turn, save them? Leti is an expert at running away, but what will it take for her to finally take wing and fly? The text serves simultaneously as accusation, realization, and inspiration.
Leti is broken, not whole in herself and not one with her community. Something needs to change. And the genius of this sequence—with the layering on of this external narration—is that Leti doesn't know it yet, not in any way she's correlated, and not in any way she herself could articulate right now. The narration becomes a powerful evocation of a subtle but vital emotional shift in Leti, one of which she is not, at this point, necessarily even aware. And so it's also—as we'll discuss—a roadmap for the entire emotional journey she'll take throughout "Holy Ghost."
“My house is haunted.”
On last week's Lovecraft Country, we visited the home of some rich white people, and discussed how their obscene generational wealth denied—and was at the expense of—the birthright of Black Americans. This week, in "Holy Ghost," we see Leti suddenly deciding to claim her own piece of the pie, by buying a little piece of America for herself. ("Movin' On Up," the Jeffersons theme song that opened "Whitey's on the Moon," would have served almost equally well here.)
It's in the light of the cold open that we can understand a little of Leti's motivation here. The house she chooses is a bit of a fixer-upper, but it's large: It has 13 rooms (bad luck, of course) and a elevator that is dangerously unreliable. (Upward mobility comes with all kinds of dangers.) But Leti tells Ruby she wants them to live there together and turn it into a boarding house, a "safe haven for colored folks" on the (predominantly white) North Side of Chicago. This is, as Ruby points out, a dangerous plan, since efforts to "pioneer"—to integrate traditionally white Chicago neighborhoods—have not gone well. (Ruby references what happened at the Trumbull Park Homes, after the Chicago Housing Authority "mistakenly" placed a light-skinned Black woman in the public housing there in 1953. Commonly referred to as "race riots," it was actually a sustained campaign of harassment, violence, and terrorism carried out by white residents for years.)
And indeed, in "Holy Ghost," before we even see Leti and Ruby, or the house, we see one of their white neighbors spying on them suspiciously out her window. (This is classic horror-movie framing, like the shots of Michael Myers watching his intended victims walk down similar suburban streets in Halloween.)
So—referring back to the cold open—this is Leti's mountain to climb, and a way for her to reconnect with, and give back to, both her community and her family. It is interesting to note, however, that it is also a way for her to separate herself from her community and family: She does not buy property in the existing Black community on the South Side, after all, but way on the other side of town in a white neighborhood. Later, she will brag about bringing the South Side north, but Ruby will suggest that all she's done is move in her bougie artist friends. So I think Leti's disconnect from her community at this point is complicated in really interesting ways that have to do with both class and (with Leti being much lighter-skinned than her sister) colorism. She is trying to both crusade for her people and escape them, lift them up while rising above them.
But, of course, there is no escape, ever. Leti tries to buy her own little piece of the American dream—a house on the North Side—but there is no patch of earth in America free from the legacy of racism. Her new white neighbors waste little time in trying to drive her out, blasting their car horns day and night, and even burning a cross on her lawn. And her new house—she discovers quickly—is haunted, literally from the foundation up.
I was reminded of a line from Toni Morrison's Beloved. In that novel, the ghost of a slain Black toddler haunts the house at 124 Bluestone Road in Cincinnati, Ohio. The family who lives there—her family—endures the ghost-child's tantrums for years: the shattered mirrors, the overturned pots, the tiny handprints that appear in the frosting of a cake. At one point, the dead child's mother, Sethe—a former enslaved woman who has escaped to the north—suggests that the family move.
"What'd be the point?" her mother-in-law asks. “Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with some dead Negro’s grief. We lucky this ghost is a baby.”
Leti's house is no different: it is literally packed to the rafters with the ghosts—and the grief—of Black Americans. Green and Sackheim pull out all the classic ghost scares here, ranging from EC comics-style images of almost comically grotesque figures (the basketball player with a baby's head), to Japanese-horror homages (the spectral hand pulling sheets off Leti's bed while she sleeps, the blurry faces in photographs, et cetera), to more specific references like Evil Dead (the trap door) and The Shining (the dangerous boiler).
But the important thing, here, is that these ghosts are not the enemy. They commit no assaults on Leti or her guests: If anything, they are simply asking for acknowledgement and offering warnings. The real enemy is the live white people (the neighbors who immediately begin terrorizing Leti and her boarders) and a dead white ghost (who turns out to be "scientist" Hiram Epstein [Miles Doleac], who conducted horrifying experiments on Black subjects).
The figure of the scientist is very Lovecraftian. (One of Lovecraft's most famous characters is arrogant and unethical scientist Herbert West, whose misdeeds became the basis of the loose 1985 film adaptation Re-Animator.) But it also draws on much darker real-life incidents. I promised myself I was not going to go off at length on too many historical tangents this week, but a brief one here is appropriate.
Leti identifies the ghosts by name, and discovers them to be people who disappeared from the South Side, kidnapped by the white cop Captain Lancaster to supply Epstein with subjects. The names of the women—Anarcha, Betsy, Lucy—are the names of the real-life victims of Dr. J. Marion Sims, the so-called "father of modern gynecology." In the middle of the 19th century, Sims conducted horrific gynecological experiments on at least a dozen enslaved Black women, without anesthesia. (Anarcha, Betsy, and Lucy are simply the only three names he bothered to record in his notes.) Meanwhile, the names of the male ghosts here—Rufus, Jasper, Grover, Phillip—are all to be found among the victims of the Tuskegee Experiments, in which researchers from the U.S. Public Health Service gave hundreds of Black men syphilis, without their knowledge or consent, and then tracked the progression of their blindness, insanity, and deaths over the next four decades.
So this is once again Misha Green translating and repurposing historical injustices into the language of pulp-fiction horror, as she has done throughout Lovecraft Country. But I think one of the reasons "Holy Ghost" works so well is that, here, Green is anchoring all her historical references and horror tropes firmly in character in a way she has not yet done. This is not a "monster-of-the-week" story in which there is an external problem to be solved: The stakes of this story are all about Leti's character, her need to reconnect with her community, reclaim her power, and find her rightful place in the world.
“I thought the world was one way, and I found out it isn’t, and it terrifies me.”
Jurnee Smollett's performance throughout "Holy Ghost" is tremendous. (So far, at least, "Holy Ghost" is definitely her Emmy submission episode.) As I suggested above, I have been a little disappointed with the character-level work of Lovecraft Country previously—it did not seem to be sufficiently interested in these people as people—but "Holy Ghost" suggests that Green and her actors understand these characters completely. This is a coming of age story that plays out over a single hour, and we could trace Leti's difficult path to maturity simply by watching Smollett's face and body language throughout. Her childlike enthusiasm as she attempts to sell Ruby on the idea of buying the house. The way she skips around the house on Moving Day, taking pictures of all her tenants but not doing any actual work. The way she skates through her housewarming party playing hostess, always moving, projecting a carefree image, but never slowing down long enough to connect with anyone or reveal herself to them. The way her playful, flirty dancing with another man at the party becomes sensuous and seductive the moment she knows that Tic is watching—and then how she retreats to the bathroom, exhausted, needing to get away and be by herself for one overwhelmed moment. We realize watching her how much of Leti's existence is, and probably always has been, performative. She is an introvert pretending to be an extrovert, working hard to project an image of the woman she wants to be and (perhaps more importantly) the woman she wants to be seen as.
And we also realize—as dumbass Tic does way too late—that Leti is much more innocent than we suspected. I do not mean simply her physical virginity (though the scene in which Tic rather abruptly "deflowers" her serves as almost the exact turning point halfway through this episode). We have heard a little of her childhood trauma with her mother, a woman who apparently hustled her way through life and never quite grew up. And we suspect, from what little we've heard of her own life, that Leti never quite grew up herself. (She is the youngest child: Ruby—older, more conservative, more realistic, and more than a little maternal—was no doubt forced to grow up too quickly.) We suspect Leti has stayed that scared little girl, skating through life (armed with a little of her mother's hustle), never staying anywhere long, never putting herself in a position to get hurt. (It is no coincidence, I think, that she is a photographer, preferring to view the world—and other people—from behind the distancing filter of a lens.)
And we suspect Leti has, as a Black woman, tried to move through the world in much the same way. She is beautiful, she is intelligent, she is witty, and she is—important in a white supremacist society—much lighter than her sister and brother. There may have been a way in which Leti hoped to move through America relatively unscathed by racism and prejudice. (Here, she somewhat recklessly decides on a whim to integrate a white neighborhood. In "Sundown," Leti told Ruby she would never clean houses for white folks, but imagined she could easily get the sort of coveted job in a downtown department store that Ruby herself had been trying to get for years.) I do not mean she was naive, exactly, but she may have believed herself more charmed—more naturally immune—than she actually was. As long as she kept moving, and used her wits and wiles, Leti thought she would be fine.
But she knows better now. Her experiences on the road—"all the crazy shit that happened," as she says to Tic—have changed her. After all, the world she thought she could skate through unscathed literally killed her. It is this blow to her self-image—more than the discovery of magic and monsters—that has shattered her worldview. "I thought the world was one way, and I found out it isn’t, and it terrifies me,” she says. "But I can’t live in fear. I won’t. I gotta face this new world head on, and stake my claim in it."
What we see in "Holy Ghost" is her attempt to do that, and it is faltering, imperfect: a process of growth, not the product of it. Earlier in the episode we have seen her enduring the terrorism of her neighbors: Her windows and shutters are closed tightly against the noise, and she huddles in bed beneath her covers. (But the covers—in a nice bit of symbolism—won't stay on: The ghosts know all too well that hiding won't work for long.) Immediately after her "deflowering," however—a poignant, if arguably too on-the-nose moment representing the loss of innocence and the leap into adulthood—her strategy shifts, and her power increases. She grabs a bat, and—doing her best Beyonce impersonation—smashes the shit out of the horn-blaring cars.
She is glorious here, beautiful and righteous in fury. But she is also—make no mistake—almost suicidally reckless, putting herself, and her community, in danger. (I love the way her friends move as one to prepare for the ramifications of this action: With barely a word spoken they gather guns to back her up in necessary, and then—once the police are on their way—silently pack the guns away into the trunk of the car that Ruby has already pulled around for that purpose.) So in terms of Leti's attempt to figure out how to live in this world, this is such a brilliant transition scene, a step from the immature Leti who thought she could skate through the world unscathed, to the stronger, more mature force she will become by the end of the episode.
And she pays for it. She is not, fortunately, killed—though that was the likeliest outcome—but she is thrown into the back of a police van with Captain Lancaster (Mac Brandt), one of the architects of the evil that haunts her house. It is he who tells her that her house is a place where Black people die, and that she won't be there very long. And it is he who punishes her for fighting back, as she is slammed all over the back of the swerving van. (I doubt it needs saying, but this is a known method by which the police torture prisoners: It is how Freddie Gray died, his spine almost completely severed after Baltimore police put him unrestrained in the back of a van and gave him a "rough ride.")
The Leti we see after this incident is bruised, bloodied, broken. She had tried to become someone in response to her experiences in Ardham, but it didn't completely work, and now we see her stripped bare of her confident illusions about herself. From this point until the final scene, there is nothing performative any longer about Leti: She wears little makeup, her clothes are muted and practical. (For a brilliant and far more expertise examination of Leti's wardrobe in this episode, see Tom & Lorenzo.) This is her lowest point in the episode, and also her most authentic: It is here that she has the two most honest conversations we've seen her have, first with her sister Ruby, and then with Tic.
The conversation with Ruby is brutal. With Ruby's discovery that Leti bought this house with (what she thinks is) a secret inheritance from their mother, a lifetime of simmering anger and resentment boils over, and Ruby dresses her little sister down as only a big sister can do.
"You look down on mama, but you're worse. At least Mama didn't pretend to be anything but selfish. Now you say you bought this house because you want to help our people. But it looks to me all you done is move in your artist friends. And if you were half the sister that you claim you want to be, you would have split that money with me and Marvin, regardless of Mama's wishes. But you didn't. No, you lied to me. You begged me to move in here, because you 'really wanted us to be sisters for once'. But that was just more of your bullshit. Just you burying your guilt for doing what you always do: Look out for Leti first. And I'm the fool, 'cause here I was thinking, all these years that I've been helping you, sending you money, that you were just a fuck-up. But really, you're just fucked up."
Both actresses are heartbreakingly good here. We know Ruby is being intentionally hurtful: She is saying all the worst things she could say, sticking the knife in where she knows it will do the most damage. ("What the hell's that supposed to mean," Leti says, physically recoiling, when Ruby says she's worse than their mother.) But we also know that Ruby is being honest: These are the hard truths that only a long-suffering sister gets to tell. And—not least importantly—we know that Ruby, even now, would kill to protect Leti, and that this cruelty at Leti's lowest moment is tough love at its finest: She is seizing a raw moment of clarity to vent some resentments, yes, but also to help Leti become, finally, the person she is capable of being.
And I think to understand Leti's arc in this episode, we also need to acknowledge that she brought this scene about. Smollett plays the reveal of the inheritance as almost a slip of the tongue, but there is no way Leti doesn't know how this conversation will go and—consciously or sub-consciously—invite it. She's tired of pretending, tired of performing, tired of skating on the surface of life.
It's this same exhausted honesty she carries into her next conversation, with Tic, when she confesses that he had taken her virginity that night at the party. ("I don't regret it," she says wearily. "I needed it. I needed to feel something.") I think the key moment in this conversation, however, is just before that confession, after Leti has walked Tic through the hauntings and all the related history. "Colored folks who disappeared on the South Side," Tic says. "Now restless souls trapped in my house, with their killer," Leti confirms. "They want out. I know it." And Tic—offering a bit of wisdom from his late Uncle George—tells her she should move out herself.
He's giving her an ethical out: She can move out, run away, avoid the hassle, and dump the problem on someone else. This is what Leti has always done, all her life—but she's not going to do it anymore.
"And did they tell you that you saved them too…?"
Very little of it is articulated, but a complex and powerful shift has taken place within Leti, an acknowledgement of her community ("colored folks from the South Side"), and of the legacy she has inherited as a Black woman in America. It is a parallel point to one we discussed last week, about how there is no American prosperity without the sacrifice and suffering of Black Americans. But it's different here, because it's a question not for rich white people, but a more personal question for Leti herself: How will she deal with this legacy? How will she—in her ambition to "move on up," and rise above her beginnings—acknowledge the suffering of the people who came before her? Ruby helped her and sacrificed for her and helped protect her: What does Leti owe her? And the tortured bodies of Leti's ancestors are literally in the foundation of the house she bought: What does she owe them? Leti has seen the horrific truth of the world now, and she can't ignore it, and she can't pretend she's somehow above it or immune to it. "I can’t live in fear," she tells Tic. "I won’t. I gotta face this new world head on, and stake my claim in it."
As Baby Suggs said in Beloved, there's no place in America free from white evil and Black grief, so Leti may as well make her stand here.
It's pointedly ironic that Leti's assumption of this responsibility involves invoking the spirit of her mother, by way of one of her contacts: a Creole priestess named Martine (Andrene Ward-Hammond). ("She was a hustler who believed in doing her research," Leti says of her mother.) And with a mark of goat's blood to protect them—echoing back to the blood that marked Leti's transition to adulthood—Leti, Tic, and Martine venture into the basement to begin the exorcism.
It all seems to be going well until the pipes mysteriously burst, wiping that protective blood away, and allowing the spirit of Hiram Epstein to enter first Martine, then Tic. "Get the fuck out of my house!" the white man bellows. But—much like Tic's journey last week led him finally to draw power from his ancestor—Leti calls on her spiritual ancestors here: the ghosts who dwell in her house, who ended up (like her) in the back of Captain Lancaster's van, and were delivered to this place, and died here.
"Help me!" Leti screams to them. "You are not dead yet! You can still fight!” For they are not gone, not yet resting, not forgotten, and the struggle is not over. They were hidden here, but Leti acknowledges them, recognizes them, makes them powerful by drawing forth and confronting their truth. And so they appear, to help her, as they've wanted to do all along. At first they are maimed, mutilated, grotesquely violated from what Epstein did to them—but as they come together hand-in-hand they are restored, reclaiming their humanity, reclaiming their power, made whole by being seen and fighting back.
And so, too, is Leti: The episode began with Leti practically a ghost herself, unable to join in with her community in church, disconnected from her people and her power. But she finds it here, in this communion, with those who have gone and suffered before.
Who was there to catch when you fell? And did they tell you that you saved them too…?
"Get the fuck out of my house," Leti screams to Hiram Epstein as he disappears. Because this little corner of America is hers now, not his. When last we see Leti in "Holy Ghost," she giving a reporter (Cyrah Hill) a tour of her house, and she has a poise, and a confidence, and a self-possession we have never seen in her before. This is not performative, this is authentic strength, mature, hard-earned, and genuine. When the reporter lays out the flattering narrative Leti herself had told earlier—that Leti is some kind of hero for doing this to help the community—Leti deflects the compliment and makes a point of acknowledging Ruby: "It was my sister who inspired it all." Coming into her real power, Leti is not hiding behind a camera anymore, but instead she is the one getting her picture taken.
And her elevator works fine now, thank you very much. There are bodies in her basement—countless Black bodies, as always, and the bodies of a few missing white boys, for a change—but Leti has staked her claim in the world, taken her place in the community, and she's finally moving on up.
So go ahead, Leti: Fly.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Enamored with Leti this week—how could I not be?—I skipped over everyone else. Hippolyta, for example, is not buying the story about George's death, and is resentful of Tic's presence. (Is this because she suspects he's lying to her, or because she knows he may be George's illegitimate son, or both, or something else?)
- We learn this episode that Jackie Robinson saying "I got you, kid" in Tic's dream was a reference to something that happened to Montrose and George, when a mysterious bat-wielding stranger saved them from some white boys in a riot.
- One of Leti's tenants is a young man named James (Keon Rahzeem Mitchel) who tells Ruby "I'm a novelist, too." This is not James Baldwin—Baldwin was already well established by 1953, and this guy has a dog named for Baldwin—but I can't think of a real-life writer this might have been. Any ideas? (Also: Did we know Ruby was a writer?)
- And Christina shows up, right at the end, to reveal that she was the one who funneled the phony inheritance to Leti, for plot reasons having to do with the stolen pages of the magical Book of Names. I'll reserve judgement on all of this until we're further along, but I have to say that it was the part of this episode that interested me the least.
- Most importantly, perhaps, I skipped over the Ouija board scene—mostly because I'm not sure how I feel about it. Lovecraft Country has a habit of dropping in some of its cultural and historical references with a slightly heavy hand—the Martin Luther King references shoehorned into the party scene felt that way—but the appearance of Emmitt Till (Rhyan Hill) here troubled me a little. (They call him "Bobo," which was Till's nickname, and his clothes—along with his reference to his upcoming trip—make him unmistakable.) It's possible, of course, that the show will return to this subject later and do something substantial with it, but here it didn't feel right to reference such an important and powerful incident so casually, seemingly just for the sake of being clever. (I expect that sort of thing more from American Horror Story than Lovecraft Country.)
- Speaking of which, it's a little unclear what the Ouija board spelled: Was it "George is dead" or "George is not dead"? (The answer, I suspect, may be somewhere in between, but either way I doubt we've seen the last of Courtney B. Vance.)
- This just occurred to me: George is the father, Tic is the son, Leti is the holy ghost. Discuss.
- Apologies, as always, for the lateness of this post. I actually went into this piece thinking it was going to be a quick one, but the episode got better and more complex the more I thought about it. (I love it when that happens—it's why I do this in the first place—but sometimes it makes for an admittedly slow process.)
1 thought on “<I>LOVECRAFT COUNTRY</I> HITS ITS STRIDE, AND JURNEE SMOLLETT SHINES, IN "HOLY GHOST"”
Great analysis. I agree with all this. Another thing that struck me was when Leti called out all the names of the people who’d been murdered, in parallel to biblical Adam naming things, making their existence real somehow. So much power in a name!