Lovecraft Country was the year’s most ambitious drama — and, at times, its best and most cathartic. In addition to wild storytelling, it was trying to tackle a lot of ideas about America’s ugly history of racist oppression, and about the ways that familiar genres like science fiction, fantasy, and horror haven’t always had much room for heroes of color. Periodically, that ambition was more than the HBO series could shoulder.
Rolling Stone spoke with Lovecraft showrunner Misha Green, about the thought process behind this bold blend of genre and historical tragedy, and also to get clarity on a few of the season finale’s more puzzling moments. She also talked about where the series stands with HBO, why she thinks there are at least “20 seasons” of story in this world, the origin of the show’s eclectic soundtrack, and a lot more.
Why did you decide that this was the place you wanted to end this season?
We talked a lot in the room about this idea of walking towards this hero’s journey story, about destiny: You’re the one, and you’re meant to do something. It was very interesting to me and the room, this idea of Atticus knowing that he has to die, and making a choice for the greater good, and that was a sacrifice that needed to be made. We just talked about what that sacrifice might be for, and that reversing this power structure in the world, of magic, was very enticing for us.
HBO has yet to order a second season. What are the chances the show will get to continue?
We’re in talks with HBO. I just finished the finishing touches of Season One three weeks ago. But I’m excited about exploring Season Two and what we have in mind. Nothing’s official.
Killing off your leading man in the finale plays one way if it’s a one-season show, and another way if it goes beyond that. Did you have any pause about having Tic die, in the event the show continues?
None. No pause. I think that it’s a little evident that I just like story to move, and to not be afraid of the possibility that there’s always story to tell. It begins with what Matt [Ruff] was doing in the novel, of reclaiming these genre spaces for people of color. I just feel like that’s 20 seasons in my mind. That statement can open up a world, and the world that was created in Season One can be opened up in so many ways. That was one of the things we explored with this idea of going to Korea, and understanding that magic isn’t just limited to The Book of Names. It’s everywhere. It’s a thing that’s out in the world. Our monsters aren’t the only monsters that exist.
Well, the “I Am” episode introduces the idea of parallel universes and timelines. You do have a lot of options about where the story can continue.
Yeah! I feel like we’ve only touched on a tiny, miniscule portion of the genre space. There’s so much to explore. Even in that Hippolyta episode, it’s the idea of sci-fi. We went into it to integrate into the show, that’s just a little tip of the iceberg of what it could be. That’s why it’s exciting. Television, for me, is about characters, and being grounded with characters, but you can always introduce more. There’s so much sci-fi and genre space to explore, that it doesn’t feel limiting at all to me.
Early in the finale, Christina takes away Leti’s invulnerability. Later, she throws Leti out a window, but Leti survives, and discovers that the mark from the spell is back on her torso. What happened?
Christina said the spell as Leti was falling, the same way that she said the spell as she goes out into the water, under the water [in Episode Eight], she says that line. That’s the idea: that she gave it back, and she honored her promise to Ruby at the end.
One of the things I really enjoyed about the show was how packed with ideas every episode was. It felt at times like you wanted to squeeze in everything you could while you had the chance to do it. Was that part of your thinking as you combined your ideas with Matt’s into this?
Yes and no. I didn’t feel like we had to do everything because we might not have a chance to do more. It just felt right to have the show be this thick. There’s a long history of television that’s very episodic. Every episode is different. I just feel like we’ve moved into a more serialized version — especially what we expect out of our cable series. To me, each episode, this was our ghost story, this was our sci-fi story, and what can we put into that to make that exciting? It wasn’t, “Pack it all in, because we may not get to do this again.” It was, “Pack it all in, because it’s exciting!”
There are a lot of shows these days that are purely serialized, and you didn’t do that. You did distinct episodes: the haunted house, the treasure hunt, the trip to Korea. What were the challenges of balancing that episodic structure with the larger story of the Freemans versus Christina?
It was a lot. Ghost story movies and the ghost story genre, there’s so much. Poltergeist, all those things have different elements, and what elements are we bringing into this? It was that thing where it’s a buffet of choices, and you have to whittle it down to a couple. We spent a lot of time in the room figuring out which way to go, because there were so many. The story of Christina and Atticus, we’re so savvy as consumers of story now, that we understand that. We don’t need to see every step of the way to get what we’re doing with Christina and Atticus. To me, at least, I was like, “We can skip these parts, and we can still be in it, and understand it, and we can go on these little side roads and tangents and explore the more episodic feel without losing the whole idea of understanding that it’s Christina versus this family.”
One of my favorite elements of the show, starting with that James Baldwin speech accompanying the road trip scene in the premiere, was how you used spoken-word elements on the soundtrack. Where did that idea come from?
It was Beyoncé’s Lemonade and I Am Not Your Negro at the same time. We were doing this voiceover at the same time you’re hearing these poems in Lemonade at the same time you were hearing Samuel L. Jackson do James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro. I was like, “Oooh, this is exciting! That feels fresh. I wonder if we can do that on Lovecraft Country?” It also came from a desire to make this feel like a piece out of time. Yes, it’s set in the past, but it’s also very much here in our present, and it will be in our future. How do we take these found-footage audio pieces and place it there, so you understand that this is our history, this is us now, and it can be us in the future if we don’t pay attention to it.
Did you have any rules in mind about when it was OK to use something anachronistic on the soundtrack and when it wasn’t? Or it just felt right in some cases and didn’t in others?
Never. No rules. None of that. I just go with what feels right. And it doesn’t hit every time. On Underground, we used contemporary music, too, and there was this response of, “Oooh, this feels weird!” And I get it, but music is another kind of time machine. You can listen to something from the 1920s and it hits you as much as something from today. It was that feeling of, “Let’s not try to put this away in a spot. Let’s be with it right now.” It was just about a feeling, and hoping that feeling would translate to everyone else.
We learned about Watchmen doing Tulsa in the writers room. That became a big discussion that I quelled quickly. I was like, “Tulsa is not one singular thing. What happened in Tulsa, what happens around America with these terrorist attacks on black communities is a story that can be told multiple times.” I wasn’t afraid of people going, “Oh, Watchmen did Tulsa, and now Lovecraft is doing Tulsa. Let’s compare them.” I’m like, “Great! If that’s what you want to do, fantastic.” Because it’s a story worth telling over and over again.
As all of these awful images and stories were appearing in the news in the months leading up to the premiere, and then continuing through the airing of this season, how did it feel to be telling this story about this subject, right at this really precarious and ugly moment in our racial history?
Great. It felt great. Race in America has been a part of its history the entirety of its time. In this moment, I feel there is more awareness, more talk happening about it. But it’s been permeating this entire time. It’s been bubbling up. The same thing was bubbling up when we were shooting Underground. It was happening before that, even. I’m glad that Lovecraft Country can contribute to that conversation and start more conversations, because until we start talking about it, nothing’s going to be moving in the right direction.
There are times when real-life atrocities like Tulsa or the murder of Emmett Till intersect with this fictional story, and others where you’re just focusing on the Lovecraft characters. What guided your decision-making about when it was OK to interweave the factual and fictional in that way?
It’s a very interesting line. I think my line might be further than a lot of people’s lines. It’s a question of: What story are we telling? Is there a truth to this story? If we’re moving towards truth, the fact and the fiction of it all is secondary, if that makes sense. I do think it is very much having to test everything. In our writers room for the haunted house episode, I went, “OK, great, when they’re playing with the ouija board, Emmett’s going to ask about his trip.” And everybody was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, come on! We can’t do that!” I was like, “Why can’t we do it? Does it make us uncomfortable to think that Emmett was just a boy who was playing with a ouija board and was excited about the trip he was about to go on? Is that why we can’t do it?” If we don’t feel like that’s true, then we shouldn’t do it. But if we feel there’s truth to that — this idea that Emmett Till was just a kid, excited for his trip before that trip happened — then that makes us have to take away this thing, which is that Emmett Till is just a thing we’re saying and talking about. We have to bring it down to the level of, “Oh, he was just a kid, who would have been friends with a kid like Dee.” It’s a good place to go to war, when it’s understanding a truth about it. When it’s not a truth, you’re going, “Ooh, I don’t know. You can’t mix too much fact with fiction!” In the room, we explored the idea that when they went back to Tulsa, they would change things completely. And I went, “I don’t know, though. Because that’s taking away from the truth, that that thing happened.” You have to take it as you go.
There were a lot of moments throughout this season where I would ask a question like, “How is Ruby getting home when she’s naked and covered in Hillary’s blood and guts?” And then I would stop and say, “I don’t care, because I’m really into the feeling this scene is creating.” How often did you worry about viewers sweating the small details rather than getting absorbed in the bigger emotions you were going for?
Oh my gosh, Alan. That is the best compliment you could have given me to say, “I’m going to put away the logic for two seconds to be in this moment.” I think that’s how I feel. I get it. I get that sometimes the logic strains, and you just hope that sometimes it doesn’t break the moment. To do the amount of stuff we wanted to do in this season, it took going, “We’re not going to slow down to explain every beat, and hope that the audience will explain some of it for themselves.” There are explanations for it, but do you really want to go into two scenes about the skin being left all over the city? We can then go back in the next episodes and say, “The skin was left all over the city, and the cops are commenting on it.” But is that important to this moment? We want the people to understand that we understand that we’re making a movie. That’s the fine line. We have to test it and see. Sometimes, it does, it takes you completely out of it, and you’re lost. You don’t want that for a viewer.
When Tic gets to see his mother in that magical space in the finale, she tells him he has inherited bits of both George and Montrose, but she doesn’t answer the question of who his biological father is. Do you know? Do you care?
Do I know? [Laughs.] What we talked about is that they don’t know. It is that messy. There’s no official statement in their minds. Do I know? Yes. But in their minds, they’re unsure of who his father really is. I think that’s part of what was complicated about it.
If this is the end of Jonathan Majors’ time on the show, was it important to address that question one last time?
Ooh, that’s such a weighted question to answer. I’m not going to answer that one! I think that it’s a story about family, and it’s important to explore all those levels. That’s what was so exciting to go into that ancestral plane, was to be seeing those characters we’ve met along the way and talked about.