A review of “Holy Ghost,” this week’s Lovecraft Country episode, coming up just as soon as I poke my head into this elevator shaft to see if it’s working…
“I thought the world was one way, and I found out it isn’t. And it terrifies me. But I can’t live in fear. I won’t. I gotta face this new world head on, and stake my claim in it.” -Leti
One of the most famous routines from Eddie Murphy’s stand-up career — so famous that it helped inspire Get Out — featured the then-SNL superstar riffing on the horror movie Poltergeist, asking, “Why don’t white people just leave a house when there’s a ghost in the house?” He mocks the naiveté of the movie’s characters for staying, and suggests that any black person who heard a ghostly voice telling him to leave his home would follow those instructions as fast as humanly possible.
“Holy Ghost” is the story of a black woman who chooses not to leave, well after it’s clear that her spacious new home is haunted — and after she’s experienced previous terrifying confirmation of the existence of supernatural monsters, at that. Still, Leti’s insistence on staying in her haunted house comes across not as foolishness, but bravery. She will not run from the monsters, but confront them directly.
And we get the pleasure of watching her do just that.
“Holy Ghost” is a big shift from the series’ first two installments. There are brief references to what happened in Ardham, but until Tic goes to confront Christina in the episode’s epilogue, it’s a largely self-contained story. It flies so far in the face of how most current dramas are built(*) that it was a bit disorienting the first time I watched it. The title cards near the start of the episode, warning us that three people will go missing inside this house, 10 days after Leti and Ruby and their friends move in, briefly had me wondering if this episode somehow took place on one of Leti’s previous trips home to Chicago, well before the Ardham trip. (There were no explicit date references in the first two episodes, whereas this one pins us to the summer of 1955.)
(*) Again, Misha Green and company are using the more anthological structure of Matt Ruff’s book, but also the X-Files/Buffy/Justified model of mixing Monster of the Week stories with more serialized ones. It remains a storytelling approach more modern shows should be using, because it tends to be more consistently satisfying than the whole “10-hour movie” style.
Those chyrons, though, set the table nicely for all that is to follow. We know something bad will happen 10 days from when Leti moves in, but nothing beyond that. And, as the title cards remind us, we know that pioneering — in this case, the practice of black people moving into previously all-white neighborhoods — is dangerous even when poltergeists aren’t involved.
Like the scenes from the premiere in the woods outside Ardham, “Holy Ghost” smartly moves back and forth between inhuman monsters and the far more distasteful human kind. There are, indeed, ghosts haunting this house, most of them the black victims of a mad scientist who performed monstrous experiments on them because he could. But there are plenty of straight-up racists who want no part of this black, bohemian enclave on their boring street. They put up signs reading, “We are a white community. Undesirables must go.” White hoodlums sit menacingly on their cars, and later tie bricks to their steering wheels so the horns will disrupt the raucous house party that Leti is throwing.
Leti and Tic finally have sex for real at that party, but the aggressive, unromantic encounter is a far cry from Leti’s Ardham-induced fantasy last week. As she emerges slightly stunned from the powder room, the sight of a burning cross on the front lawn leads to the first of two spectacular scenes for Jurnee Smollett. To the sound of Dorinda Clark-Cole’s 2008 gospel track “Take It Back,” a vengeful Leti grabs a baseball bat and, in full view of her disgusted and disgusting white neighbors, goes to work on the offending horns and the cars to which they are attached. It is simultaneously an action sequence and a dance number, with Smollett bouncing on her heels and shimmying as she moves from car to car, but full of righteous fury. It’s the kind of cinematic moment from which stars are made, but even the catharsis of her wood-on-glass assault is short-lived. Police sirens approach, prompting Ruby to drive off with all the guns that Tic and other male partygoers were using to defend Leti and the house. Soon, Leti and the guys are on their knees, hands raised in surrender for the police to arrest them, and not the cross-burners.
It’s at this point that the story’s two different kinds of horror begin to intermingle, as the racist police captain seems to know an awful lot about the house, its previous owner, and why there might be black ghosts trapped within it. But the method he uses to punish Leti for, essentially, existing, is one familiar from our world: He has the paddy wagon’s driver take her for a rough ride, bouncing her, handcuffed, all around the metal interior while the captain is holding on tight to a handy strap.
Between the business with the cross, the cops, the ouija board at the party, and the other unsettling things that keep happening, the house starts losing tenants. Ruby, who knows nothing of monsters and magic and actual grand wizards, encourages her sister to abandon the house, and is upset when she believes Leti has been hoarding money inherited from their mother. But Leti doesn’t want to give in to the banks, the racists, or the ghosts, and she decides to stand and fight.
This means bending magic to her own side, with the help of a voodoo priestess who sacrifices a goat on the front porch and performs a ritual to more directly confront the dead. Once again, the two different kinds of monsters converge, as three local goons choose an inopportune moment to break into the house, where they are set upon by the angry spirits trapped in the building. Tic and Leti have larger problems to worry about down in the sub-basement, but their ritual does restore Dr. Hiram Epstein’s victims to their original forms, so that they can destroy him and be freed in the process. Earlier, Tic and Montrose had revisited an old family story about a stranger with a baseball bat who saved him and George from trouble, just like Jackie Robinson did for Tic in the nightmare that began the series. Now, as spectral energy swirls all around him and Leti, it seems not at all coincidental (and more than a bit goosebump-inducing) that one of the ghosts is a boy in a baseball uniform holding a bat. As yet another gospel number, Shirley Caesar’s “Satan, We’re Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down,” plays, Smollett turns practically feral in this sequence as she screams at Hiram Epstein to “Get the fuck out of my house!”
It is another tremendous fusion of actor and music and moment, and enough of an emotional high point to allow the episode to cool off with a pair of somewhat quieter, but still unnerving, scenes. In the first, Leti gives a local reporter a tour of the house, which she has transformed at Ruby’s urging into a source of affordable housing for the black community. While they’re busy talking, the elevator, now functioning after it had some fun decapitating one of the home invaders, descends below the sub-basement to reveal a tunnel that contains not only the corpses of the three goons, but what seems like dozens upon dozens of skeletons, stretching off into the darkness. Leti may have the house under control for now, but it remains a very dangerous place, it seems.
In the second unsettling sequence, we get back to some serialization, as Tic figures out that Leti’s “inheritance” was really money from Christina, who has been manipulating events behind the scenes. Tic confronts Christina, but she has enough magical ability at the ready to stop him from using the gun he points at her. Smugly, she reminds him, “You just can’t go around killing white women.”
It’s a smart interweaving of standalone elements with ongoing ones. The show doesn’t necessarily have to tie all the threads to the Braithwhites — though I imagine some audiences raised on intense serialization would refer to episodes without the big bad as “filler” — but doing it this way allowed the creative team to have their cake and eat it, too, with an episode that breathes new life into a very old horror subgenre, while still feeling like part of the larger narrative.
And Leti with the baseball bat. My goodness.
Some other thoughts:
* The episode opens with a very different kind of anachronistic jolt than last week’s use of The Jeffersons theme song, as Leti’s trip to church is accompanied by the soundtrack from a 2017 Nike ad starring trans dancer and ballroom star Leiomy Maldonado (now a judge on HBO Max’s Legendary), who has also had to push her way into spaces where people like her were once not allowed.
* This week’s music (on top of a number of new Ruby performances, like “I Don’t Hurt Anymore”): “Ain’t That a Shame” by Fats Domino; “Standchen (No. 4)” by Marian Anderson; “God Been Good to Me” by Mighty Walker Brothers; “Good Rockin’ Daddy” by Etta James; “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” by Dinah Washington; “Take It Back” by Dorinda Clark-Cole; “You Turned Your Back On Me” by Jay McShann; “Satan, We’re Gonna Tear Your Kingdom Down” by Shirley Caesar; and “Sinnerman” by Alice Smith.
* Perhaps because each episode is so filled with incident, and thus comes in so close to the one-hour mark, Lovecraft eschews the kind of extended opening credits sequence that’s been an HBO trademark going back to the late Nineties. Instead, we get the show’s logo, and the episode title, appearing over an important image from that week’s episode: the haunted house, in this case.
* Finally, a few weeks have passed since Uncle George died at Ardham, which means that by the time we see Aunt Hippolyta again here, she’s had some time to absorb the terrible news and to try to keep going without him. Thus far, Aunjanue Ellis has had a fair amount less to do than most of the other regular members of the cast, but it feels like the show has a Hippolyta story it’s waiting to tell at some point.