A review of “A History of Violence,” this week’s Lovecraft Country, coming up just as soon as I have a love song for my woman…
“This is some Journey To the Center of the Earth–type shit.” -Tic
Lovecraft Country keeps playing with genre, reinvigorating ancient tropes by making the heroes black, and the villains white racists. Last week’s episode went full haunted house, while “A History of Violence” is more in the vein of the Indiana Jones films (or, if you’re a philistine youth, the National Treasure movies), with a long, rollicking sequence where Tic, Leti, and Montrose negotiate a series of magical death traps underneath a Boston museum to gather ammunition for their pending war with Christina and William.
It takes a while to get there — even though this installment eschews showing us more examples of how dangerous it was for black people to travel in Fifties America — since the episode’s first half is primarily interested in advancing various subplots that were downplayed or put on hold during “Holy Ghost.” We find out that Christina, for instance, wanted access to Hiram Epstein’s house because his orrery is the key to completing a time machine. (Is she hoping to go to Eden herself? To rewrite history to give women power? As a New Englander, maybe she just wants to see the Red Sox win their most recent World Series in 1918?) Ruby goes to apply for that department store job she’s been talking about, only to discover that Marshall Field already hired a black woman, Tamara — who applied on a whim, no less. Despondent over the impossibility of the store employing two black salesgirls, she falls into bed with William, having no idea that he’s in league with the crazy magical white lady who wants her sister dead. There’s ongoing tension between Leti and Tic over secrets he’s kept from her — “You’re not the center of the fucking universe!” she will later complain to him — and between Tic and Montrose over whether to even pursue the Sons of Adam lore or try to resume their pre-magic lives.
All of this is perfectly fine, and some of it’s quite a bit of fun, including Ruby’s skeptical reaction to the whiter-than-white William putting a move on her, plus the tension between Hippolyta and the rest of the family over the road trip to Boston. Those early passages are particularly useful in letting us know Montrose, who has appeared briefly in two previous episodes. We open with him reading the book George gave him before Ardham collapsed, and being so scared by the thing — and its implications for his son — that he burns it in a trash can(*). But he’s also talking to himself, and hearing echoes of his past, including some of the abuses (we hear an older man’s voice order him to “Pick a switch!” to be beaten with) he then turned around and perpetrated on Atticus. He’s not entirely in his right mind, and his attempt to make up for past sins by protecting Tic from the Braithwhites — first with the book-burning, then with the murder he commits at the episode’s end — seems more likely to hurt his son than to keep him safe.
(*) As he watches the flames, he mutters, “Smells like Tulsa.” This might seem like a wink at HBO’s last drama about racism in America, which began with the Tulsa Race Massacre. But of course a black man, especially one who would have been a teenager at the time Tulsa burned, would know the incident all too well.
But the episode goes to another level during the Goonies-style shenanigans beneath the museum — especially for the sequence where the trio are attempting to cross a rickety, disintegrating plank across a seemingly infinite gorge. It is, like a lot of what Lovecraft does, a familiar situation in the broad strokes, combining bits and pieces from a couple of the death traps from the climax of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, among others. But the execution by Misha Green (on script duty again, with a story credit for Wes Taylor) and director Victoria Mahoney is just a joy to behold.
The setup is far less visually impressive than, say, Ardham collapsing around Tic and Samuel: just a wood plank over a dark and empty space, with a swooping pendulum weapon moving too quickly to be seen clearly. The bridge beginning to crumble before our heroes’ eyes is a bit fancier, but for the most part, all the thrills and terror have to come from the actors and how they’re responding to the situation. As the smallest of the group, Leti, tied to the others by a long rope, has to go first. Jurnee Smollett sells the hell out of her trepidation, and later has a hilariously brisk and exasperated delivery of “WHAT THE FUCK IS HAPPENING OVER THERE?” while Tic is busy catching a leaping Montrose. And Michael Kenneth Williams, from whom we are so used to unflappable cool in his other HBO roles, is just as plausibly terrified by the whole thing(*), even as Montrose has his superheroic son there to keep him from falling. The whole sequence is so well-assembled, I had to pause the episode to applaud politely at the end of it.
(*) A nice touch: As they’re preparing the rope to help them cross, Montrose is able to fake being calm long enough to tell Leti about his slave forefather who tied special knots to keep his master’s horses from getting away. It’s a lie — as Tic notes when Leti is out of earshot, Montrose’s side of the family was never enslaved — but it’s clearly the lie Leti needed to hear to start walking, so why not?
After various other puzzles and near-death experiences — plus the discovery that the haunted elevator from Leti’s house somehow extends down into this place from 1,000 miles away — our intrepid treasure hunters find what they’ve been looking for: Titus Braithwhite’s submerged old clipper ship, which has preserved Yahima (Monique Candelaria), an intersex figure taken by Titus to translate some ancient symbols, then imprisoned after refusing to keep assisting a man who was so obviously a monster. After some intense swimming to get back to the elevator (and then for Leti to retrieve Titus’ wayward scroll), the three travelers and their new friend Yahima all make it up into Leti’s house, with Tic and Leti sharing a deep, classic Hollywood movie-style kiss to celebrate their survival.
Yahima presents the option for Lovecraft to explore the way other minority groups (whether Yahima is indigenous to our dimension or another) have been exploited and subjugated by men like Titus, and also to explore how someone from long ago would respond to being Rip Van Winkled into the Fifties. Instead, Montrose cuts their throat, because he remains willfully blind to how committed Tic is to following this path wherever it leads.
Yahima’s murder feels like a missed opportunity, but the rest of “A History of Violence” is so lively and entertaining that I’ll trust that Green and company know what they’re doing in the bigger picture.
Some other thoughts:
* Tic and Leti’s conversation in the library offers a bit more clarity on what happened in the climax of the second episode: Christina used Tic (presumably by putting the ring on his finger) as a Trojan horse to wreck her father’s Eden spell, and her father, for plot reasons, had to switch off his usual invulnerability spell in order to perform the new one. It would have been nice if all that were clearer in the moment, but belated exposition is better than none at all.
* Captain Lancaster, the racist Chicago PD creep who gave Leti a rough ride last week, turns out to be the man in charge of the Chicago lodge of William’s old order.
* On the one hand, having the family run into more gun-toting racists en route to Boston might have felt like a rehash of the premiere. On the other, given how palpable the danger was throughout that original New England road trip, it felt a bit too easy to skip over this one almost entirely. Perhaps we’ll get more of that perspective now that Hippolyta has found George’s old Atlas and is driving herself and Diana straight towards Ardham in search of answers about her husband’s death.
* For that matter, it would have been nice to see the very awkward phone call between Hippolyta and one of the members of the group who magically made it back home to Chicago without her.
* While Montrose is exploring the museum during business hours, the family’s traveling companion Tree notes how close Montrose and his favorite bartender Sammy have grown since he returned from Ardham — in a way suggesting the two are more than just drinking buddies.
* Finally, this week’s music: “Bitch Better Have My Money,” by Rihanna; “Get Em,” by Jade Josephine; “Cops and Robbers,” by Bo Diddley; “Devil or Angel,” by The Clovers; “Money,” by Leikeli47; “I Put a Spell On You,” by Marilyn Manson; and Alice Smith’s version of “Sinnerman.”