A review of “Jig-a-Bobo,” this week’s Lovecraft Country, coming up just as soon as that Cream of Wheat ad watches me go…
“The white folks, they just keep coming.” —Montrose
Running a television show is such an all-consuming job that you can’t blame the people who do it for not wanting to take on additional responsibility by directing those shows. For every Sam Esmail or Vince Gilligan or Pamela Adlon who gets behind the camera as often as possible on their own shows, there’s a Shonda Rhimes or Damon Lindelof or Shawn Ryan who has never directed an episode, opting to focus on their many other responsibilities. Misha Green already has a lot on her plate with Lovecraft Country, including being the credited writer or co-writer of every episode so far. And it’s a series with a lot of moving parts, from the mash-up of genres to the period setting to the copious special effects. So you couldn’t blame her if she opted to stay out of the director’s chair at least for this first season, if not for however long the show may run.
Instead, Green wound up directing “Jig-a-Bobo,” which in many ways is the trickiest Lovecraft episode to date. It doesn’t take us on a wild ride through time, space, and the imagination like “I Am,” and it’s lighter on body horror than “Strange Case,” outside of a memorably gory sex scene between Ruby/Hillary and Christina/William. But in so many ways, this episode is an absolute beast — long before a shoggoth leaps out of the street in front of Leti’s house and begins devouring cops.
Lovecraft has tended to be at its strongest when blending human monstrosity with the supernatural kind. “Jig-a-Bobo” has that combination in abundance, as Diana, Tic, Leti, Ruby, and Montrose all grapple with the brutal murder of Dee’s friend, Emmett Till, and with the inescapable reality that any or all of them can be killed at any moment, without any justification, in a society that still considers them something less than human due to the color of their skin.
We open with a huge crowd gathered to pay their respects to young Emmett, a.k.a. Bobo (his real-life nickname), who was glimpsed playing with the ouija board with Dee and her other friends back in the haunted house episode. Some viewers at the time drew a line between Bobo being warned by the house’s ghosts that he would not have a good time on his trip, and the brutal 1955 real-life murder of Till. For those who didn’t make that connection, the opening sequence is a bit jarring. (Between Bobo’s offscreen death and Tic’s decision to meet with Christina, I kept worrying I had missed an episode somehow.) But as with so many things Lovecraft-ian, the emotional clarity of the moment soon overwhelms the sketchiness of some of the details. The sheer power of this great cast’s performances fills in whatever blanks the script (by Green and Ihuoma Ofordire) occasionally leaves.
Till’s murder was 65 years ago, but in some ways it doesn’t feel like we’ve come nearly far enough in the time since. Like a lot of what the show is doing, the arguments being made are unfortunately buoyed by the very publicly broken state of the real world. When Diana is later confronted by Captain Lancaster (who received her comic book from his cop buddies in Mayfield), he places a curse on her that, among other things, leaves her momentarily gasping for air. “I can’t breathe,” she says, quoting Eric Garner, George Floyd, and so many other victims of lethal police brutality.
In the wrong hands, trading on very real tragedies — some in the distant past, some from only moments ago — to underline the themes of a fictional horror show could seem in incredibly poor taste. But Green and her collaborators are using genre the way the great sci-fi, fantasy, and horror writers have: as an elevated way to draw attention to the way we live right now. The show takes place in 1955, but it’s about today. That’s why the soundtrack is full of as much modern music as vintage rhythm and blues, why Seraphina Aka Beyond C’est technology did not look like it was out of a Fifties movie (even if Hippolyta and alt-George’s own spaceship did), why the characters themselves feel like they could wander into any contemporary drama without that many changes. Sundown towns still exist. No one has been charged with killing Breonna Taylor. The President of the United States refused to condemn white supremacists during a debate last week. When Lancaster deploys extraordinary powers to do harm to an innocent black girl in a way that no one else will ever be able to find out about, does that really feel so different from the world outside our windows?
The hour follows our heroes dealing with their grief over Emmett, and their larger despair at the state of the world and their precarious place in it, in very different ways. Diana, furious about both her friend’s death and the fact that nobody will tell her what happened to her mother, runs away from the wake. Roaming through town, she is ambushed and cursed by Lancaster, then spends most of the episode being stalked by a pair of monstrous, triple-jointed girls who burst off the cover of her copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Tic, having gained a glimpse of his future via the observatory portal in “I Am” — and via the discovery that the Lovecraft Country book will be written by George Freeman, the son growing inside Leti — decides to trade Hiram’s key for Christina’s help in casting the invulnerability spell. Leti debates what to do about the pregnancy, and about Tic, especially after Ji-Ah arrives in Chicago to warn Tic about her vision of his death. Ruby goes to have sex with “William” in order to feel safe in her own space for a few moments, and later reveals to Leti that she is hoping to learn magic from Christina. And Montrose, having lost too many loved ones to white violence already, decides to do whatever he can to protect his son and unborn grandchild.
Some of this plays out incredibly well. Diana’s travels around town are the episode’s most potent element, with young Jada Harris furiously owning her spotlight as strongly as Aunjanue Ellis did last week. The undead, razor-clawed girls are among the show’s most disturbing monsters to date, and their confrontation at Uncle George’s garage continues the season-long baseball motif, with Dee wearing a cap for the Chicago American Giants(*), the city’s Negro League team, and wielding a metal pipe like Jackie Robinson’s bat. Wunmi Mosaku plays the hell out of Ruby’s anguish over both Emmett’s murder and what it says about her own status as a black woman in America, plus her disappointment that Christina doesn’t seem the slightest bit empathetic about either subject.
(*) Between the cap, the white dress, and the sneakers she changes into after ditching the wake, Dee looks like she could she could be playing in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League — if it was integrated, anyway. (The few women who played in the Negro Leagues at least got to wear pants.)
Other aspects feel rushed and sloppy in the way that this show can sometimes be. Leti’s anger over meeting Ji-Ah springs up much too suddenly. Her relationship with Tic seems to happen in fits and starts, so it’s never easy to tell exactly how she’s feeling about him (though he is almost always lovestruck by her). And the sense of betrayal she has about him not telling her that he had prior monster experience doesn’t fully track, especially since Ji-Ah until now has seemed wholly unconnected from Christina. Tic also continues to ride an out-of-control roller coaster regarding his father, who last week seemed dead to him and this week is talking about the future George Freeman and helping him to cast spells. Obviously, desperate times call for desperate measures, and Tic is extremely cold towards Montrose when they first run into each other at curbside. But like a number of the show’s interpersonal combinations, it feels like we need to be spending more time on these two together, and then apart, for it all to make emotional sense, rather than people fighting and reconciling solely due to the whims of the very complicated plot.
But the sense of impotent rage is palpable throughout. And one of the great things about melding genre with real-world horror is that, in this version, the good people get a chance to fight back against the monsters. Dee takes some swings against the Uncle Tom’s Cabin girls, though they do some damage after Montrose shows up and assumes she’s having a breakdown and swinging at thin air. The ward on the door frame of Leti’s house keeps Lancaster from entering in search of the orrery, so in a fit of pique he tells his men to just open fire on the place without cause, knowing he will get away with it because the rest of the neighborhood has long wanted them gone. The brazen disregard for law and life feels agonizingly tethered to our current nightmare moment (maybe one of these cops — assuming any of them survives — can also be charged with shooting into a wall?), but in this case, both Leti and Tic are protected by magic, and Tic is able to use it to strike back at the cops in a way he never could have before he went to Ardham. Without meaning to, he appears to conjure up a shoggoth (or perhaps it arrives of its own accord — again, details are not a Lovecraft specialty) who tears through all of Lancaster’s men, then comes to heel in front of our heroes.
The shoggoth attack is a great bit of spectacle, with the creature and its actions more clearly visible than in the pilot’s final action sequence. It’s still presented from Tic and Leti’s point of view, so we don’t see every bit of damage done to the cops (nor would we want to), but images like a police car flipping through the air and landing inches away from Tic look very real and scary. For the moment, the spell worked — if not how Tic imagined it would — and the racist villains are dead while our heroes live to fight another day. When all else seems so bleak, on the show and in the news, these little victories are cathartic.
Before we get to the intertwined climaxes at the house and the garage, Green and company first give us a provocative sequence involving Christina. She has hired two men to attack her in a manner similar to how Emmett Till was tortured and killed, including wrapping her neck in barbed wire and throwing her into the lake. Her magic protects her and she is able to climb up onto the dock, where she first sobs, and then perhaps laughs at the feeling of being alive. Did Ruby’s harangue leave her with genuine guilt over what Emmett endured — or, at least, curiosity? Is she suffering for her mystical art in some way we don’t yet understand? Christina remains a mysterious figure, though we know she feels some emotion. (Her interest in Ruby, for instance, seems to run deeper than just using her to get to Leti and Tic.)
Perhaps we’ll get more of an explanation next week, or perhaps this will be yet another Lovecraft moment we’re meant to feel without fully understanding. Like Dee saying, “I can’t breathe,” the image of one of the most infamous crimes against a black person of the 20th century being re-enacted with a wispy blonde as the new victim could feel like a bridge too far, even for this show. But whatever Christina’s motivation, it has the necessary effect. Not only does it show the act in its full heinousness — it depicts it happening to a white woman who would never suffer its effects the way Emmett Till and his family did. In the real world, justice for this crime against Christina would be forceful and swift. And in the world of Lovecraft, where she has magical powers, she ultimately isn’t hurt by it at all. She can cosplay black suffering, but she can’t truly experience it, because her privilege protects her.
What an episode to choose as your directorial debut. It could have gone wrong in so many different ways, and is imperfect in the way this show often is, yet the biggest risks pay off.
Some other thoughts:
* Is Captain Lancaster dead? It was hard to make out exactly who survived the shoggoth’s rampage. Whatever happened, I’m hoping we at least get an explanation for the glimpse we saw of his torso back in “Strange Case.”
* In the future novel version of Lovecraft Country written by Tic and Leti’s son George, Christina is a man, Uncle George survives the trip to Ardham, and Diana is a boy named Horace. This is a wink at the real Lovecraft Country novel by Matt Ruff, where all those details are the same as the one tucked into Atticus’ waistband.
* The revelation that Montrose is dyslexic is fodder for a joke about all the secrets he has kept from his son over the years. But it adds interesting shading to his role within the family, since we know how important books and reading are to the whole Freeman clan. The process doesn’t come nearly as easily to Montrose as it would have to his late brother or his son, but he clearly has made himself into a reader to rival their own passions for the written word.
* There are times when Lovecraft feels like a show that cares very much about the rules, like when Christina explains to Atticus how to cast the invulnerability spell. And there are others when it’s much less interested in how any of the magic works than the impression you get from it. Case in point: the “William” and “Hillary” having sex, with Hillary’s skin falling off throughout while Christina remains wholly William, even though she has been dressed as him for much longer that day. I’m sure there’s an explanation for it — Christina giving herself a bigger dose of the potion, or it just lasting longer because she has other magical powers — but it really doesn’t matter, does it? The important part is the visual of Ruby’s dark skin bursting out from under Hillary’s pale flesh, unable to disguise who she truly is, even when desperate to flee her identity on such a horrible day.
* Finally, some soundtrack talk. For the most part, the anachronistic music choices have tended to be hip-hop or R&B that feels relevant to what’s happening to our heroes in 1955. Here, we open with some Eighties Brit pop: “Cruel Summer,” by Bananarama, with lyrics that convey both the oppressive heat and the pain of all the mourners lining up to see Emmett’s body, even if it’s not the kind of song you might hear Ruby perform. We also get another speech, this time 11-year-old Naomi Wadler from the March for Our Lives rally talking about how black women are disproportionately affected by gun violence. And the Uncle Tom’s Cabin girls’ theme song is “Stop Dat Knocking” by Peter Di-Sante, Brian Mark, David Van Veersblick & Roger Smith. Other tunes this week: Alice Smith’s cover of “I Put A Spell On You” (along with her now-familiar version of “Sinnerman”) and Billie Holiday’s iconic “Stormy Weather.”