TV REVIEW: Lovecraft Country – Season 1: Episode 5
So, we’re now reaching the mid-point of Lovecraft Country and it is perhaps time to take stock of where we are. The pre-release hype (generated by TV critics who were given screeners of the entire season) hasn’t quite been lived up to and the high expectations that I and many others had…haven’t exactly been met. Instead, things have been much more uneven and messier than anticipated. That’s not to say there haven’t been highs, because there definitely have been, but there have been some slightly wince-inducing lows as well. After Yahima’s ignoble end in Episode 4, I have seen some indigenous and trans viewers say they will not be watching further and after Episode 5, some more members of the LGBTQ+ community have said the same (more of which later).
When reading the book Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, the chapter Jekyll in Hyde Park – which begins with “New Year’s Day, Ruby woke up white” – was the one that really made me think “how are they going to pull this off when adapting from page to screen?” I wasn’t even sure if (showrunner) Misha Green and her team would tackle it at all and then I wondered how far they would go with it. The answer came in Episode 5 – Strange Case and they certainly have taken the concept and run to the hills with it. Leti’s sister Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) is given the opportunity by the creepy William (Jordan Patrick Smith) to take a potion and become a white woman, Hillary (Jamie Neumann), more-or-less at will. Like Mr Hyde, she cannot always control when the affects of the potion will wear off and she will return to being Ruby. As with many aspects of the TV show, the body horror, gore and gruesome scenes are dialled up to 11 from the book and the transformation is painstakingly executed in all of its flesh-dripping glory.
As Hillary, she gets her dream job as an Assistant Manager in a department store and is soon lording it over the store’s only Black employee, Tamara (Sibongile Mlambo), while fending off the advances of the manager Mr Hughes (David Stanbra). Tic and Leti briefly feature in the episode, mainly in a steamy sex scene in a garage. It is Montrose’s subplot which is the least successful, he is almost entirely wordless for the episode, but we see a series of vignettes of him ‘coming out of his shell’ in the gay community and being more accepting of himself. Which sounds fine in and of itself, but it’s handled in a rushed and simplistic way, which means the background characters of drag queens and more flamboyant ‘out-and-proud’ gay men are reduced to stereotypes. Like many threads in the show, it feels as if this will probably be abandoned by the next almost-self-contained episode and a topic such as this shouldn’t be teased if it isn’t going to be explored properly.
As usual, one of the greatest strengths is the use of eclectic and anachronistic music eg. Cardi B’s Money, combined with more period-specific songs sung by Ruby – in this case, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea. And once again, the use of a spoken word piece is sublime – this time it is For Colored Girls who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf (Ntozake Shange, 1976) – an unusual theatre piece which is a series of poetic monologues accompanied by dance movements and music, a form Shange coined as a choreo-poem. This is played over a montage of Ruby-as-Hillary, enjoying her first “uninterrupted” day.
Unfortunately, things unravel further towards the end of the episode with choices such as Ruby getting her revenge on Mr Hughes with a stiletto shoe being repeatedly stabbed where the sun doesn’t shine and a reveal that William and Christina Braithwhite (Abbey Lee) are in fact, the same person. This feels like a forcing of the Jekyll and Hyde theme in a direction that it didn’t need to go in (Ruby’s storyline was enough) and after the way a Two Spirit indigenous character was treated in episode 4, to then reveal that the white-blonde and icily-blue-eyed Christina and William have been living as both a man and a woman at will does not sit right.
I had high hopes for episode 5, after the not-great episode 4, especially when I found out that it was directed by Cheryl Dunye (the pioneering director of 1996’s The Watermelon Woman). But unfortunately, certain choices have almost made me feel like giving up. Viewers can live in hope that these decisions are for a purpose and that they’re going somewhere/will tie together but so many sub-plots have arisen and died off, that it’s difficult to maintain faith at this point. I still want to praise the audacious and risky nature of the show and when it swings for the fences this much, it’s not always going to stick the landing. Many things about Lovecraft Country are so strong – the actors, costumes, use of music and spoken word, the cinematography and use of montage – that I don’t want to write the show off yet. Also, there are chapters from the book that I’m really curious to see how they will be executed on screen… so we will have to see if things improve in the second half of the season.