Rarely, if ever, does a single episode of television provide so much so effortlessly, but “Sundown” was a glorious masterclass and something very special.
This recap of Lovecraft Country season 1, episode 1, “Sundown”, contains spoilers.
Where does one even start when it comes to Lovecraft Country? Honestly, there has been so much fuss about HBO’s adaptation of Matt Ruff’s same-named 2016 novel that I couldn’t help but think it wouldn’t live up to those lofty expectations; after the premiere, “Sundown”, the hype scarcely seems like enough. Rarely, very rarely, has a single episode of television incorporated so much so effortlessly. In the space of an hour, we got an impeccably-timed comedy, a history lesson, a scathing indictment of Jim Crow, a genuinely terrifying portrait of a racist madman whose very presence seemed designed to suggest that the real monsters were human beings after all, but then, in a full-blown, blood-soaked, wonderfully bonkers finale, we got loads of Lovecraftian monsters anyway. The whole thing was a defiant middle finger raised against America’s long, uncomfortable history of imperialism and oppression, and against the long-held storytelling norms that have prohibited Black people from being the heroes of their own stories. It was glorious.
That isn’t even hyperbole – the idea that this was just one episode still seems difficult to believe, so dense and layered and exciting and satisfying it all was. Perhaps “fun” isn’t the right word when the gory genre shenanigans sit so awkwardly close to the very real horror of America’s past – and indeed its present – but I can’t think of a better one for much of Lovecraft Country episode 1, which delights, and encourages the audience to delight along with it, in lettings its characters distort, challenge, outsmart and outrun the varied horrors of the world they’re trapped in. The thrill is part of the point.
Those characters are Black. This is also the point since they’re navigating the South Side of Chicago in the mid-‘50s, where white cops stop frolicking children from playing with a fire hydrant, all the while a military recruiter offers the children the chance of adventure, to see the world, to serve a country that scarcely recognizes their humanity. Atticus Freeman (Jonathan Majors), a veteran bookworm who rode into town at the back of a bus while giving a finger to “old Jim Crow”, has seen enough reality to know the version of it being sold to those kids is a fiction. That night, he opens the hydrant back up.
But these block party sequences in “Sundown” are upbeat, relaxed, and warm – not just in the sense of the scorching heat, but in the sense of a maligned community finding comfort and safety in each other. Letitia (Jurnee Smollett, surely contributing to the heat all on her own) is introduced in this portion, a free-spirit musician whose laidback attitude is wearing on the last nerve of her sister, Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku), who offers her as much help as she can stand and then suggests she finds more elsewhere. Letitia’s entire character is a challenge to sexism; she’s constantly insisting on the value of her own role and proving it again and again in open defiance of gender norms and genre tropes. And she proves it again and again with “final girl” ingenuity and spirit.
She isn’t the final girl, though. She’s only a third of the main trio which also includes Atticus and his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), the loving husband of Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis), and father of Diana (Jada Harris) who seems to carry around a photo of someone he perhaps shouldn’t. He and Hippolyta are writing a guidebook, The Safe Negro Travel Guide, and filling it in is part of the reason he accompanies Atticus in his search for his father, who has gone missing, leaving behind nothing but an odd letter describing a secret legacy in a place called Ardham. Letitia is along for a lift to her brother’s.
There’s more to each character than these capsule summaries, obviously, but Lovecraft Country episode 1 does a lot of heavy lifting in making you care about them by having them be frantically pursued by nefarious white folks for basically no reason. There are more than two chase sequences in “Sundown”, in cars and on foot, and each is a masterclass of suspense. If the episode had ended with just these dread-inducing moments as its action beats, it would still have been a remarkable opener. But the introduction of the Devon County Sheriff, a despicably racist lawman who, with his deputies, intimidates and pursues the trio through the unmapped route to Ardham, is only a means by which to introduce new horrors.
When the Lovecraftian monsters arrive, it’s a welcome relief, especially since they savagely tear apart the sheriff’s deputies and bite the sheriff himself, who later transforms into a kind of racist blob monster and hobbles off. It’s satisfying because the heroes are the only ones smart enough to figure out that the creatures are afraid of light; they’re the only ones with enough ingenuity to come out the other side alive if not necessarily unscathed. The sight of them arriving at their destination in Ardham, covered in blood, is lasting and striking. In one episode, they’d dealt with more misadventure and trauma that most shows unspool across an entire season. The fact “Sundown” ends on a cliffhanger, with a weird white man opening the mansion door and telling Atticus he’s been expecting him, prompted a laugh from me. If all this happened in just one episode, what on earth is going to happen next?
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.