The first episode of Lovecraft Country, ‘Sundown,’ delivered the tone that the trailers set; a blend of Lovecraftian horror and a history lesson on Jim Crow-era America from a Black perspective.
‘Sundown’ itself has a double meaning in the episode. It introduces a large portion of the audience to the concept of a ‘Sundown town.’ We should have all been educated on this piece of history, of course, but our history books are generally white-washed and we are left to discover these concepts either from our own curiosity or when they pop up in the media we consume. A similar phenomenon happened with the Tulsa Race Massacre when it appeared in Watchmen.
So I guess shout out to HBO for filling in the gaps in the American education system and telling a wider audience about these things. We should really already know, but better late than never. What will HBO educate us about next? I look forward to finding out.
This first meaning of the word leads to the second in a clever blending of our two major themes of the show. Our protagonists are caught in a sundown town as the sun begins to set. Essentially, because they are Black they are not allowed to remain in the city or county limits after sunset. They can face severe consequences including likely being killed. We see them racing towards the county line, making it across the border with only seconds to spare much to their relief.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t matter as the authorities are hell-bent on brutalizing them anyway despite their success at getting over the line before sunset. They are pulled out into the forest, presumably to be tortured and likely killed, when the second meaning of the word comes into play – the monsters come out after sundown. This is absolutely brilliant. Talk about a way to set the tone!
The mix of these themes is present from the very beginning of the episode when our main protagonist Atticus is dreaming of the pulp fiction he’s been reading while taking a bus to Chicago. Lovecraft’s pulp leaned more towards monsters than aliens, but it still brings us into the world of 1950’s science fiction and fantasy, which is clearly important to Atticus. Unfortunately, even these novels are laced with racist themes, but he finds joy in them anyway.
As soon as he wakes up, however, we are plunged into the second theme. The other passenger in the segregated section of the bus remarks that they are ‘just going over another bridge named after some dead slave owner.’ While this bridge is obviously somewhere on the Kentucky-Illinois state line my mind immediately went to the Edmund Pettus Bridge and the historic work of John Lewis, whom we lost just a few short weeks ago. I’m not entirely sure if this particular bridge is real or not – and googling ‘bridges in Kentucky named after slave owners’ brought up far too many results – but it looked similar enough and had a similar enough meaning that my mind went to the Selma marches.
Like Sarah Rodman said during the SDCC panel, we are looking backward, but we are not as far from that moment as we hoped to be as a country. This history is not that long ago both in the actual time that has passed and in the progress we’ve made. It’s still incredibly relevant today. The Edmund Pettus Bridge is, after all, still called that. And dozens of other bridges littered across the country are still named after some dead slave owners as well. And they have monuments in their honor. And schools named after them. And so much more.
Even the police brutality showcased in the episode is incredibly relevant to the United States of 2020 despite there being a 70 gap between now and then. If the Black Lives Matter movement didn’t prove that to you, the cast sharing their own experiences with cops in recent years during the SDCC panel should highlight that point pretty clearly for you. This is a continued problem and if it feels timely, perhaps it’s because these things never really went away. Anyone who says that it has is choosing to live in the white-washed version of history.
If these parallels make you uncomfortable, that’s probably a good thing. It means you’re confronting histories that may have either been left out from your education, or you pushed aside in your mind with the belief that it’s ‘all in the past. So work through that discomfort and listen to what the show is telling us.
But also? Please enjoy the monster narrative! Because yes, this show has heavy themes related to Jim Crow-era America and that’s important. But remember that there are two major themes running parallel and there’s nothing wrong with taking different things from each of them. Use one to confront our history and our present, but absolutely feel free to enjoy those super fun monster battles like you would in any other show. Because damn, so far they are super cool and they deserve to be enjoyed.
The monsters we’ve been introduced to so far only come out at night and seem to be able to turn humans into them with a simple bite. They seem to be based on Lovecraft’s Shoggoth’s – big blobs with tons of eyes. The sound they make is absolutely haunting and their attacks are brutal. They easily rip several people to shreds in a matter of seconds. Their only weakness is the light – again, bringing us back to the title of the episode ‘Sundown.’ I fully expect to get a ton more monsters besides just the Shoggoth’s but what an excellent and nasty beast to start with.
So far the show has exceeded my expectations. I was already incredibly excited for it, but cautious due to J.J. Abrams’ name being attached to the project. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy Abrams’ work, but usually in a more action-focused and passive way. I consume his work to get that sweet hit of serotonin that comes with action/science fiction projects, but I wasn’t sure if a show with a parallel deeper theme would work well for him. But Jordan Peele’s name is also attached to this project, and this is what he does. And the writing is by Misha Green, whose work I’m not as familiar with as I am Peele and Abrams, but clearly Green has a good grasp of the tone she’s trying to get across with her writing.
So I have faith in this show going forward and I look forward to reviewing it weekly. Stay tuned for more!
Note: You can catch Farid’s recap of ‘Sundown’ over on our YouTube channel.
Author: Angel Wilson
Angel is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. She earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. She’s contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. She’s written for Friends of Comic Con and is a 2019 Hugo Award winner for contributing fanfic on AO3. She identifies as queer.
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