Lovecraft Country - Season 1, Episode 2: Whitey's on the Moon - Reviewed

Courtesy: HBO

Most of Lovecraft Country episode 1 was spent developing the series' capabilities as a drama, which could frankly and powerfully discuss the legacy of racism in both America and genre literature, only letting loose and giving us a sample of the (fantastical) horror the show could provide towards the end. It feels appropriate, then, that with episode 2, Whitey's on the Moon, Lovecraft Country uses the bulk of the episode to show us what a good horror show it can be. Making excellent use of the creepy mansion where Atticus, George, and Leti found themselves at the end of the series premiere, this second installment does a very strong job of building up the tension and the supernatural mystery, while still devoting plenty of time to character development. And while the first episode commented quite a bit on the racism in classic horror, sci-fi, and fantasy fiction at large, this episode delves quite a bit into Lovecraft specifically, channeling the storytelling and thematic tropes of his work, and turning them on their head to subvert his bigoted views. Whitey's on the Moon zooms in on the story a bit, looking less at the systemic racism in America as a whole, and focusing on the specific plight of our characters now that they have reached the town of Ardham, though it is still very attentive to the deeply-ingrained racism they encounter along the way. We're definitely in Lovecraft Country itself this time around.

Having arrived at the mansion that Atticus's dad's letter lead them to, Atticus, George, and Leti find themselves welcomed with a disconcerting level of friendliness and hospitality by the wealthy, creepy, very Aryan Braithwhite family (Abbey Lee, Tony Goldwyn, Jordan Patrick Smith), who seem to basically rule the isolated town of Ardham. But something is really creepy about the house as well as its inhabitants, and something is messing with their memory and perception. Our three heroes set out to find Atticus's dad and figure out exactly what is going on, but are in way over their heads as the occult nature of their predicament starts to become clear.

Courtesy: HBO
Narratively this episode is pure Lovecraftian horror, drawing recurring plot elements from multiple Lovecraft stories like The Rats in the Walls (which features that notoriously-named black cat), The Dunwich Horror, and others: mysterious birth-rites and sinister, forgotten-to-time family histories, creepy mansions with strange chambers of ominous purpose (or eldritch purpose, I should say, if we're really getting Lovecraftian), and an isolated town with an insular population who seem unmoored from time. In terms of storytelling style, mood, and suspense, the episode captures the essence of Lovecraft's horror pretty perfectly. But crucially, it flips Lovecraft's racism on its head, making it even creepier in the process. In The Rats in the Walls, the protagonist who inherits the sinister mansion is a blatantly racist white man whose family presumably built the house with slave labor; in this story, the white aristocratic family who owns the house are incredibly suspicious (if not obviously villainous) from the start, and we see the story through the eyes of Atticus, George, and Leti, who are entering the luxurious home under the assumption that it is enemy territory where they cannot possibly be welcome (after the horrors of last week's sundown-town confrontation, an impossibly friendly blonde-haired, blue-eyed rich white man calling Atticus “Mr. Freeman” and treating him like royalty is immediately suspicious and creepy by its dissonance from the reality of the day). In most Lovecraft stories about an insular, isolated community in league with some type of dark forces (most notably The Dunwich Horror and The Shadow Over Innsmouth), the creepiness of the community is indicated by its inhabitants being described as hideous, subhuman degenerates – which is usually pretty obviously coded with racism and Lovecraft's fear of the mixing of the races, and always loaded with classism and a disgust of the poor. In this episode, the creepy inhabitants of Ardham are all stereotypical-Hollywood-ideal white people, most of them straight-up Aryan in their appearance. The horror isn't that the people in this town are somehow “wrong;” the horror is that they look exactly like all the other racist white Americans our heroes have encountered, and they appear to be living in some sort of creepy white supremacist enclave that has clearly walled itself off from anyone “other.”

Courtesy: HBO
The way in which the episode handles this inversion of Lovecraftian tropes is excellent, and also channels a bit of The Wicker Man and Midsommar as well. However, if there is a complaint to be made about this episode, it is that it doesn't spend enough time exploring this world and its themes. It is a fascinating, creepy environment, but so much is going on in the episode that it doesn't explore quite enough of it. No sooner have Atticus, Leti, and George gotten into town that Atticus starts taking a pretty aggressive approach to questioning the locals; the episode would have benefited from taking more of a slow-burn, sleuthing approach, and possibly even dividing this episode's story up into two parts. I'm not sure that this episode needed to cover quite as much ground as it did, and I would have liked to have seen it take a bit more room to breathe, and let the creepiness fester. But that said, everything the episode does, it nonetheless does quite well, and the story beats all hit home in a thoroughly compelling way, so I can't complain that much.

The episode does take its time where it really counts, in the character development. While the first episode got our trio on the road so fast that it felt like Jurnee Smollett's Leti got shortchanged in the character-development department, in this episode she gets more to do, and a very good monologue that gives some deeper insights into her character. Once again Courtney B. Vance is outstanding as George, largely stealing the episode with a few crucial scenes, and Jonathan Majors continues to be an excellent lead. The new additions to the cast make very strong impressions as well, though in the interest of remaining spoiler-free, I won't say more about them until next week.

Courtesy: HBO

Misha Green's writing continues to strike an outstanding balance of great supernatural fiction with very compelling themes exploring racism in America woven seamlessly throughout, often laying just below the surface in the tensions and power dynamics between our three protagonists and the creepy Braithwhite family. She also does more of what she did very effectively a couple times in the first episode: anachronistically using more contemporary (or at least, post-1950s) music to underscore the themes, and convey that the show is not just about racism in 1950s America, but also now, and in all the years in-between. The production design of the show continues to impress, with the Braithwhite mansion being a fantastically-designed environment, and some of its occult chambers offering Lovecraftian visuals that would make Guillermo Del Toro proud.

With its fast pacing and sometimes-excessive speeding through the world it presents us, Whitey's on the Moon is a somewhat more uneven episode than the first, and I can't help but feel like this should have been built out into episodes 2 and 3 instead. But the plot, character, and world-building remain extremely strong, with a truly stellar cast working magic with Green's dialogue, and pacing gripes aside, this follow-up episode continues to build the series' excellent potential. We've established now that Lovecraft Country can do horror just as well as it does drama, so it will be very exciting to see where the show goes from here.


- Christopher S. Jordan

Share this review!