A few weeks ago, during our discussion at Whitey’s on the Moon, I described in detail the shows in the current anthology and explained how they take great creative risks and usually reinvent themselves with each new chapter. But the tl,dr version I was trying to do is what I was trying to do: Not every episode will work for everyone. We now have an episode of Land of Love that highlights my thesis: A story about violence written by Misha Green and directed by Victoria Mahoney.
From the beginning we knew that Lovecraft Country would be a difficult and delicate fiction. Every week we tried to mix the genres of pulp and fiction, sharp social commentary and emotional drama of the characters in bold new combinations. Last week’s introduction, the Holy Spirit, was for me the most intense dish in Lovecraftland: a delicious and enjoyable meal from an episode where all these incredible ingredients reinforce and enrich each other. But now, a week later, we have the story of the violence, an episode that throws all the same ingredients into the pot and is accompanied by disappointing hashish, none of which tastes particularly good.
Like I said, it’s a difficult recipe, and sometimes it goes wrong. Sorry, guys, I didn’t make it. As a result, this revision will be somewhat more reactive and unusually short than my usual overly obsessive and angry habits.
No new shit.
So far I’ve said in my reviews of Lovecraft Country how much I love the cold and how it helps the viewer to think well, so they can direct each episode well. Sometimes, however, a cold opener tries to do too much work for the episode, and in retrospect becomes too complicated for a sadly disappointing gift. The moments of discovery of the history of violence are unfortunately confused in terms of sound and promise us a television broadcast that we will not really have.
We start with Montrose, drunk and desperate, and we listen to the Cold War propaganda on the radio. If the United States fails to increase its stockpile of nuclear bombs, the barbaric Soviet Union will destroy civilized America, he said. We have entered a new world age. And we hear Montrose’s thoughts back: Not a damn new one. Whitey keeps boiling to death so the rest of us can eat. We see him crying over old photographs of Montrose, George and Dora, and we hear fragmented memories of both recent events and his own cruel youth. (This includes something like a father beating him up for putting a flower in his hair and anticipating it in front of a damn mirror). It all overlaps in Montrose’s mind when he – in the opera, Martin-Sheen – almost sank into the apocalypse – in fashion – into into intoxicating madness.
On paper I can see how this should work. The story of the plot violence is an arms race between our heroes and the Order of the Old Dawn, in which Tik and Vlieg decided to find the missing pages of the Book of Names for the Order. So the Cold War analogy makes sense. (We must be able to defend ourselves, said Fly later, and Montrose recalled the news of the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. We are the Reds in this fight, he said. In other words, we’re outnumbered, we’re outnumbered, we’re outnumbered, we’re outnumbered, we’re outnumbered, we’re outnumbered, we’re outnumbered, we’re outnumbered). As for the relationship between the characters, the story of violence also tries to address the problem of alienation between Tick and Montrose, so that we get a sense of Montrose’s relationship with his own father and the damage he has suffered as a result.
And in a broader thematic sense, The Land of Love is largely devoted to the question of how white racism and uncontrolled imperialism have evolved into an intergenerational trauma for the BIPOC communities. (Of course this series focuses mainly on black Americans, but the end of the history of violence will be linked to the genocide and exploitation of indigenous peoples). Moreover, at this point it is clear that it makes sense to talk about the dangers of combating oppression using the dehumanizing means and strategies of the oppressors. (We see this pattern in the devastating escalation of the Cold War, and on a more personal level – in his own life, Montrose, who was beaten as a child for showing his softer side, and became the cruelest father. They were overwhelmed by love in their childhood, George told him a few episodes ago. Despite the fact that you had so little money)
So it seems logical that this episode begins with themes such as imperialism, cruelty, homophobia and the madness of mutual destruction, promising a magical arms race and focusing on the relationship between Tik and Montrose. But much remains to be done and – as we shall see – the thematic scope and emotional weight of this cold revelation are disproportionate to the rest of the history of violence.
The first thing you want to do is hurry like crazy on a magical treasure hunt
After all, the history of violence is not prepared to really tackle major political issues or deep emotional traumas: It’s an action episode, a Pastiche-like episode, and a fundamentally stupid episode – or at least it should have been.
After all, there’s nothing wrong with being stupid. In fact, Lovecraft Country would be an exhausting spectacle if accompanied by systemic racism and emotional trauma. So, after a dark and more emotional episode like the Holy Spirit with a little more foam, it wasn’t a bad idea at all. (There’s no point in pretending that we don’t all see this show as much or more for monsters than for a message). That’s what makes Misha Greene so good: It solves important questions, but guides them through gender conventions and makes them fun.
And given Green’s general plan to cast the black eye on the paths of cellulose fantasy, it was probably inevitable that at some point in the series we would have a similar story. Today’s audience will treat it as an Indiana Jones adventure, but of course, the Riders of the Lost Ark itself was a pastiche of old stories influenced by the Republican series of the 1930s and 1940s, which in turn were influenced by the pulp-fiction stories of people like Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burrows, H. Ryder Haggard and others. Given the notoriety of this kind of fairy tales in American popular culture – and, as we have said, their propensity for the incredibly racist stories of white colonialism – small raids on museums, spying in caves and escaping death, it was almost inevitable for the heroes of the Land of Love.
A series of heavy action and adventure in the style of raiders would be fun. But the history of violence here tries to do too much at once, and in the end it doesn’t do anything particularly good. He tries to seed the adventure with the general theme of the evil of white colonialism – it’s already in the title – but most of the current historical commentary in this episode seems both simplistic and superficial. In the museum, for example, we heard an associate professor explain that all the artifacts in the wing of Titus Braithus were donated to a famous scholar in exchange for teaching the ways of civilized man to the wild tribes. But the irony of this statement is so clear, and so fleeting, that the moment is hardly recorded as anything other than a mockery: It all seems to sound a bit. (The same happened to me – albeit on a larger and more problematic scale – with an Indian comment at the end of the episode, but we will discuss this later).
Maybe we can forgive the history of violence for not trying to make difficult political points in the middle of a raid. (Twenty minutes from Tika and Fly discussing how the museum industry was built on colonial exploitation, the conquest and looting of oppressed cultures might slow this process down somewhat). But this episode gives an equally brief picture of the character’s drama. At the end of this violent story we must believe that Tick has achieved an emotional catharsis with Fly and Montrose – he gets a passionate kiss from one, and I’m proud of you, boy moment with the other – but I’ll be damned if I know what the two were based on. The obstacle course that leads to Titus’ vault is full of bickering, snipers and air raids, but there are very few real conversations, and none of them seem to indicate any real problems between the characters. As a result, the great moments of reconciliation do not feel particularly deserved. (That’s a big problem in a series that has attempted to establish meaningful emotional ties between the characters and – with the exception of Fly last week – between the characters and the audience).
But, as I said, we can choose to forgive the history of violence for using emotional stenography in the character section, and we can choose to forgive for missing the historical commentary. However, I find it more difficult to forgive him for sacrificing these two elements for a clichéd adventure that is not very funny. Even if one considers this episode as a simple action-adventure episode, there is an oppressive boredom in the performance and a lack of imagination, which is almost felt as indifference. Physical obstacles are so familiar that they yawn. (The unstable abyss, the swaying of the pendulum and the slow rise of the water are such common problems that I compared this episode – and not to the best of my knowledge and belief – with a game of Crash Bandicut) For puzzle problems, the effort was even less, to the point that the episode couldn’t even take a minute to explain each problem properly before it was solved. (In the museum, our heroes hardly came close to the statue of Titus until a comfortable moonbeam opened this thing. Later, when we crossed the abyss, we were not even shown the riddle at the door until Montrose found a way to solve it). It’s just a bad story: As spectators we are not invited to play the game, we are not encouraged or even allowed to feel any tension or enigma.
So I’m not really shy when it comes to the pettiness of the intellectual and emotional content, but I’m against seizing the opportunity to really have fun. The story of violence would be much better if it really followed the format of a series of adventures, both narrative and stylistic. If you want to give us a comic fast and strange uneven ride over impassable terrain – as opposed to a slow and painful Sunday – give us the traditional hunters in the style of the Lost Ark, a sepia-coloured conveyor belt that moves across the map. If you want to play with the path of exploration of the ancient ruins, give us some clever puzzles to solve them. If you want to create an episode that requires physical courage from the characters, give us some really exciting cliffhangers and moments of daring. (I want to see huge rolling rocks, not just walk through blind corridors and sneak into the rough water. I want to see our heroes swinging in abysses, not just an inch on a sign infected with magical termites). I would have been on board for an exciting action-adventure pastoral adventure, but unfortunately neither Green’s imagination nor Mahoney’s management passed the test here.
I’ve never met anyone so hungry
Where all this unimaginable magic leads more interesting, but also more disturbing. Tap Braithwaite’s blood opens Titus’ safe, and inside is the stolen treasure – and mummified bodies of Native Americans.
Because Lovecraft Country focuses on the experiences of black Americans, the series lacked a storyline about the reprehensible attitude of white settlers towards the indigenous people of this hemisphere. (This is a criticism for which, in my opinion, a lot of pressure can be put on a show by a predecessor of HBO on the same theme, Watchmen. The series was set in Oklahoma – the real ending of The Road to Tears – but there was no local character and the Indian story was hardly mentioned). So it was very interesting to see how the Land of Love opened that door here and linked the genocide and exploitation of the Indians to the larger story of the horrors of white domination.
To protect the magical McGuffin is an Arawak intersex called Yahima (Monique Candelaria), whose mummified, cobweb-like body is restored as soon as Tick reaches the role. Tic – of which Arawak is magically part – translates the story of Yahima as they told it when Titus came to their land to find someone to translate the Book of Names. I had no reason not to trust him, Yahima said about the first white man they saw. I’ve never met anyone so hungry. Yahima, who knew the true nature of Titus, refused to help him, so he was locked up here with the bodies of his tribesmen.
It’s all good. (I especially like the hypothesis that the magic is not that of a white man: it is older than the presence of a white man on this continent, and he stole it, just like everything else. I also like the fact that Montrose – after Yahima’s refusal to help them – is always fascinating: he adapts perfectly to the dangers of fighting oppression by becoming an oppressor) But this scene would be the subject of the whole episode : It had to be further developed and the whole episode – from the title to the Cold War things in the open air, to the museum scenes and the return to Lovecraft’s general theme of the country – connect the crimes of white racists. But somehow, after everything that led to the fake thieves, it seems to be both interconnected and insignificant. There is nothing particularly interesting about this episode, so that the trauma of Yahima – and thus that of her people – is reduced to a subtle interpretation of the Grail scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
Worse, Yaheema is completely out of this world, and this scene seems more than a little exploited. When Yahima’s withered body comes to life, it plays just like in EU horror cartoons. When they take the meat, they are completely naked, their breasts and genitals are exposed for excitement. These blows or two horror blows with body shock humanize twice and are totally useless because they evoke unfortunate memories of explosive horror passages such as the Transformed Film Sleep Camp. Yes, Lovecraft Land has always traded in oversold horror trophies, but it’s one thing to criticize them subtly, and another to just imitate them.
Candelaria’s performance is good enough to save the character, and there comes a time when it seems that Yahima can join our intrepid team as a permanent member, which would be highly desirable if we formed a large, overlapping team in the fight against the white supremacy. But the episode also ends without any hope of redemption: Montrose, probably under Tik’s protection from all that magical nonsense, cuts Jahima’s throat and shows that – creatively speaking – they have been exploited by playing the role of the character from the start. It’s just an object, a disposable tracking device, and it was never designed to be human.
Maybe more interesting things will happen with this material. (That remains to be seen.) And in revealing his sexuality in this episode, we can assume that Montrose’s murder of Jahimah is related to his own self-hatred, as well as to the need for a story or a thematic conspiracy. (I’m waiting for comment until I see where Lovecraft’s land is going). But in the end, none of this makes him any better: It is always about random objectification and the murder of an indigenous person, not about a binary human being, without taking the trouble to treat him or her as a human being first. Doing it only for reasons of intrigue or Montrose’s character development is actually even worse.
That worries me, and the fact that a rather superficial and derived episode like the story of violence comes to an end, is the first thing that really worries me about whether the land of Lovecraft can take responsibility for the project it has carried out here. The danger of fighting racism with a cellulose gender lens has always been that the land of love will eventually become insignificant, or worse still, that extremely sensitive material will be used for fleeting and sensational entertainment. Misha Green has been able to avoid this pitfall so far, but the story of the violence seems to be a clumsy and disturbing mistake.
Additional reflections and preferred elements
- Since I had already agreed that it would be a shorter and somewhat grumpy review, I decided to skip the Christina/Ruby scenes in this episode, although they are actually more interesting and better executed scenes in the history of violence. (Wunmi Mosaku – fantastic.) It’s high time to talk about Ruby’s character, but I’ll save what I have to say for a later article. I’m more than ready for an episode that focuses mainly on Ruby, and I hope to get it in the near future).
- A few comments about Cristina/Ruby. First of all: Cristina and William are the same person, right? I admit it never occurred to me, although I should have, because we never saw them together. (This more or less explicit revelation is felt here as something that should resonate with other aspects of the episode – the denial of Montrose’s feminine side, Jacob’s intersexuality, and so on. – but it was never quite like that).
- Then a note (and an address) to the authors and directors: Nobody has sex on the stairs. It’s literally annoying. Please stop writing those scenes.
- My favorite character in this episode? A guy from the library (Ian McKay) who just wants to enjoy his Jules Verne and Tick and Fly (and Lovecraft Country?) wants to stop all this shit and leave him alone.
- I’m ashamed to discover that a tunnel under the Boston museum somehow leads to the basement of Fly’s house in Chicago. On the one hand, it’s a ridiculously handy plot device, but on the other hand, the characters don’t even question it, as if they don’t even realize they’ve walked 1000 miles after about an hour. On the other hand, the symbolism of a secret network of white supremacist tunnels connecting all the cities of the country and the opening of the Leti-lift provided the only authentic Oh, shit! Anyway, let’s call it washing.
- I’ve had enough this week. I’m sorry, I didn’t feel it, and – as my old readers may have noticed – I really hate writing these kinds of reviews. (In fact, by the time I’m about to judge an episode – rather than just discuss it – something has gone wrong). In fact, I was inclined to miss the episode, but I tried to finish it as quickly and painlessly as possible. No offense, Lovecraft-land: Let’s go to the next one.