Tonight, we begin our weekly recap/review journey into what might be one of the most unique and ambitious television programs ever made. The first episode also demonstrates how incredibly beautiful, entertaining, and terrifying the show can be, as well.
It should also be noted that if you aren’t familiar with the mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, then you might want to brace yourself because things are going to get very, very weird.
The episode opens with black and white footage of Atticus Freeman battling in the trenches of the Korean War. As the scene transitions to color, the battle expands to include Martian tripods, winged monsters, and flying saucers. After shooting down a nearby fighter plane, one of the saucers flies over Atticus and opens up. A beautiful bikini-clad alien woman descends toward him in a shaft of light.
Atticus ignores the chaos around him (understandable) and heads toward her. After she embraces him and whispers something in his ear, the pair turn to find a monster that looks very much like Cthulhu rising up from the ground in front of them. Just as the creature is about to attack, it explodes in a mass of green slime thanks to the random appearance of Jackie Robinson, who assures Atticus “I got you kid” before turning to strike the regenerating monster once again.
At the crack of Robinson’s bat, Atticus awakens on a bus with a paperback copy of Edgar Burroughs The Princess of Mars on his chest. An older woman sitting nearby happily informs him that they’re crossing a bridge out of Kentucky and Jim Crowe country. Atticus smiles and gives a middle finger to the racist countryside behind them. As the camera pans back, however, we see that he and the woman are still forced to sit in the back portion of the vehicle, which is designated for black passengers.
A few moments later, the bus breaks down and pulls over. When a truck comes to carry everyone into town, he and the older woman–the only black passengers–are forced to make the journey on the foot. Atticus gallantly offers to carry her luggage.
Along the way, the woman asks about the book he was reading. She’s taken aback that a black person could enjoy a story about someone who at one point had fought for slavery in the Confederate Army. Atticus explains that stories are like people–you try and cherish them while overlooking their flaws. He also confesses his love for pulp stories and how easy it is to get lost in their adventures. When the woman asks if Atticus joined the army looking for adventures of a more earthly variety, he explains that his enlistment was a means of getting away from his father.
Ironically, his father is also the reason he’s returned home: Montrose Freeman has gone missing.
Back in Chicago, George and Hippolyta Freeman canoodle in bed a bit before George has to begin prepping for another trip to add to his Green Book-esque Safe Negro Travel Guide. When Hippolyta asks to go in his place, he gently shoots down the idea, which also completely breaks the mood. Not wanting to leave the woman her on such a sour note, George works a little under the covers magic and gets things back on track. Hippolyta warns her husband that their daughter Diana is awake, but his desire to be intimate with the woman he loves outweighs any caution.
Over in the next room, Diana is attempting to draw some comics when she hears her parents doing it and is appropriately grossed out. Upon heading into the kitchen for a moan-free workspace, she screams with surprise/delight at the sight of her cousin Atticus climbing up the fire escape. When George and Hippolyta rush in to see what’s wrong, they’re also happy to see that their nephew has returned (despite him interrupting their morning romp).
Later, Atticus heads over to George’s shop. While his uncle is having the car checked out (in preparation for the trip), he goes over to the bookshelf and pulls out a collection of stories by H.P. Lovecraft. Atticus tells George that his father once caught him reading one of Lovecraft’s most racist works (which is really saying something) and forced him to memorize it as punishment.
Their conversation then turns to where Montrose has been for the last two weeks. Atticus reveals that while he was stationed in Korea, his father sent him a letter about his mother and her mysterious ancestry. The mention of Montrose’s deceased wife clearly affects George more than he wants his nephew to know, but he tamps it down, instead wondering why his brother is still so obsessed about her past.
Atticus then reads the letter, which doesn’t sound like Montrose at all. It also claims that Atticus has a secret legacy/birthright that can be found in Lovecraft Country, the general area in Massachusetts where many of Lovecraft’s stories were set. The letter goes on to cliam that his mother’s ancestors are from the fictional town of Arkham. George takes a closer look and discovers that town is actually named Ardham…which still doesn’t help much since neither of them have ever heard of such a town.
While George searches for Ardham in his collection of maps, Atticus heads down to one of his father’s favorite watering holes to see if he can learn anything more about his disappearance. He finds the bar owner, Sam, behind the building and in the middle of receiving fellatio from another man (who runs off because that’s awkward and it’s the 1950’s). He tells Atticus that Montrose hadn’t been at the bar in weeks. The last time he saw him, his father left with an extremely well dressed white man in an expensive looking silver sedan.
That night, Atticus’ neighborhood holds a block party that is absolutely jumping thanks to musical stylings of Ruby Baptiste and her band.
While asking the crowd to help pick her next song, she is surprised to hear her half-sister Letitia “Leti” Lewis request “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”. Ruby’s not exactly thrilled about Leti’s unexpected return from her travels photographing the civil rights movement, but still lets her come up on stage…and my apologies to Big Maybelle, but these two ladies absolutely bring the house down.
*Side Note: Dear HBO: Please put out a Lovecraft Country soundtrack that also includes anything these two women sing*
While Ruby and Leti make everyone’s feet move, Atticus opens up a fire hydrant that a white police officer had previously shut off, prompting squeals of joy from the children in the crowd and even a few of the adults.
As the two women head off stage and the next act goes on, Leti admits to her half-sister that she needs a place to stay. Ruby reminds her that she could always get a job cleaning houses instead of asking for help/money–especially since she skipped out on their own mother’s funeral. She coldly follows that up by offering to let her stay only two nights before heading off into the crowd.
After the party, George nurses his sore knees (which ache from dancing and previous police-induced injuries) while going over his findings with Atticus. The last mention he could locate about the town of Ardham was over two centuries ago, which provides them with only an approximate location for the town in Devon Country, Massachusetts.
Once George realizes that Atticus is determined to go, he insists on coming with him, explaining that the trip can also be used as an entry in his guide book. Atticus agrees, but points out that one of Ruby’s many drawings on their map happens to be a grim reaper directly over the place they’re looking for.
Later that evening, Atticus heads over to his father’s house. After poking around for a bit, he uses the phone to make a very long distance call to South Korea. A woman picks up and admonishes him for going home before he abruptly hangs up on her.
The next day, Atticus arrives at his father’s shop and is surprised to see his old friend (and not-so-secret crush) Leti loading up the car. George explains that she’ll be traveling with them part way to see her brother Marvin, who works for a map company and might be able to help them dig up more information about Ardham.
After saying goodbye to his family (and Diana giving him one of her hand made comics), George departs with Atticus and Leti on their long journey to Massachusetts. The trip is blessed with smooth driving and good food, but also marred by the specter of racism, both of the casual/cruel and aggressively dangerous variety.
They eventually stop at a diner in Simmonsville that George received a tip/recommendation for. Atticus immediately gets a (very justified) bad feeling about the place, especially when the diner doesn’t share the same name as the one George was given…and that every white person they’ve seen around town has aggressively eyeballed them. Nevertheless, they still decide to go in.
Their presence immediately causes the diner’s only other patron to leave. The kid waiting on them appears all types of uncomfortable having to serve black customers, but George is undeterred. Atticus is a war veteran and they are all U.S. citizens; their money and patronage should be just as good and welcome as anyone else’s.
While waiting for their coffee, Leti visits the ladies room. She walks by the kitchen and overhears the waiter on the phone with the owner. He swears that he won’t serve the three black customers in the restaurant, especially after what happened to the last owner.
Back out in the dining room, Atticus notices that all the surfaces of the restaurant are painted white like the White House…which was rumored to have been painted that way to cover the scorch marks it suffered during the War of 1812. While that may be a historical misconception, Atticus slides one of the floorboards away to reveal that his suspicions about the diner’s history are 100% correct.
At that exact same moment, Leti comes running back into the dining area yelling that they need to get out. She takes the wheel of the car (over George’s objections) and gets them out of there just as a fire engine and truck come barreling around the corner with a man firing a shotgun at them.
Leti manages to lose the fire engine in a narrow alley, but the truck (and the shooter) remain on their tail. Atticus takes out a revolver he took from his father’s house and shoots back, but to no avail. They make it onto the highway only to have a silver sedan begin speeding toward them from a parallel side road. Instead of hitting their car, though, it blocks the truck’s path before spinning to a stop. The truck hits an invisible barrier around the sedan and flips over, discharging its murderous redneck occupants onto the road.
Leti stops the car to see what happened. All three of them are stunned and understandably confused when the whitest-looking woman imaginable steps out from the shiny silver vehicle and stares at them. Atticus wisely implores Leti to hit the gas pedal and get the heck out of there.
That evening, the trio make it to Marvin’s house and are able to laugh over the near death situation they escaped. Things turn significantly more sober when Leti’s brother tells them what he learned about Devon County. In addition to its history with witch hunters/executioners, it also has a reputation for travelers being attacked and killed in the surrounding woods by wild animals.
As if that weren’t bad enough, the sheriff in that area (Eustace Hunt) has a complaint file with the NAACP large enough to fill multiple books/coffins.
As far as the town of Ardham is concerned, the town’s exact location is smack dab in the middle of nowhere–in the same woods where people keep getting killed/eaten. Other than that, there’s virtually no official information/records to be found. Despite this ominous discovery, Atticus remains determined to travel there and locate the town’s land registry.
That night, George calls his family and suggests to Hippolyta that they travel together on his next guidebook trip. His wife is predictably happy and all types of agreeable to this new plan.
After George hangs up with her, he takes out a picture from his wallet of Atticus’ mother and stares at it in way that implies much more than the standard fondness for a sister-in-law.
Meanwhile, Atticus sits outside and awkwardly listens to Marvin scream at Leti for being irresponsible with her money and skipping their mother’s funeral. When George comes out to join him, Atticus tells his uncle about the last time he saw his father. Someone from one of the newspapers had wanted to interview him about being a black soldier. Montrose completely lost it, lashing out at his son for putting his life at risk for a country that hated him and potentially inspiring others to make the same decision. Their argument eventually turned physical. Since that time, the only letter his father ever wrote him was the strange one he received about his mother and the town of Ardham.
George attempts to defend his brother, explaining that Montrose would constantly come over and wait until he volunteered any information he had on how his son was doing. He also confesses to not doing a good enough job protecting his younger and smaller brother when they were growing up. Atticus points out that he was also younger and smaller…and could have used George’s protection, too.
The next day, Leti silently rejoins Atticus and George for the rest of their trip.
You Better Beware
The trio make it to Devon County, but are unable to find the turn off for Ardham. Atticus becomes frustrated, demands George stop the car, and gets out to search the woods near where the road should be. Leti gets out and follows him, repeating her brother’s warning about the county’s sheriff while assuring Atticus that they’ll eventually find his father–just not today.
The pair hear a sound in the woods, which Atticus jokingly identifies as a shoggoth. Unfortunately, a very real monster in the form of Sheriff Hunt arrives and pulls over behind George. He informs the trio that Devon is a sundown county, meaning that any black people he finds there after dark will be executed.
He also tells them that sunset is in approximately seven minutes. Atticus assures Hunt that they’ll be out of Devon County in six, but the sheriff points out that the only way they could do that in the direction they’re facing would be to speed…which would mean he’d have to pull them over. Hunt allows them to make an illegal u-turn to escape in the opposite direction, but only if Atticus provides a humiliating request to do so.
Atticus begrudgingly obliges before getting in the car and turning the vehicle around. As the sun begins to dip behind the trees, the trio pulls onto the 25 mph road with the sheriff literally right on their tail. After the most intense slow speed chase imaginable, our heroes make it across the county line with seconds to spare. Unfortunately, their joyous relief is cut short when they see a group of Hunt’s rifle-toting officers blocking the road in front of them.
Atticus, Leti, and George are led into the woods to be executed. George and Atticus attempt to reason with Sheriff Hunt, which only causes him to grow more smug/gleeful at the prospect of killing a group of black travelers he can also blame for a series of nearby robberies.
Just when is appears all hope is lost, the officers are interrupted by a strange noise bouncing through trees around them. While attemping to guess what it could be, one of the officers is ambushed and gets his arm bitten off by an actual shoggoth.
Now it should be noted that these shoggies are a bit different than the ones H.P. Lovecraft imagined. While they do have round bodies covered with eyes, they’re also much smaller, exceptionally nimble, and behave more like a pack of wolves than sentient blobs. So yeah…pretty terrifying.
Also, I’m sure I’ll be one of many critics/viewers to make this observation, but it’s impossible to ignore how the monsters showing up feels like a relief compared to the danger our heroes were in with the murderous/racist cops.
But I digress…our trio uses the horrific distraction to take flight as their captors fire wildly into the forest and get torn to shreds. George ends up falling down while Leti and Atticus sprint toward a nearby cabin. Hunt and two other officers follow close behind them, but one of them is attacked and gets his head bitten off.
Atticus and Leti make it inside the cabin and try to block the door, but Hunt and his sole remaining deputy force their way in. The severely ravaged/bitten sheriff commands his former prisoners to barricade the entrance while the deputy holds them at gunpoint. When Atticus insists they look for George, Hunt refuses to let him go, fearful that he’ll draw the monsters back to their location.
Meanwhile, George takes the flashlight from the disembodied hand of the shoggoth’s first victim and heads toward the cabin. One of the creatures attempts to stalk him, but backs away when the flashlight beam hits its eyes.
George makes it to the cabin and reveals his theory about the creature’s weakness to light, which also helps explain why they didn’t see any shoggoths until after sundown. Atticus decides to go and get their car to retrieve their road flares (and use its headlights) against the monsters. Hunt fears he might abandon them and demands Leti go, instead. Atticus protests, but Leti reminds him that she was a track star in high school (and is still a stone cold badass).
After she tears out of the cabin toward the car, Hunt’s already dire condition begins to worsen as he begins to turn into a shoggoth–which is actually an improvement in most respects. Unfortunately, the addition of a human/shoggoth hybrid inside their safe haven puts Atticus and George in even more danger. George implores the deputy to shoot his former sheriff, but the man is too shocked/scared to do so. He pays for his hesitation when Shoggoth Hunt rips off the bottom half of his face off.
Meanwhile, Leti makes it to the car right before a shoggoth is about to catch her. She uses the headlights to scare it, forcing the creature to burrow underground. When another shoggoth attacks, she runs it over and accelerates back through the woods, ramming through the cabin and running over Shoggoth Hunt seconds before he can chomp down on Atticus and George.
The lawman-turned-monster is injured, but manages to escape out the window. George is also hurt in the crash, forcing Atticus to drag him into the car’s headlight radius for protection. Once that’s done, he and Leti begin lighting road flares and waving them at the oncoming shoggoth herd.
The creatures appear all types of agitated and determined to reach them, but a strange whistle from somewhere in the distance causes them all to suddenly depart.
The next morning, our heroes stagger down a previously hidden road that leads them to the town of Ardham, which also leads them to the grounds of an opulent mansion. On their way to the front entrance, Atticus notices the same silver sedan from their encounter back in Simmonsville.
Before he can knock on the door, it opens to reveal and an extremely well-dressed white man who says tells Atticus that they have been expecting him…and welcomes him home.
Now THAT is how you kick off a series.
“Sundown” does so many things right that I could probably write another 3,000 words about it. In an effort to assure that my editor doesn’t kill me, I’ll cover the most important components involved in making what might be the best series pilot I’ve ever seen.
First off, we have a great story with clear and poignant/impactful parallels. The mystery surrounding Montrose Freeman’s disappearance is intriguing enough on its own, but it’s also accompanied by a metaphorical search for family. Atticus, Leti, and George are all adrift or estranged in some way from their familial anchors. Add in the question about Atticus’ birthright, and the driving force behind their quest becomes much than the search for one missing person.
Then you’ve got the characters themselves, who are absolutely phenomenal. In just a little over an hour, we become intimately familiar with the three protagonists and 100% invested in their fate. The chemistry between Courtney Vance (George), Jurnee Smollett (Leti), and Jonathan Majors (Atticus) makes it impossible not to enjoy watching them together. Majors carries the lead role like he was born to do it. Smollett takes every moment she has the spotlight and completely knocks it out of the park. Vance is his usual brilliant self, but his charm and underrated comedic timing form the glue that makes their trio fit together perfectly.
This also makes it infinitely more terrifying (and infuriating) to see their lives in put in jeopardy by products of the Jim Crowe-era. Lovecraftian monsters are universally scary. Watching these characters we’ve become so attached to get humiliated and hunted by fellow members of the human race is infinitely more jarring. I often like to mock shows that use the People are the Real Monsters trope, but this is the first time in forever that I can remember being so viscerally affected by it.
Something else that viscerally affected me were the episode’s action sequences. The escape from Simmonsville, the slow speed chase, and the shoggoth attack were as perfectly choreographed and directed as you could ask for. I was also impressed with the level of special effects–not that I expected them to be bad. But you never know what you’re going to get with a Lovecraftian monsters being brought to life for television. In this instance, it was even better than I’d hoped.
Then you have the music, which was unequivocally superb. I’ve already mentioned how great Jurnee Smollet and Wunmi Mosaku were, but the episode’s incidental score also played a huge part in it’s atmosphere and effectiveness. The slow speed chase and the scene inside the cabin in particular are two of many outstanding examples.
As great as the score is, though, it’s accompanied by superb works across all facets of production. From the gorgeous cinematography to the costuming department, everything looks and sounds top notch.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention at least a few of the episode’s side characters. Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis) Diane (Jada Harris), and Ruby Baptiste (Mosaku) will all make a much bigger impact on the story later. For now, however, they parlayed their brief amounts of screen time into impactful impression that will pay major dividends down the road.
Even if you’re completely unfamiliar with H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos, Lovecraft Country’s first episode provides an excellent primer to a brand new take on it that looks to be all types of wonderful…and terrifying.