Welcome to another week of Scaredy Cat recaps, where I, a habitually terrified person, review what is and is not nightmare fuel on HBO’s horror allegory Lovecraft Country.
Let’s go back, way back, back in time. One of the scariest scenes in all of Black cinematic history comes from the 1978 film version of The Wiz, the all-Black version of The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy (Diana Ross) and company are mid-ease down the Yellow Brick Road when they stop into a subway station, a masterstroke of efficiency. The Land of Oz has a lot of issues to work through in the areas of equality and its caste system but its infrastructure seems to be doing great. They’re approached by a masked subway busker who has two bouncing dolls hanging from a tray. The busker doesn’t speak so all we get is the squeaky sound of the dolls as they bob on the floor. Soon, the dolls start growing until they are taller than the busker. Without warning they start chasing the Oz-bound crew, absolutely terrorizing them in ways that are at once fantastical and weirdly specific to the subway, i.e. at one point two trashcans grow teeth and latch onto Dorothy’s arms. Anyone who watched The Wiz every time it came on TV, at every family reunion, and sometimes after church will remember the sheer nightmare fuel of that scene, which comes out of nowhere and really doesn’t have any corollary in the film. We do not talk about it much because it still haunts us to this day.
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I thought of that scene with dread and anticipation during Lovecraft Country’s eighth episode, as two figures appeared to the Diana of this world (Jada Harris) and prompted old and new nightmares. Episode 8, titled “Jig-a-Bobo,” is straight-up one of the scariest, if not the scariest, episode of the series thus far and it’s also masterpiece with talents firing on all cylinders. Written and directed by showrunner Misha Green, the episode deftly weaves together its mythos with the show’s propensity to hang out in historical footnotes, highlighter just going H.A.M. Visually it’s stunning, with nary a careless frame or moment. And it’s anchored by a truly phenomenal performance by Jada Harris, a newcomer who hasn’t been used much this season but absolutely knocks her episode out of the park. It’s a fantastic, deeply terrifying hour. How terrifying? Let’s get into it!
Spoilers for Lovecraft Country episode 8, “Jig-a-Bobo.”
How scary is Harriet Beecher Stowe?
We open on the crowd of mostly Black mourners waiting to get into the viewing for Emmett Till, who appeared in the seance scene at Leti’s house party and in the world of the show was Diana’s best friend, nicknamed Bobo. Till was brutally lynched after it was alleged that he offended a white woman. His mother, Mamie, insisted that he be mourned with an open casket so that the evidence of white supremacist violence couldn’t be ignored. This decision, and the collective grief and despondence of Black Chicagoans and Black Americans in general, works as a guiding theme for this episode, and perhaps the show as a whole. While I was initially unsure about using such a tragic, well-known event as background for a horror story, it works perfectly here. In this episode, white supremacist violence, grief, and the desire to make visible what many Americans want to look away from all take physical form, and it’s harrowing.
Dee is taking the death of Bobo hard and the adults in her life wonder how long they can go before breaking the news to her that they don’t think Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis) is coming back. Before they get into the church, Dee breaks away and wanders the streets of the South Side, where most businesses are shuttered with “Closed for Emmett” signs. Captain Lancaster (Mac Brandt), that absolute scourge, corners Dee in an alley and starts asking questions about the comic book she drew for her mother, which he apparently found at the observatory. He escalates this interrogation very quickly by chanting and drawing some weird symbols on the ground. (BEGONE YE DEMON) Then he puts some of his monster spit on her forehead (OH ABSOLUTELY NOT), cursing her with a haunting that will keep her silent about their conversation. Has Captain Lancaster never heard of a non-disclosure agreement? Dee stumbles out of the alley, followed by the eyes of a Black man in a Cream of Wheat ad, which feels like another allusion to The Wiz, specifically the Tin Man scene at the carnival.
Back at home, she’s in an absolute state. I mean, would you be? Monster spit! Grief! Non-legally-binding agreements! It’s not even noon. Damn. She sees the cover of a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the shelf but the cover illustration, which normally has on it a smiling Topsy, one of the enslaved character, now shows Topsy fanged and gruesome. Dee hightails it out the window. I would, too. No book club for me this week!
Let’s talk about Topsy for a moment. So, in most depictions, Topsy is the gunny sack-wearing “wild child” with a head full of plaits. Author Harriet Beecher Stowe paints her almost feral nature as an effect of the depravity of slavery. While it could be argued that Stowe’s portrayal is ultimately sympathetic, the character has many of the features that were frequently satirized in minstrel shows: the pigtails, the seeming simple-mindedness, and in the illustration, the wide-mouthed, ruby red grin. While Stowe wanted white readers to feel compelled to empathy by Topsy, the image was so striking and so damning for many that it was easier just to domesticate Topsy in pop culture, making her cute and strange but ultimately a figure that worked in service of white entertainment. Verdict: Terrifying. Spoiler alert: all of this will be terrifying.
How scary is an angel flung out of space?
Following the funeral, Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) goes to Christina’s mansion. As she’s working on unlocking the front door, some white man in a truck starts harassing her about what she’s doing there. Dude, if you don’t go back to the NextDoor app from whence you came. My man is out here guarding property that is in no way his, talking some mess about the Black people leaving the funeral on South Side to come to the North Side and get revenge for Emmett. Yeah, bro, she’s a one-woman riot who has house keys. Let’s think through things here, Pop.
Christina pulls up right in time wearing her Winklevoss drag (Jordan Patrick Smith) and gets Ruby into the house. In a truly astounding sequence, set to a slowed down cover of “I Put A Spell On You,” Winklevoss gives Ruby a bath and then Ruby drinks the body swap potion and changes into Hillary (Jamie Neumann). Hillary and Winklevoss have sex and Ruby orgasms herself right out of Hillary’s skin. CHILD. SHE ORGASMS HERSELF RIGHT OUT OF HER WHITE SKIN. OUT. OF. HER. SKIN.
This relationship is pretty tricky. On one hand, you have two people putting on the drag of other people with more privilege to bang each other. Fine. Into it. Make that an option on Tinder. On the other hand, Christina (Abbey Lee) absolutely lied to Ruby and is maybe trying to kill Tic (Jonathan Majors) and all of this just feels fraught. Like this isn’t just some situation where a couple has to work out their differences on an episode of Dr. Phil called “Untangling the Swirl” or something. They have real issues.
Back in their birth bodies, Ruby and Christina have a tense conversation about Christina seeing Ruby and Ruby’s pain in which Ruby demands that Christina acknowledge some of the complicity of her whiteness. It’s a very tough scene that is shot sumptuously. Dayna Pink’s costume designs and Kalina Ivanov’s production design is giving me EDITORIAL PHOTO SHOOT FOR A PERIOD LESBIAN DRAMA REALNESS. Carol Aird is shaking. The topics, and Christina’s response, may be grotesque, but these are not ugly people, Harge.
HELLO! Who is on the phone? FASHION.
I am SWOONING over this aesthetic. But I am brought back down to Earth by Christina’s response. She basically tells Ruby that she doesn’t care about Emmett Till and she accuses Ruby of wanting to hide from the fact of her own desires, even amidst and perhaps counter to her grief. Even Dr. Phil is like, “I’m not sure this relationship is going to work out.”
Then, later, Christina pays two random men to beat her, shoot her, and throw her in the water in the same way that Emmett Till was murdered. This is bad allyship. Nobody asked her to do this. Anyway, she pops right back out of the water, completely healed, and laugh-crying. Yipes! Verdict: Terrifying. The whole thing—the death play, the conversation, the ferocity of the lewks, and the skin-gasm.
How scary is Biff Tannen from Back to the Future II?
In a conversation with Montrose (Michael K. Williams) about self-preservation and making choices for family, Tic reveals that the observatory portal sent him to the future and he hands Montrose a copy of a book called Lovecraft Country written by Tic’s son. Tic says white folks were rioting in the future but that’s all he saw before Grace Jones shoved him back through the portal. All of this tracks. In a nod to some of the changes that Misha Green made to Matt Ruff’s novel on which the series is based, Tic says that some of the characters were different and that Dee was a boy in the book, but that he believes most of it actually happened, including Christina sacrificing Tic during the autumnal equinox to achieve immortality. Some book! Also, let me find out Lovecraft Country is going to zoom forward to the present. Old lady Leti waving a flag at Obama’s inauguration. Ruby as a suspicious-looking nurse at Walter Reed hospital. Christina as Ivanka. Anything is possible. Verdict: The future? Terrifying.
How scary is a little shuck and jive?
I have not forgotten Dee! I suppose it’s a testament to how well constructed this episode is that every plot line feels fleshed out and important. But Dee! DEE IS GOING THROUGH IT. While waiting on a subway platform (IT’S HAPPENING), minstrel show music begins to play (IT IS OCCURRING) and she looks over to see TWO live Topsies (Kaelynn Harris and Bianca Brewton) doing a herky-jerky soft shoe up the subway stairs. OH ABSOLUTELY NOT. Let me click my heels three times and ease on out of here! I have to say, these two dancers are hitting choreographer Jamaica Craft’s moves; they are so good. But there is nothing scarier than 1) scary twins, 2) creepy dances, 3) being spoken to or approached on the subway.
Nobody else sees the Topsies and Dee flees the platform, only to be pursued by them across the city. Every time they show up it’s scarier than the last. The dancing is extraordinary, as is the camerawork, which captures both the beauty and the menace.
Dee tracks Captain Lancaster, spying on him from an alley as the Topsies dance closer and closer to her. Dee! Get out of the alley, Dee! Who do you think you are, Batman’s parents?! The Topsies don’t catch her and instead Dee bursts into Captain Lancaster’s lodge and demands to know why he cursed her with these minstrel show nightmare ladies. Dee is not a fan of live theater. Lancaster says he’ll call off the spell if Dee gives him the orrery. Seems convoluted; hiring all this other personnel for a simple smash and grab. Captain Lancaster is basically doing a one-man version of The Producers. But whatever. Dee is not convinced, cursing at Lancaster before storming out of the office while yelling that it stinks in there. I love Dee.
Dee’s story this episode ends on a cliffhanger. She locks herself in Uncle George’s shop and lures the Topsies, attempting to fight them with a pipe. It seems like maybe she’s making progress but then Montrose discovers her and holds her back, which allows the Topsies to finally get her, tearing into her skin as she screams. Verdict: TERRIFYING! I ALREADY TOLD YOU!
How scary is How to Train Your Dragon?
The cops try to get into Leti’s house for the orrery but they can’t because of the spell of protection from the witch doctor. So instead they start to shoot the place up. Bullets bounce off of Leti because Christina gave Leti a spell of protection. (Oh yeah, I meant to tell you Christina gave Leti a spell of protection). Tic shows up and a cop shoots at him, but just before the bullet reaches him a monster bursts out of the asphalt because Montrose performed a spell of protection on Tic. (Oh yeah, I meant to tell you Montrose performed a spell of protection on Tic). The monster starts ripping the cops to absolute shreds. We’re talking full carnage: limbs ripped off, thrown police cars, one officer flying through the air into the backyard. Muppet Show stuff. But when the monster approaches Tic, it bows its head and lets Tic pet it. Honey, the folks in that neighborhood are going to be going absolutely wild on the NextDoor app about this! Verdict: TERROR. TERROR ALL IN MY BONES.
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