Lovecraft Country Tried to Save Itself By Getting Timey-Wimey, But It Didn’t Work

Lovecraft Country Tried to Save Itself By Getting Timey-Wimey, But It Didn’t Work
Diana in the throes of her curse. (Screenshot: HBO)

After spending quite a few episodes giving each member of its cast almost too many motivations that were beginning to make it seem as if Lovecraft Country was setting itself up for storytelling derailment, “Rewind 1921” enters the stage to confirm that yes, the series is trying to do entirely too much.

Illustration: Jim Cooke Graphic: Jim Cooke

“Rewind 1921” brings all of Lovecraft Country’s adult characters together as they realise that Diana’s been severely hurt by the curse put on her by the pair of racist police officers who work for Seamus Lancaster (Marc Brandt.) By getting so wrapped up in all of their respective personal dramas, the storie’s other heroes left Diana vulnerable and exposed to the exact sort of dangers they’ve all been working so hard to protect themselves against, and they’re all appropriately ashamed of themselves.

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As Atticus, Leti, Ruby, and Montrose all mull over how best to help a comatose, and very much near-death Diana, Atticus reasons that their best bet is to bargain with Christina Braithwaite — the only person in their collective midst who has an actual command of magic — by offering her the missing pages from Titus Braithwhite’s much-sought-after copy of the Book of Names. Though Atticus understands precisely how potentially dangerous it would be to give Christina some of the most substantial magical artifacts in existence, Diana’s survival is his main concern as the episode unfolds. It brings Leti no joy to inform him that Christina already has the pages following Leti’s choice to bargain with her for magical invulnerability. The pair butting heads is one of the first ways the episode exists squarely in the realm of dramatic stage plays in which people end up over-acting to the point of distraction and unintended humour.

When Ruby assures everyone that she can compel Christina to work her magic to save the young girl, no one has the sense to ask “how do you even know Christina,” and it’s little things like that that make this episode feel somewhat unpolished. While Christina isn’t capable of outright breaking the spell that Lancaster’s goons put on Diana with a simple incantation or flick of the wrist, she explains that she can slow the curse’s progression through a spell that requires the blood of Dee’s closest relative. For the briefest of moments, “Rewind 1921” feels like it’s trying to make a poignant statement when everyone realises that, with Hippolyta missing, Montrose (who everyone now knows is gay) is the one member of Dee’s family with the potential to save her life. His blood becomes a potential catalyst for the spell that’ll keep Diana turning into a monster like Topsy and Bopsy, but just as he’s settling into the idea, Hippolyta just…shows up out of nowhere to absolutely no fanfare or astonishment.

Nobody really takes the time to ask how Hippolyta came back to Earth (though they presumably don’t know that she hopped dimensions) or how she’s doing because the story is predominantly focused on forcing as much overdue plot development into the season as possible. It ends up making the episode feel rather flat, procedural, and like it’s trying to make up for all the time Lovecraft Country spent not quite building to a traditional narrative climax.

Within moments of Hippolyta’s return, she joins a ceremony in which Christina, Atticus, Leti, Ruby, and Montrose all contribute energy to stave off Diana’s curse. When she learns that her daughter will need more help, she immediately has a plan that involves time travel.

Because Lancaster’s spell can only be broken with enchantments detailed within Titus’ long-lost Book of Names, Hippolyta reasons that by using the machine at the Winthrop observatory, she can create a portal that will send Atticus, Leti, and Montrose back through time and space to Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921 where they can locate the book before it was destroyed. At that point in time, it was being held by the family of Atticus’ mother. By acting as the dimension-traversing motherboard that stabilizes the portals into other realities, Hippolyta’s able to give the trio a way to get to Tulsa and back home so long as she’s able to withstand the stress of being connected to the machine, but throughout this entire episode, the three time travellers make no point of hustling in the past to get things done quickly, which seems incredibly odd.

By bringing its characters back to the Greenwood district in Tulsa literally hours before the racially-motivated riots burned most of the neighbourhood down, “Rewind 1921” quickly invites comparisons to HBO’s Watchmen, as the shows are trying to unpack somewhat similar ideas. Seeing a vibrant, thriving Black community simply existing outside of Chicago seems to bowl both Atticus and Leti over because neither of them have particularly strong connections to Tulsa at this exact moment in time. But for Montrose, being brought back to 1921 opens up all sorts of old wounds both because of the terror that befalls the city and because of the reality that a much younger version of himself was still being tormented by his own abusive father (who’s portrayed by Black Lightning’s William Catlett.)

When Atticus, Montrose, and Leti witness young Montrose being abused, Lovecraft Country’s trying to impress upon you how trauma can be passed down in families over the course of generations. But because the show hasn’t exactly dedicated much time to fleshing out Montrose as a character, there are a number of moments where it feels like the episode is trying to tell a story the show hasn’t quite earned yet even though this is the penultimate episode of the season. Something Lovecraft Country manages to do that Watchmen didn’t is give you a sense of just how vibrant a place Greenwood was before its destruction and just how much families like Atticus’ had to give up by leaving it behind.

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It would be somewhat risky (time travelling-wise) and potentially suspicious if either Atticus or Montrose attempted to interact with Atticus’ family in order to get the Book of Names, and so the duty falls to Leti. Turns out she ends up needing the family’s protection after she’s chased through the streets by a roving gang of white racists. While she bides her time waiting for the right moment to first find and then steal the Book of Names somewhere in the Freeman home, Atticus ends up having to search for his father who, because of the stress of being brought back to Tulsa, ends up getting hammered on liquor and seeking out his younger self who he simply wants to watch from afar.

When Atticus finds his father, he understands how painful it is for him to see his younger self. At that point in time, Montrose was very much in love with another boy but didn’t feel safe enough to express his feelings when anyone else was around. The significance of young Montrose’s having to hide really hits Atticus as he and his father watch as his younger self’s crush is shot dead by a group of white men in the town square as they rage through the city looking to cause chaos. But “Rewind 1921” uses the boy’s murder as yet another opportunity to hit you over the head with the idea of Atticus and Montrose coming together and healing because of this experience. In the older Montrose’s mind, he recalls being saved by a strange man with a baseball bat who knocked the hell out of the group of men who were dumb enough to only bring one gun with them. Of course, that man ends up being Atticus, and while it’s very satisfying to watch him go to town on a group of bigots, the scene feels like something that’d be more impactful if we’d had more time to actually come to care about Montrose.

At the same time, Montrose and Atticus are getting into peak timey-wimey territory, Leti ends up being confronted by Atticus’ grandmother who can sense that there’s something off about her just by looking at her shoes which have no business being in 1921. As the rest of the house prepares to deal with whatever groups of racists that might show up on their doorsteps looking to cause trouble that night, Leti levels with the older woman about who she is, what she knows, and why she’s been sneaking around their house looking for the Book of Names. Whether it’s because there’s always been magic in Atticus’ bloodline or because Leti’s especially convincing isn’t clear, but Atticus’ grandmother does rather quickly come to believe in the younger woman’s story even though she understands it means everyone in the house is fated to die that night. Leti’s magical invulnerability protects her and the Book from the flames that soon engulf the family’s home and, out of respect and genuine love for Atticus’ grandmother, Leti stays to pray with the woman until the fire consumes her.

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With no way to immediately contact one another as the riots kick off in full swing, Atticus and Montrose book it back to the portal Hippolyta’s kept open for the entirety of the episode, and the men reasonably assume that Leti knows to meet them there once she has what they need. Hippolyta’s power fading is one of the few moments where the story seems vaguely aware that it isn’t the tightest of Lovecraft Country’s episodes. Throughout the duration, Atticus, Leti, and Montrose take their sweet time moseying around as if their only way home wasn’t connected to a living being who had to rig a broken machine together in order to create a portal into the past.

While Leti does end up making her way back to the portal, she walks dramatically through the fire that engulfs Tulsa’s downtown, and you can tell that Lovecraft Country wants you to consider the scene powerful. However, it falters because it just doesn’t make sense that Leti wouldn’t be booking it to get out of there and back home. As soon as they realise the portal is faltering, Atticus leaps through it to find Hippolyta back in his proper time losing her lock on the past. He’s able to inspire her to tap into an inner well of strength by reminding her that she’s doing all of this to save her daughter. By pushing herself, Hippolyta’s able to open the portal back up with a burst of energy that shocks her hair into a very Dragon Ball Z shade of electric blue and gives Montrose and Leti the chance to leap through into the present.

“Rewind 1921” is an hour of television that, for a multitude of reasons, just feels sort of off because as the episode ends, you realise that Lovecraft Country’s season finale is going to be dense in a way that won’t do it any favours. Everyone knows that Christina’s plan to gain true immortality involves Atticus losing his life, and the show is going to flirt with the idea of his death before figuring out some way to save him — especially if it cleaves close to the source material that, strangely, now exists in this universe. That would all be fine if it felt like Lovecraft Country had effectively built toward that sort of dramatic final chapter, but that’s not really the case.