Note: this recap contains mentions of racially motivated violence against Black individuals that can be disturbing or triggering. For a deeper look at the historical basis that provides context for the events described and shown in the series, you can listen to HBO’s Lovecraft Country companion podcast Lovecraft Country Radio hosted by Ashley C. Ford and Shannon Houston.
HBO’s newest original series Lovecraft Country is a journey through small towns with hidden (and not so hidden) horrors — and most of the terror on the series is from the human variety rather than vicious space aliens or things that go bump in the night. Produced by Jordan Peele and Misha Green (Underground), the show is anchored by strong writing, incredible production design, and terrific performances by Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett, and Courtney B. Vance as leads Atticus, Letitia, and George. If the first episode is any indication, the audience is in for a season of twists and turns that proves that monsters don’t have to have three heads to be terrifying. Read on to find out what happened in the pilot episode, “Sundown.”
The episode opens in black and white as a Black soldier runs through a battlefield. A voice states that “this is the story of a boy and his dream. But more than that, it is the story of an American boy, and a dream that is truly American.” It’s narrated and scored like a traditional 1950s war movie, and our hero races around running from … something. That something turns out to be a massive invasion by an alien craft, and the screen turns to color. One of the aliens descends from a spaceship and goes to the soldier, and it seems he knows her. They embrace as a giant, slug-like alien is about to eat them both, but then Jackie Robinson shows up and kills the alien by using his bat to cut the creature in half.
Atticus bolts awake on a bus as it hits a bump, and it becomes clear what we just saw was a dream. An older Black woman chuckles and assures him they only went over a bridge. The bus breaks down, and while the white passengers at the front of the bus get a ride to the next town from a passing truck driver, Atticus and the older woman are forced to take their luggage and walk. As they do, she asks about the book he’s reading. He excitedly talks about his love for science fiction and explains the plot of the John Carter novel to her as she looks on, bemused. She notes the lead character once fought for the Confederacy, and Atticus says that “stories are like people. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You just try to cherish them, overlook their flaws.” When she’s unconvinced by this argument, he adds that he loves the pulp fiction novels because the protagonists get to go on adventures and save the day — something he couldn’t dream of doing as a young boy growing up in Chicago. They give him an escape, however imperfect they may be. She asks if his joining the Army was a way to find that adventure, but Atticus turns somber when he says he only enlisted to get away from his father, who is also the reason he’s returned home. He’s missing, and Atticus needs to find him.
Atticus arrives at his uncle George’s house, where he teases his young cousin Diana. George and his wife Hippolyta write a travel guide for Black motorists, and there’s a little tension between the two over Hippolyta’s desire to go on more of the “guide trips” George takes in order to find new safe spaces for Black travelers to add to his guide. He clearly wants to protect her in case things go wrong, but Hippolyta wants to be by his side. This issue is pushed aside as George and Atticus talk about Atticus’ father Montrose. George isn’t concerned since Montrose has left for long periods before, but Atticus is. He sent Atticus a disjointed letter about finding Atticus’ mother’s “true lineage” in a town called Arkham, Massachusetts, and is especially worried about someone keeping Atticus’ legacy from him. Atticus notes that Arkham is a major fixture in the novels of horror writer H.P. Lovecraft. George pauses before turning to Atticus. He says Montrose likely meant “Ardham” as he reads the letter, and George isn’t sure where that is.
That night, the neighborhood is having a party while a band plays. Atticus goes to one of Montrose’s known haunts, and the bartender there tells him that Montrose left a while back in a sedan with a white man, and it wasn’t a cop. Meanwhile, we meet Letitia as she crashes her sister Ruby’s set on stage. Letitia needs a place to stay, and Ruby is wary since she’s bounced back home before needing money. She gives Letitia two days to find a job and a new place to live, but that’s it. Atticus and George decide to head for this mysterious Ardham to find Montrose, with George rationalizing the trip by saying he can gather material for a new guide. Atticus worries about George, making vague references to a run-in with police that shattered both of George’s kneecaps, but George insists he wants to go. Atticus calls a number in South Korea, and a woman answers. He silently grips the phone as she asks if it’s Atticus, and he can’t answer. She says he never should have gone home as he hangs up without speaking to her.
The next morning, Atticus finds Letitia packing the car for their trip. It turns out they’re childhood friends, and Letitia is hitching a ride to her brother’s home in Springfield, Massachusetts. Her brother also happens to be a reporter, so he’ll be able to help them figure out what’s going on in Ardham. As they finish packing, Diana hands her father a comic she drew for him. She’s a talented artist, and she has also drawn monsters all over her father’s atlas. Hippolyta tells George to be safe, and there’s an unspoken fear between them that they hide from Diana.
The trio set off in a montage with narration from James Baldwin. We see signs of exactly what monsters Hippolyta was worried about as they drive: white teenagers who mock the three when they stop for gas, a Black family waiting at a separate counter for ice cream while the white line is served first, and the trio using a separate bathroom entrance when they stop for a break. It all comes to a head when they head to a diner that George has heard is owned by a Black family. As they drive into town, Atticus clocks a group of white firefighters staring after their car as they pass. As they enter the diner, it becomes clear the owners are definitely white now as the teenage clerk stares at them. George asks to see a menu, thinking that even with new ownership they should still be able to get a hot meal. But when Letitia goes to the bathroom, Atticus has a realization. The entire place is painted white – which is what you do to cover up burn marks. As he kicks aside a floor tile to reveal the burnt foundation, Letitia runs out of the back room, telling them to get out. She overheard the waiter call the fire department, and they’re coming for them. It seems the original owners were run out of town and the diner burned down to make way for white ownership.
Letitia takes the wheel over George’s objections, and as they race to the town line the fire truck comes up behind them. The driver starts shooting as Letitia swerves to avoid him. Atticus shoots back with his own pistol as George tells Letitia to stop swerving. He has been calling her “girl” the entire episode so far, and tired of the disrespect as she’s saving their lives, Letitia yells “my name is Letitia f**king Lewis!” as she swerves hard to the left to avoid the fire truck. George looks on with a newfound respect. They make it to the open road with the truck gaining on them. But just then, another car materializes out of nowhere and gets between the truck and the trio. The fire truck flips over on itself when the other car stops short, throwing the driver and shooter into the road. As the three speed away, Atticus notices a blonde woman with startlingly blue eyes get out of the other car. She just stares silently as they drive away, and it seems she may have purposely caused the crash to let them escape. But who is she? And where did that car come from?
After this close call, they arrive at Marvin’s house in Springfield. He’s found little on Ardham, other than that the county itself was formed by witch hunters back in the early days of America. But he knows one thing for sure — the area is not at all welcoming to outsiders. There have been mysterious deaths in the woods attributed to wild animals, and one very real monster in the racist sheriff of the county. Most of the towns are “sundown towns,” and George notes there aren’t any safe places from his guidebook for them to hide if they stay out too late. Knowing the danger, George and Atticus decide to push on to find Montrose. Letitia and Marvin fight loudly as Atticus and George listen from outside. She’s committed to fighting for justice and used the money Marvin loaned her to bail out her friends, which enrages Marvin since the money was for Letitia to come home for her mother’s funeral. But Letitia and her mother definitely had a bad relationship, which seems to be a major reason why she stayed away. Atticus says he’s heard and participated in worse fights with Montrose, and it comes out that Montrose was against Atticus joining the Army, not wanting him to fight for a country that hated him. George tries to excuse Montrose’s behavior by bringing up their abusive childhood, but Atticus makes it clear it isn’t just his disapproval about his service in Korea that broke their relationship. Atticus accuses George of failing him — why didn’t he protect Atticus from Montrose when he knew what his brother could do? But before we hear the rest, Letitia and Marvin’s fight escalates and both George and Atticus go back to their rooms.
The next day, Letitia joins Atticus and George without a word, clearly not wanting to stay another night with Marvin. They get lost quickly, their maps useless, and the tension increases as the sun begins to go down. They pull over to try to find the road to Ardham. Letitia and Atticus hear a twig snap, and Atticus jokes it’s one of his creatures from his stories, a blob-like creature covered in eyes, to break the tension. As they talk, a cop car appears in the frame behind them unnoticed. The officer gets out, oozing arrogance and malevolence. He sarcastically asks if the three of them have heard of a sundown town, threatening them by noting he could lynch the the three for being outside. George says they have but that it’s not sunset yet, and all three are clearly making a concerted effort to de-escalate the situation. The officer muses that there’s six minutes until sundown — unless they speed, they won’t make it out before then, and if they speed, he’ll pull them over. Atticus asks if that’s the case if they go north instead of south, and the cop says they just might make it going north — but he’ll have to ask the officer’s permission to make an illegal U-turn. Atticus tamps down his anger and asks permission, with the smug officer giving it to him after humiliating Atticus.
The three drive north, the officer following them. The atmosphere is tense as they try to obey the speed limit while the officer taunts them by nudging the back of their car. It’s a horrifying sequence that emphasizes that the monsters thus far in Lovecraft Country are human. They make it across the county line with 30 seconds to spare, but as they all exhale for the first time in miles they are stopped by a police road block. The sheriff marches all three into the woods as it becomes fully dark. They question them about some burglaries in the area. This group is looking for an excuse to murder Atticus, George, and Letitia, but before they can do anything, a monster appears and rips one of the officers to shreds.
Chaos ensues, with George hitting the ground and staying down to hide as Letitia and Atticus find a cabin to hide in. One of the creatures is covered in eyes, just like the one Atticus told Letitia about. Two of the officers, one missing an arm, find the cabin and hide inside, forcing Atticus and Letitia to let them in. George manages to find them and lets them know the creatures are afraid of light like vampires, with his flashlight being enough to keep them away. That’s why they didn’t see any during the day — they can only emerge at night. George says they have flares in their car, and Atticus volunteers to get the car from where the officers put it. The two are reluctant to let him go because they are afraid he’ll leave them behind (it would be more than deserved). Instead, they make Letitia go since they rationalize she’s more likely to return. She runs for the car as the officer missing an arm begins to look sick. George and Atticus realize what’s happening as the officer morphs into one of the creatures, having been turned when he was bitten. He eats his fellow officer as Letitia drives the car straight through the cabin, running over the officers-turned-creatures and saving Atticus and George.
As the sun rises, the three walk to Ardham, which turns out to be a massive mansion on immaculate grounds. They approach the door cautiously, but before they can knock, the door opens to reveal an impeccable dressed white man with the same unsettling blue eyes as the woman from before. Looking directly at Atticus, he smiles and says “We’ve been expecting you, Atticus. Welcome home.”
Lovecraft Country airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.