7:05pm PT by Richard Newby
'Lovecraft Country' Travels Overseas to Answer a Deadly Mystery
[This story contains spoilers for season one, episode six of HBO's Lovecraft Country, "Meet Me in Daegu."]
"What are you?" Tic (Jonathan Majors) asked the woman on the other end of the phone line at the conclusion of the previous episode, the woman who has been haunting his dreams and nightmares since the beginning of the season, the woman who has left Tic caught up in a mysterious game of phone tag. In the sixth episode, we finally get answers — and in true Lovecraft Country fashion, the answers only lead to more questions.
Episode six of Lovecraft Country, "Meet Me in Daegu," directed by Helen Shaver, and written by Misha Green and Kevin Lau, formally introduces viewers to Ji-Ah (Jamie Chung), the South Korean woman who has taken the form of Dejah Thoris in Tic's dream sequence in the first episode, and an enemy soldier during his waking nightmare in the second. While a romantic entanglement between the two was suggested in previous episodes, the relationship between Ji-Ah and Tic is far more complicated than a long-distance relationship.
In Daegu, South Korea, 1949, Ji-Ah is at the movie theater watching Judy Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis, which the title of this episode of Lovecraft Country is in reference to. Ji-Ah is swept up in the music and romance on the screen. Once the theater clears out, she has a fantasy in which she's performing "The Trolley Song." The musical number is a callback to Tic's dream sequence in the pilot episode after he falls asleep while reading Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars. The way in which Ji-Ah becomes fully involved in the fantasy of her dreamscape is the first indication of similarities between she and Tic.
Ji-Ah's reality is far different from the Judy Garland movies she finds her escape in. She's a poor nursing student, who lives with her mother, Soon Hee (Cindy Chang), who she calls Umma. Umma is insistent that she find men to help them out of the situation they're in. Initially it seems Ji-Ah's mother is encouraging her to prostitute herself, despite her success as a nursing student. After a disastrous singles swap with her fellow triage nurses, Ji-Ah confides in her best friend Young-Ja Unni (Prisca Kim) about her mother's expectations. Young-Ja says, "Sometimes mothers want what's best for them...not what's best for us." Later that night, Ji-Ah picks up a man at a bar and brings him back to her place. They have sex, and at first, it all seems very romantic — until nine hairy tails-like appendages emerge out of every orifice of Ji-Ah's body and attach themselves to the man. She sees a vision of the man's past and future and then pulls him apart, his body bursting and showering her in blood. Umma comes in and knowingly says: "Ten more."
It's summer 1950. Ji-Ah is at the movie theater again, this time seeing Judy Garland in Easter Parade. The theater begins to shake, and Ji-Ah and the theater's occupants rush outside to see American troops driving through the streets. The soldiers are shouting and throwing out flyers that say, "There's nothing to fear. The United Stated is here." Of course, the arrival of American soldiers and the beginning of the Korean War will give Ji-Ah plenty to fear.
Ji-Ah's relationship with Umma has grown increasingly tense over the months. Umma encourages her to go after more men, suggesting that wartime is the perfect opportunity to claim the final two souls she needs to become human again. So what does all of that mean? It turns out Ji-Ah is possessed by a spirit known as a kumiho, a nine-tailed fox that can transform into a beautiful woman. It originated in Chinese myths before appearing in Korean legends. According to the legends, a kumiho could become permanently human, losing its evil nature, through achieving a certain goal, such as killing for 1,000 days — or in this case, collecting 100 souls.
It's revealed that Soon Hee summoned the kumiho, and once she has claimed 100 souls, she will become Soon Hee's daughter again. Soon Hee summoned the kumiho to kill her husband, and as a result Ji-Ah has all of his memories, along with every other man whose soul she's claimed.
After a rough night in the triage center, surrounded by American soldiers who shout abuses and racial insults at her, Ji-Ah once again confides in Young-Ja, and learns that her friend is a communist. They watch as villagers publicly execute a communist man while American solders stand by and do nothing. Young-Ja compares the anti-Communist Koreans to Ji-Ah's mother: "Your mother can't see you, just who she wants you to be… There's nothing wrong with being different. What's wrong is all of them vilifying us for it. We're all the same. We're all human."
Pushing away the humanity that Umma claims she doesn't have, Ji-Ah takes one of the soldiers nearby back to her house and kills him the same way she killed the earlier man. Umma encourages her to take one more soul so that she can be her daughter again. Ji-Ah resists, saying that she can't feel the memories of Soon-Hee's daughter within her, only her husband, who showed her love. "His kind of love was wrong," Umma says, revealing that he sexually abused Ji-Ah as a child, leading her to go to the mudang, or shaman, to summon the kumiho spirit to kill him. But Ji-Ah doesn't see Umma as innocent; she points out Soon-Hee having a child out of wedlock and marrying a man who she let sexually abuse her daughter so that she could live in comfort and retain her status. Ji-Ah calls Umma a pariah, whose idea of love is just as wrong as her husband's was.
The next day Ji-Ah and the nurses on her shift are brought to a private location and placed on their knees. The American soldiers have intercepted communist notes from the hospital. The nurses refuse to talk, and a Black soldier kills one of the nurses and threatens to kill them all, pulling his trigger and finding the clip empty. Just when Ji-Ah and the others think they are saved, the soldier calls up a private to take his place. This private is none other than Atticus Freeman, who coldly shoots another girl in the head, splattering blood all over Ji-Ah. This act certainly puts a new perspective on George's (Courtney B. Vance) words to Leti (Jurnee Smollett) in the second episode in which he claimed that Tic only killed because he had to and that he was an honorable soldier. Before Tic is called on to kill another nurse, Young-Ja admits that she is the communist soldier, and she is dragged away by Tic and the other American soldiers. Ji-Ah is left in shock.
It's Fall 1950. Ji-Ah stands in front of a ruined building, tagged with graffiti that says "communist owned." The similarity between this and the burned U.S. buildings with signs reading "Black owned" is striking, and parallels are clearly being created between South Koreans and Black Americans in the 1950s. Ji-Ah goes to work and sees Tic in one of the hospital beds. She's incensed and shaking. She can't stop staring at him, and there is murder in her eyes. Tic doesn't remember her. He's injured from a recent bombing. He struggles to read in bed, unable sit up due to his injuries, struggling to read as his glasses are shattered. He breaks down crying, and it's the most vulnerable moment we've seen Tic over the course of the show thus far. That night, Ji-Ah tells Umma that she's found her last soul to take. It's Atticus.
When Ji-Ah goes to change Tic's sheets the next day he helps her, working through his injuries in order to be polite and useful. When they're done he asks Ji-Ah if she'll read to him, handing her Alexandre Dumas' The Count of Monte Cristo, which viewers learned in a previous episode is Montrose's favorite book. Ji-Ah tells him how it ends, attempting to spoil it for him. Tic realizes she's seen the movie but hasn't read the book. He offers the book to Ji-Ah but she refuses.
Ji-Ah begins to soften towards Tic, after learning that he too is looking for escapism. Just as she escapes in Judy Garland romance movies, he escapes in science-fiction books. Tic confides in her that he got to a point where books couldn't take him far enough away so he joined the army. And now that he's in South Korea, he finds himself once again trying to escape to someplace else through books.
Ji-Ah begins reading to Tic while he recovers. It's not just escapism the two share. They connect over their troubled relationship with their parents, both of whom have tried to turn them into someone they're not. Tic tells Ji-Ah about Montrose and says, "Being here, this war, it's done his job better than he could ever imagine" in terms of the war making him someone he's not. "We have to stop letting our fear shape us," Ji-Ah says, noting that a friend told her that. Tic says he'd like to meet this friend, get some more advice. Ji-Ah is shaken, remembering what Tic and his soldiers did to Young-Ja, but doesn't respond and continues reading out loud.
Once Tic is recovered he invites Ji-Ah on a date. She goes to meet him at the base, and the soldiers sexually harass her. She's taken to a tent by another officer, and she thinks she's being set up to be raped. But Tic is in the tent, dressed in full military attire, and holding a rose for her. Tic has arranged a film screening of the Judy Garland film Summer Stock. During the movie Tic and Ji-Ah share a kiss. Ji-Ah takes Tic back to her place. Tic admits that he is a virgin and that he's never felt this way about anybody before. "You see the good in me," he tells her.
As they start to have sex and Ji-Ah feels the kumiho spirit rising in her she tells Tic to get out. Umma comes into the room furious that she didn't kill Tic. Ji-Ah admits that she has never been able to feel love and has only mimicked the emotion, but that she feels something real with Tic. Umma tells her that if she feels that way about the person who killed her best friend then she truly is a monster.
The next day, Ji-Ah goes to the base to see Tic. He's angry and embarrassed and tells her she needs to go. She tells him he killed her best friend, Young-Ja. "There's no book to escape what you have done." Ji-Ah says. Tic is shocked by this knowledge. "I was following orders," Tic says. He's angered that she's just revealing this knowledge now and believes that she tricked him into making him care about her. Ji-Ah admits she was going to kill him, but realized he saved her and how the war had torn him apart. "We've both done monstrous things but that does not make us monsters. We could be the people we see in each other. We just have to choose to be," Ji-Ah tells him. Tic kisses her. They go to one of the empty tents on the base and when they have sex Ji-Ah does not turn into a monster.
That night, Ji-ah tells Umma that she loves Atticus. Ji-Ah says she can control her "tails." Umma says he only loves you because he doesn't know what you really are, reminding her that she is a kumiho, saying, "You'll kill him sooner or later."
It's Winter 1950. Ji-Ah and Tic are happy together. She reads him the story of the kumiho, a nine-tailed Fox spirit that can take the form of a beautiful woman and avenge the wrong done by men. When she finishes the story, and before she has the chance to tell him that's what she is, Tic tells her that he's earned enough points to rotate out and can go home. He tells her that he could choose to stay. Ji-Ah says she can't ask that of him when he hates the war. Tic asks her to come with him and she says there's so many things he doesn't know about her. He tells her, "there's nothing you could tell me that would change the way I feel about you." But unfortunately, he's spoken to soon.
Later, while having sex, Ji-Ah's tails start to come out. She tries to pull them back in, but they attach to Tic and she sees his past: his closeness with his mother, his love of reading, the abuse suffered from his father, his torture of Young-Ja. And she sees his future: his return to Chicago, Leti, and Tic strapped to some kind of device, dying. She throws Tic off of her, detaching the tails. "Don't go home. You're going to die," she says.
Tic is understandably terrified, and unable to process what just happened. "Stay the fuck away from me," he screams, before grabbing his clothes and running away. "Please. I'm a kumiho," Ji-Ah says, but it's too late; he's already gone. She is heartbroken. Umma comes home and finds her sobbing and holds her, the first instance of real mothering we've seen from Soon-Hee during this episode, and the first time that Ji-Ah calling her Umma truly feels earned.
Ji-Ah and Umma go to see the Shaman, while audio from Judy Garland during the later years of her life plays: "I've spent years and years and years trying to please. Through singing or acting, there's nothing wrong with that. And yet I've constantly been written or talked about by certain individuals as an unfit person. Well, what kind of people are they? What kind of business are they in? They're dead people."
Upon meeting the mudang, or shaman (Alexis Rhee), Umma says she will bear the cost for her daughter if the mudang will answer her question. Ji-Ah tells the mudang that she's had a vision of a man's death and she's never seen anything like it. She asks if it will come true. "Will Atticus die?" The mudang lights a piece of paper on fire and its ashes are carried on the wind, before she turns back to Ji-Ah and says, "You have not even become one with the darkness yet. You will see countless deaths before your journey is done."
And on that note, the sixth episode concludes, and while Ji-Ah and Atticus are no closer together, and Tic is no closer to stopping his own demise, the supernatural world within Lovecraft Country is certainly much bigger than originally expected, rooted in more beyond American and English-language horrors. Lovecraft Country's take on the legend of the kumiho is unique, but not the first time the kumiho has been used in contemporary horror media. Park Heon-su's horror film The Fox with Nine Tails also explores a kumiho who falls in love and attempts to be human. As for whether or not Ji-Ah will claim the last soul she needs to be fully human, and who that soul will be, is certainly one of the lingering questions for the latter half of Lovecraft Country season one, as horror mythologies continue to collide.