[This story contains spoilers for season one, episode four of HBO’s Lovecraft Country, “A History of Violence.”]
Survival. That’s the name of the game in the fourth episode of Lovecraft Country — and for star Jonathan Majors, it’s a game that’s fixed, not only for Tic and his family, but for Black Americans today.
“A History of Violence,” directed by Victoria Mahoney and written by Misha Green, sees Tic (Jonathan Majors), Leti (Jurnee Smollett) and Montrose (Michael K. Williams) on the hunt for the missing pages of the Book of Names, stolen from the Sons of Adam by former member Horatio Winthrop. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, showrunner Misha Green cited Richard Donner’s The Goonies as the primary inspiration for the gang’s adventure through an underground cavern populated with death traps, a lost ship, and treasure in the form of a being from another world. We know that the Goonies were good enough to face whatever came their way. But are Tic, Leti and Montrose?
“A History of Violence” begins, in fulfillment of the episode’s title, with Montrose drunk and reliving his past, his traumatic childhood, the death of Uncle George, his self-hatred, all while the news station highlights America’s failure to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons. As Montrose stumbles from room to room, he recites a passage from a book in his hands: “Adam named. Eve fucked. God brought forth Monsters. Monsters devoured. God smites Eve.” He shuts the book and viewers learn that Montrose has stolen a copy of By-Laws & Precepts of the Order of the Ancient Dawn. The voice of the newscaster says, “the only way to defeat the Reds is to destroy their stockpile,” giving viewers a sense that Montrose’s arc in this episode will mirror that action. He’s a man set on a path for destruction.
Christina Braithwhite (Abby Lee) shows up on Leti’s doorstep, and it immediately becomes clear to Leti where the money to buy the Winthrop house came from. Leti guesses Christina needs something from the house, something to do with Tic. “Don’t let the men fool you into thinking it’s always about them. His blood may have power in it, but that’s only because Titus spelled it that way. It doesn’t make Tic special,” Christina tells her. She also lets Leti in on the fact that Tic threatened to shoot her at the realtor’s office, as seen in the previous episode “Holy Ghost,” and that if he continues in this manner he’s going to get Leti killed. Christina sympathizes with Leti, telling her she doesn’t want her dead or to take the house from her, she just wants Hiram Epstein’s orrery that was kept inside the house, which Leti, in so many words, tells her she does not have.
The orrery is actually now in possession of Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis), who has taken a keen interest in the model solar system that doesn’t look like anything in our galaxy. She can’t get it to rotate however, but at least the mystery of these strange other worlds, circled by two suns, has given her a reprieve from her grief over George’s death.
Leti confronts Tic at the library over the fact that he didn’t tell her that Christina was the one who gave her the money to get the house, and that he tried to kill her, which has now put her in danger. Tic tells her that Christina has some protective spell over herself that prevents her from being killed, and that he is trying to figure out a way to stop Christina. Leti sees that Tic has his bags with him and accuses him of planning to kill Christina and disappear back to Florida without saying goodbye. Tic says he wasn’t going to do that until he was sure Leti and his family are safe. He reveals that Christina told him there are two sets of deciphered pages from The Book of Names, one protected by the secret of the orrery and the other in Titus’ booby-trapped vault that can only be accessed with the Braitwhite blood, which of course, Tic has running in his veins. Tic believes if he can find those deciphered pages he can start casting his own spells to protect himself and those he cares about.
Leti tells Tic he should talk to his father about the secret location of the vault, suggesting he probably came across something while researching the family history of Tic’s mother. But Tic doesn’t want him or Leti involved in this, telling her “to go home,” and creating a further rift between the two. After Leti leaves, Tic realizes she was right and he is going to have to go to his father for this.
Later that night, Tic goes to look for his father at the bar and finds him at a table with Leti who has already let him in on the details of Tic’s plan. Montrose refuses to help, saying, “You can’t win this game that she’s setting up for you to play.” Once Tic storms off, Leti lays into Montrose saying that she can’t believe he’s going to let his son chase his tail. Eventually, Montrose reluctantly agrees to help Leti and Tic find the vault.
Meanwhile, Christina unwillingly meets with Captain Lancaster (Mac Brandt), who wants to know what she’s doing in Chicago, which he refers to as “his city.” She explains she’s looking for the orrery which is the key to unlocking Hiram’s “time machine.” Lancaster accuses her of trying to take his lodge’s rightful property. Christina tells him he was never officially initiated into the order, although neither was she. Lancaster reveals that he knows Christina is looking for the stolen pages, but even if she does it wouldn’t matter because she’s a woman and there’s no place for them in the Sons of Adam.
Tic, Leti and Montrose convince Hippolyta to drive them to the Boston museum, where Titus’ vault is located, under the pretense of Dee (Jada Harris) getting a chance to see the astronomy exhibit. Hippolyta is suspicious, and tensions are high, made higher, when Tic’s childhood rival Tree (Deron J. Powell) also comes along for the ride, because it’s halfway to Philly where he’s meeting a girl. This whole scenario of the crammed car and museum trip provides Lovecraft Country with some delightful moments of levity after the heaviness of the previous two episodes. At the museum, viewers also get to learn a little bit more about Hippolyta and her fascination with astronomy, something she’s been invested in since she was a young girl.
The museum contains a collection of indigenous artifacts “gifted” to Titus Braithwhite for teaching them the ways of “civilized man” on his trips to the Caribbean, as the curator says. This information will receive more context later in the episode, but as far as the vault goes, Montrose has convinced the security guard to let them in after dark, though Tic is suspicious of how Montrose was able to pull that off. As for the location of the vault, it’s under a statue of Titus Braithwhite himself, who was obviously not much for modesty.
Back in Chicago, Lancaster has two of his patrol men spying on Christina and her new residence. Christina sends William (Jordan Patrick Smith), who survived the collapse of the Braithwhite Lodge, to handle the men, which he does quite brutally and tells them to tell Lancaster that “Ms. Braithwhite does not like to be followed.”
Back at the Boston museum, Tic, Leti and Montrose let themselves in through the back, and make their way down into the vault, which Tic refers to as “some real Journey to the Center of the Earth type shit,” referencing Jules Verne’s classic science fiction novel from 1864. The group is forced to make it past a series of puzzles and trials, ranging from a collapsing bridge, to a flooding chamber.
At the same time, Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) is having her own struggles, though much more situated in the real world than the supernatural. She finds out the job she was applying to at Marshall Fields was already filled by another Black woman with far less experience. That night, after her routine at Denmark Vesey’s bar, she encounters a tall, light stranger: William. William has an offer for Ruby, one that he says could change her life. Ruby thinks he’s talking about sex, and she lets him buy her drinks and she continues to lose her inhibitions, blaming Leti for her problems and distractions. She tells William that Marshall Fields will never hire two colored women because “for us, it’s a rat race to the finish line and it’s winner takes it all. And I damn for sure know if I was in your skin I wouldn’t even have to run.” William empathizes with her and is able to seduce Ruby and take her back to his place where they have sex, and Ruby notices strange markings on his chest.
Back in the flooding chamber leading to Titus’ vault, Tic and Montrose are having another intense argument, ranging from Tic’s military service to Montrose’s lack of care for Tic’s well-being. As tempers continue to rise, Leti stumbles across a body floating in the rising water. It’s one of the white men who broke into her house and was killed by ghosts in the previous episode. When an elevator lands on their level, providing them with an exit route, they realize that Titus’ vault is connected to the Winthrop house, despite one being in Boston and the other back in Chicago.
As they continue down the flooded chamber, with Leti in the lead, Montrose tries his best to apologize to Tic by giving him some fatherly advice: “You need to apologize to your girl…always have a love song for your woman. This way, when they get to fussin’ you just sing that song to yourself and when you’re through she’ll be done and you can get back to what you want, the lovin.’ Cuz that’s all that fussin’ is anyway, a whole lotta lovin’.” Tic puts his hand on his father’s shoulder, sharing their first real connection of the series. Before Tic can respond, Leti calls out that she’s found an entrance.
Tic, Leti and Montrose follow a ladder that drops down from the ceiling of the chamber they’re in and they enter an expedition ship, filled with decomposing bodies of indigenous people. Leti notices a corpse gripping a collection of pages with a symbol they’ve all seen before from their time in the Braithwhite Lodge. When Tic reaches to take the pages, the corpse moves and comes back to life, tissue and flesh covering its bones. It stands up, revealing a naked figure with female breasts and male genitalia, their skin tattooed in symbols. They speak a native language, one that only Tic can understand. When asked what they are, the tattooed figure responds: “Woman, man, two spirits.” They say they come from a land of many waters, and that Titus came on a ship, looking for ones to translate The Book of Names. When they saw Titus for who he was, they refused to continue translating. Titus killed their people and imprisoned the tattooed figure.
Tic apologizes for what Titus did but says he needs their help to stop those like Titus from hurting his people. Though they initially refuse to help, the ship begins to collapse and water floods in, sending all four towards the elevator they came across earlier. The pages slip from their grasp and Leti risks her life to go after them. When she returns with the pages and the elevator begins to rise from the water, Tic kisses her passionately. The tattooed figure then lets out a piercing scream and Tic is forced to knock them unconscious.
Meanwhile, Hippolyta and Dee are back on the road. Dee says “everything’s been weird since pop died.” Hippolyta notices Dee has George’s atlas, and on it is marked the route to Devon County and Ardham. Hippolyta decides it’s time for her to find out the truth about George’s death herself.
Back at the Winthrop house, Tic learns that Titus turned the tattooed figure (who he refers to as “she”) into a siren in order to prevent her from translating for anyone else once taken out of the vault. Tic resolves to teach the siren English so that they can figure out how to translate the pages together. Montrose tells Tic: “You proved to be a good man, in spite of me. Your mama would’ve been proud.” Tic struggles to hold back tears, and it seems his relationship with his father is beginning to mend. Montrose smiles with pride as his son walks away. But he knows the burden of being the adversary in his son’s life is not yet done. Montrose walks into the siren’s room, closes the door and whispers he’s sorry — all before slitting the siren’s throat and preventing Tic from being able to use them to translate the pages. It seems we’ve only just seen the beginning of Tic and Montrose’s capacity to harm each other.
For more about “A History of Violence,” The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Jonathan Majors, who revealed his process for getting inside Tic’s head, the anger of Black men, and the rigged system that comes with being Black in America.
A lot of times in genre stories when we see a Black male character, they tend to be on the stoic side and what you see is what you get. But Tic has a lot of layers, a lot of complex emotions. What was your process of finding this character?
You speak about the stoic and that’s interesting because that philosophy speaks a lot about denying emotion. And in cinema you can’t quite deny it, you almost have to contain it. I focused very much on trying to find the chaos in Atticus, the heartache in him, as well as the joy. I prepared by considering what makes him happy, what turns him on, what turns him off, what his pain is, what his trauma is and what is the historical trauma that he carries with him, and how his imagination works. I tried to load that up as deeply and complexly as I could. And because the show is a ten-hour canvas, I had to discipline Atticus so he would only give morsels at a time. He couldn’t unload. Because in unloading in the Jim Crow era, that led to death. In unloading with the relationship he has with his father, that too could possibly end in death. In unloading during war, you would have no more bullets; you would die. So his way of being is based off of survival. And the fact that I chose to make him an introvert.
That’s interesting, because whether by choice or happenstance, Tic is almost constantly surrounded by other people. How’d you find the balance between who Tic is privately and publicly?
I began to look at the paintings of Charles White. He’s brilliant. I looked at the hands of these characters he was drawing. I looked at the ways they carried themselves, and the amount of dignity and pride they had. And that became my external shell to fill up. You take all of this invisible work and you metaphorically fill it out like a Charles White painting, and move through there. And then you have the blessing and the gift of being surrounded by all of these characters, Montrose, Uncle George, Leti, the list goes on, and you get to play with them and they activate things, and you just see how it goes.
The death of Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) came as a shock. How did that loss change Tic’s responsibilities and sense of self?
Man, one of things that Atticus is dealing with is that he wants to stay safe. But at the same time, and with a higher sense of urgency, he wants to keep those around him safe. So how does he do that? How do you keep yourself safe and put yourself in danger to keep the others safe? There’s a line that kind of speaks to this whole moment where Tic says [at the end of episode two], “I’m sorry, Uncle George.” That wasn’t written. I improvised that. Up until Uncle George’s death things had been going well, believe it or not. (Laughs.) We lost Leti, to a degree, but then that resolved itself. But with losing George, Tic loses his anchor. You have Tic, the son, prodigal but not quite Biblical, more prodigious. And then you have the paternal figure in Uncle George, and what ends up happening is the son becomes the patriarch in the series. And in that moment, that’s when Tic realizes what he has to do now, because that position must be filled for his family. So it’s a huge shift and it adds to that – let’s call it the stoic stove, that he has. And [Tic] is holding that all through episode three and beyond.
You can tell in the fourth episode that Montrose wants to step up and be the father Tic needs. With Tic taking over the patriarch role what does he need or expect Montrose to be for him?
Well a father’s love is a father’s love. And that’s what he wants from his father. And the thing is, if everyone’s honest, you don’t just want love. You want love your way. And Atticus can be stubborn, and Atticus can punish, and he has a mean streak in him because so much meanness has been done to him. From Montrose, in addition to his father’s love, he wants his father’s acceptance, and that’s different. When there’s glimpses of that you see the shift happen. When Atticus’ ire is higher at his father it’s because he’s not being accepted. His father is essentially trying to yank something from him, his own identity. But in those moments, and they’re few and far in-between, where Atticus is highlighted by his father, it breaks Atticus’ heart.
Going back to this idea of Tic’s “stoic stove,” we start to see some of that steam coming off in episode four. We get to see some of his anger. And anger for a Black man can be a very dangerous thing because it’s treated and looked at differently than a white man’s anger. I imagine we’ll learn more about where this anger stems from.
Right. You know, I had this great acting teacher in drama school, Christopher Bayes, who said anger is a secondary emotion. The thing when you meet Atticus, and I think something that defines him, is that he’s heartbroken. That’s one of the reasons he attaches to Leti so much. He believes she can mend him, and she begins to mend him without even knowing. Atticus has killed men. Atticus has survived a war, multiple wars if we tell the truth. And he won’t allow those tears to come. And so what comes out is generational hurt. It’s all the pain and suffering that his father put on him. The rage comes because the heartache is overwhelming.
Through your perspective, both in terms of playing a Black man in the ’50s and being a Black man in America today, do you think we’ve made any substantial progress in terms of how Black men are able to live?
I’ll say this: The game is fixed. The American game is fixed and some of us have learned that our talents can get us out, or can alter the game a bit, although it’s still rigged. That talent can be music, education, art, whatever it is. But what was true then is true now: without talent, you will lose. That’s how you know it’s fucked up, because that shouldn’t be a prerequisite for liberty. That shouldn’t be a prerequisite for equality. We, like any other group who’s been suppressed, have gotten smarter and we have found ways to give an aesthetic vibe as though things have changed. But not socially, emotionally, or spiritually. We’re still in bondage. We are still being underrepresented and undercut.
I feel that Lovecraft Country really hits on those points, both in terms of the past and present. There’s no better expression of the horror found in the game being rigged than that scene of Tic trying to outrace the cops before sundown in the premiere. What was your headspace for that scene in terms of considering the racism we’re facing today?
Try to win by any means necessary. Win. Do not lose your dignity. Do not lose your humanity. Do not let this man rip you of your manhood. Do not lose your intellect. Hold onto that as much as possible. The horror is, as I was shooting that scene, the more I tried to hold onto those things, the more I could feel them pushing and pulling away from me. That’s psychological fuckery. You’re redlining to hold it steady and it’s being taken from you. And there is no physical contact in that moment, that’s the part that’s crazy. There’s one sheriff [facing Tic down], but there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years behind that man, and you cannot win. And yet you must win to survive.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.