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Lovecraft Country Expanded Its Mythos With a Carnal Story about War

Jamie Chung as Ji-Ah.
Jamie Chung as Ji-Ah.
Screenshot: HBO

The degree to which HBO’s Lovecraft Country has already branched off from the novel its based on might give you the sense that at this point, with half the season over, the story might slow down on the worldbuilding to begin fully weaving its core character’s arcs together in the buildup to its finale. But the first few minutes alone of “Meet Me in Daegu” brush that idea aside wholly.

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By drifting into the past to introduce new characters who became important parts of Atticus’ life during his deployment in the Korean War, the episode feels both like an expansion to Lovecraft Country’s world that could have been introduced in a subsequent season, but also like an important part of the series’ premise that needed to be addressed. Much as it’s been a story exploring American sin in the form of homegrown, domestic racism, “Meet Me in Daegu” reminds you that America’s evils have never been bound solely within its own borders.

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Illustration for article titled iLovecraft Country/i Expanded Its Mythos With a Carnal Story about War
Image: Jim Cooke

The latest episode brings Lovecraft Country’s focus back towards Atticus by way of a new character who was stealthily foreshadowed in the series premiere’s trippy opening mashup of John Carter From Mars and The Call of Cthulhu. Jamie Chung’s (The Gifted, Once Upon a Time) Ji-Ah lives a simple life with her mother, Soon-Hee (Cindy Chang), in Daegu, South Korea not long before the Battle of Taegu, and she punctuates her nursing studies with periodic visits to the local movie theater where she voraciously takes in subtitled American films—specifically those starring Judy Garland.

Though Ji-Ah’s mother loves her daughter and understands her academic ambitions, she firmly believes that the only way to earn back the respect of their the family’s peers following the death of Soon-Hee’s husband is for the girl to snag a man of her own. Every night after her studies, Ji-Ah routinely attends multiple rounds of speed dating that never seem to work out, either because the men she meets have no real personalities to speak of or because they can’t understand her fondness for Western culture. The one person who seems able to recognize the light within Ji-Ah is her fellow student Young-Ja (Prisca Kim), whose longing glances at her classmate and rather suggestive invitations out for coffee immediately make it seem as if she might be interested in Ji-Ah, and Ji-Ah might feel similarly.

The care that Lovecraft Country took in its handling of the dynamics between Montrose Freeman and Sammy the bartender and Ruby Baptiste and Christina Braithwaite has made the series feel like it’s very comfortable with narratives of people getting entangled in secret queer relationships, a space “Meet Me in Daegu” initially feels like it exists within. But the episode takes an early turn for the grotesque as we see Ji-Ah finally manage to bring a man (James Kyson) home, and they proceed to have sex, which he seems to enjoy quite a bit.

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As the two go at it, the man is too lost in the moment to notice when a number of hairy, tentacle-like objects begin creeping their way out of every orifice of Ji-Ah’s body. The squirmy objects promptly kill her bedfellow for the evening in a literal explosion of blood and guts, but not before she has a few visions of the man’s life leading up to the moment when he experienced the ultimate petit mort. Just last week the show featured multiple scenes in which people clawed their way out of other people as part of transformation spells, and so Ji-Ah psychically connecting to her sex partners via an array of inhuman appendages is very on-brand for this world.

What “Meet Me in Daegu” wants you to be concerned with isn’t just that Ji-Ah’s seemingly a monster or alien of some sort, but also that her mother’s well aware of it and actively encourages her daughter to kill men in pursuit of her becoming human again.

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Ji-Ah’s foxtail emerging from her ear.
Ji-Ah’s foxtail emerging from her ear.
Screenshot: HBO

As the war begins to break out and disrupt Ji-Ah and her mother’s everyday lives, tension grows between the two of them over Ji-Ah’s sudden lack of enthusiasm for tracking down men to kill. In a quiet, but charged conversation, Ji-Ah reveals that whenever she kills a man and takes his soul into her body, she’s able to experience the fullness of his life. Ji-Ah sees the war as a reason to cut down on her extracurricular activities, but her mother insists that pressing on to collect her hundredth soul will finally set her free the way the shaman who apparently made Ji-Ah the way she is promised. But after her next kill, she explains the episode’s chilling twist. All throughout the episode, Soon-Hee refers to her late husband as “that man,” or “her husband” in a way suggesting that he wasn’t Ji-Ah’s father. But as Ji-Ah explains she remembers how much the man loved her in the same way that she can remember that he loved anchovies, and the source of the family’s shame suddenly becomes clear.

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Lovecraft Country doesn’t leave you with many ways to interpret exactly what Soon-Hee did other than her apparently taking her daughter to become cursed, or perhaps possessed in a way that left her able to defend herself from her stepfather’s abuse. Ji-Ah’s mother speaks to her daughter with an emotional removedness that further makes it appear as if she doesn’t truly see her as her daughter, but rather some sort of creature merely squatting within Ji-Ah until the bloody price necessary to split the two beings apart is paid.

“Meet Me in Daegu” thankfully establishes that, technically, Ji-Ah is the spirit of a kumiho—a Korean nine-tailed fox spirit of legend known for its ability to transform and occasionally eat people’s hearts—placed into Ji-Ah’s body. The story depicts Ji-Ah as being a woman fully in control of herself and possessed of a life, feelings, and ideas that are wholly hers, like her refusal to keep killing at the older woman’s behest. Ji-Ah insists that she holds none of her past self’s memories, but it’s unclear whether this is actually the case or merely her trying to assert her personhood to her overbearing mother. In a moment that shakes Soon-Hee, her daughter sings a song that Soon-Hee believes she taught her while she was young, but Ji-Ah corrects her, stating that the memory is actually her stepfather’s (she has all of them), and it was what Ji-Ah used to sing to herself while he raped her.

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In their yelling and crying, you can see that both women are in pain over the circumstances that brought them together, and Ji-Ah is clear in her condemnation of Soon-Hee looking the other way while her daughter was attacked in their own home—something the man knew he could rely on. But the story returns to Lovecraft Country’s idea of families clinging to one another in unhealthy ways in order to stave off trauma by illustrating that the two women never part ways with one another.

A group of Korean nurses being interrogated byAmerican soldiers.
A group of Korean nurses being interrogated byAmerican soldiers.
Screenshot: HBO
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Ji-Ah’s well aware of the brutal realities of war long before it impacts her directly, but being rounded up with her fellow nurses by American troops and interrogated as to whether they’re Communist sympathizers changes her in a profound way. Despite the fact that the two of them never became lovers, Ji-Ah and Young-Ja loved each other in the strongest way that friends could, and witnessing Atticus (who finally makes his appearance) and his fellow soldiers shoot the women until Young-Ja admits to being the spy they’re looking for devastates Ji-Ah.

When next Ji-Ah and Atticus cross paths, with him freshly wounded and in need of care at the very hospital she’s working at, she immediately resolves to kill him in her special way, completing her task, and exacting revenge for all the people Atticus hurt. But she can’t help but recognize how the war and all of its grimness is taking a similar toll on Atticus, who volunteered to fight in the conflict not fully grasping what all he was getting himself into. Much to Soon-Hee’s dismay, Ji-Ah puts her plans for revenge on hold as she comes to get to know Atticus and learn about their mutual love for escapism into fictional worlds. Ji-Ah gains a deeper understanding of America’s social inequalities that push soldiers of color into fighting in wars for a country that still views them as subhuman, and it becomes harder and harder for her not to see themselves as being trapped in similar, albeit drastically different circumstances.

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The way “Meet Me in Daegu” shifts from being a straight-on horror story to something more akin to romance highlights the ease with which Lovecraft Country’s been able to shift between genres, something that hasn’t always worked in the show’s favor. Devoid of pulp as this episode is, it feels like it’s part of a wholly different show up until the point where Atticus shows up, and even then, the episode ricochets back and forth between characterizing him as being just another murderous cog in the machine, and a deeply sensitive romantic who charms his way into the heart of a woman whose best friend he helped kill.

When Ji-Ah eventually confronts Atticus about her initial intentions towards him, he’s as confused as he is ashamed because he can’t comprehend why she would even bother spending time with him. In a moment of true honesty that shocks them both, Ji-Ah’s able to admit—partially—that their ability to see past the monstrousness in one another makes her feel truly alive in a way that she hadn’t previously.

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The crucial thing to remember here is that Jamie Chung actually made her first appearance in Lovecraft Country’s premiere as a red, Martian princess descending from the stars to greet Atticus in the midst of a battle with alien creatures and Cthulu. Watched back to back, the first episode and “Meet Me in Daegu” emphasize how powerful Ji-Ah and Atticus’ relationship ended up being before he left South Korea to return to America, but up until this point in the story, the events leading up to his departure were unclear. After she learns that she’s able to control her foxtails to an extent, Ji-Ah and Atticus are able to be intimate with one another. Once. And she doesn’t tell him that she’s a demon.

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In the midst of one of Lovecraft Country’s steamier sex scenes, however, Ji-Ah does actually end up losing control of her tails in a way that makes you understand that they may be somewhat sentient and act independently of her will. Whether it’s because of the magic running through Atticus’ veins or because Ji-Ah doesn’t actually want to kill him, her attack is cut short, but not before she gets a solid look at his soul and what lies ahead for him.

In addition to brief glimpses at Atticus’ mother, his being spanked as a child, and his torturing Young-Ja as an adult in the not-so-distant past, Ji-Ah sees years into Atticus’ future—specifically his death. As is his wont to do, Atticus hauls ass after she foxes out, even though she’s desperately trying to warn him of her visions and begging him not to return to the U.S. But violently revealing one’s demonhood to someone while boning simply isn’t the sort of act that segues into levelheaded conversation.

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“Meet Me In Daegu” closes on Ji-Ah and Soon-Hee returning to the shaman who first placed the kumiho spirit in her body in the hopes of finding out the significance of her vision and her seeming inability to collect Atticus’ soul. The international phone call Atticus makes in Lovecraft Country’s second episode more or less said all you needed to know about how Ji-Ah’s future’s intertwined with Atticus’. But the shaman woman spells it out even more explicitly with an ominous prediction of her own that Ji-Ah’s going to witness much, much more death in the coming weeks as Lovecraft Country continues.

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io9 Culture Critic and Staff Writer. Cyclops was right.

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DISCUSSION

remyporter
Remy Porter

My read of the mother/daughter relationship is that Ji-Ah died due to her father’s abuse (probably not directly, but perhaps more indirectly, like suicide?), and summoned the Kumiho as a replacement, believing that once she consumed 100 souls, the replacement would become real.

Honestly, though, while this was a bit of an “aside” relative to the main plot, this was a really good episode. I appreciate that this show ensures that something is always going on instead of trying to drag and stretch and tease.