Why Lovecraft Country’s ‘I AM’ episode is the beating heart of the HBO series
(Beware! SPOILERS abound for Lovecraft Country “I Am.”)
If you’ve stuck with Lovecraft Country up to episode 7 you might’ve already realized that this show is on a mission.
Each episode, almost self-contained in scope, puts the series’ heroes in situations more commonly found in storytelling genres dominated by white male narratives. War, horror, adventure, and science fiction each get the chance to be used as statements on the perils of narrowing the possibilities of story by not acknowledging the rich differences found in diversity.
The lead up to episode 7, thus far, has seen the show put its own racially-conscious spin on the haunted house story (ep. 3 “Holy Ghost”), the Indiana Jones-like adventure story (ep. 4 “A History of Violence”), the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-like doppelganger story (ep. 5 “Strange Case”), and the classic war/romance story (ep. 6 “Meet me in Daegu”), each sharing in cosmic horror as the common thread. While Tic (played by Jonathan Mayors) is still the driving force behind the main story, this layered exploration of genre lets every character have their turn behind the wheel.
It’s with episode 7, though, where the show lays its heart and soul bare, with us looking in as if through an open wound that shows signs of healing. It’s aptly titled “I Am.” and it’s where science fiction comes in to drive the following point home: not only does black representation matter, it can create stories the likes of which we haven’t been allowed to see.
In this episode, Hippolyta (played by Aunjanue Ellis) takes to the road to find answers about her husband’s death and the secrets pertaining to an orrery she had previously found. Her search leads her to a mysterious observatory that can open a rift in reality to other dimensions and universes.
Hippolyta’s love for astronomy is played to great effect here. What was once an endearing character trait that made her more relatable and interesting turns her into a key character with access to information few others in Tic’s group can access. Hippolyta felt like a strong background character all the way up until this episode and not having her play a more central role in the unraveling of the main mystery after everything that just happened to her would be doing a disservice to the character.
What makes “I Am.” the proverbial heart of the show lies in its approach to science fiction as a genre that feels tailor-made to portray the black experience. The specter of systemic-racism creeps into the episode as Hippolyta’s journey into the multiverse puts her into several potential realities her character could’ve perfectly fit into if given the chance to define herself within it, hence the episode’s title. The show takes the opportunity to celebrate possibilities rather than merely protesting the lack of representation, something it’s already established and done well in previous chapters.
Throughout her multiversal jumps we see Hippolyta become one of Josephine Baker’s dancers in 1920’s Paris, an Amazonian warrior from the all-female Mino or Dahomey military regiment of the Kingdom of Dahomey, and a space explorer cataloguing alien life in a fashion similar to how her husband researched new safe routes for his travel guides, an activity he didn’t allow her to participate in for fear she would get hurt on the road (an excuse Hippolyta challenges in the episode to great effect).
Each version closes with Hippolyta declaring “I Am…,” which claims the character’s right to create her own self-identity within each genre, unencumbered by the expectations and prejudices of white male-dominated perspectives.
The episode goes lengths to portray each version of the character as deserving of their own series. It continues the show’s mission of showing how black representation in these genres has been absent or downplayed for far too long, denied by a culture that systemically devalued non-white perspectives (and still does). We get a sense of the type of stories we’ve lost in the process.
While that sense of loss is present and palpable–as it is in every episode thus far–the storytelling realities the show has brought to the fore also come with an unrelenting sense of hope. Hippolyta’s science fiction voyage and its several stops provide new avenues of story that demand to be explored. It amounts to a resounding “it’s about damn time” for the masses.
Fans of HBO’s Watchmen can find certain converging ideas between Hippolyta and Dr. Manhattan, especially in that show’s eighth episode, “A God Walks into Abar.” Manhattan’s decision to give Angela Abar, a.k.a. Sister Night, the choice of remaking him into a black man in that episode spoke to the importance of giving black creators the leading voice in the storytelling process so what we can see how new perspectives come to life. Something similar happens with Hippolyta, only she’s recreating herself under her own conditions with no need for anyone’s permission.
Lovecraft Country’s “I Am.” is yet another statement on the importance of self-identity and creative agency in fiction. The show has been successful in showing how fiction can respond to the needs of many, regardless of skin color, but it’s in this chapter that we see the argument come full circle. It’s a call for justice in representation with the guarantee that it has no intention of settling for anything less than creative control. Hippolyta is now the new face of that claim in Lovecraft Country, and it looks like “I Am” is the new rallying cry.