Yahima’s (Monique Candelaria) last moments, thanks to Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams). (Photo credit: HBO)
In Episode 4 of Lovecraft Country, “A History of Violence,” Atticus (Jonathan Majors), Leti (Jurnee Smollett), and Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams) head to Boston to find Titus Braithwhite’s secret treasure. The episode was full of adventure, scares, and familial tension. Overall, it was a fun episode. But the fun ended once Montrose killed one of Titus’ victims, Yahima (Monique Candelaria), a two-spirit Indigenous person who was imprisoned underwater and turned into a siren by Braithwhite.
Yahima had to endure the slaughter of their people at the hands of Braithwhite, plus spend nearly an eternity in an underground prison, only to have one of their saviors violently end their life. Seeing them killed seemed like a violation of the series’ M.O.– exploring unexplored parts of American history. That should include the stories of the American Indigenous. Since Yahima hails from Guyana, this means the series has now involved South American history, and seeing how Yahima was treated, the conclusion I’m drawing is that there wasn’t enough time spent in the writers’ room researching South American life for Indigenous people.
If there were more consideration for the racial history Yahima represents, then I’d think that Lovecraft Country would have kept Yahima as a part of the growing Scooby-Doo gang. But instead, Yahima is used as a racial oddity. Their native tongue otherizes them in a way that verges on exploitation. We have no context for their tattoos, markings that could have some historical relevance to us as an audience voraciously consuming the bite-sized history references Lovecraft Country loves to provide. Without any backstory for Yahima’s markings, they serve only to separate them from our Westernized Black heroes further.
Whereas Yahima’s native language and cultural markings are presented in a vaguely uncomfortable way, the episode’s focus on Yahima’s body is explicitly painful. Yahima is an intersex person, meaning they have both male and female body parts. They are also two-spirit, and frankly, if the writers had wanted us to know Yahima is two-spirit, that could have been addressed in the dialogue. In fact, it was addressed in the dialogue–the information came from Yahima themselves. So, if we now know who Yahima is, why did Yahima’s naked body have to be exploited for us to believe them? What purpose did it serve other than having us as an audience ogle at them?
The writers’ decision to introduce Yahima in a reckless, potentially hurtful way, plus their decision to kill Yahima off, has left many viewers, including me, feeling confused and let down. Why would Lovecraft Country choose to erase one minority person’s story to uplift another’s? For me, that’s the episode’s most heinous failing.
Yes, I understand that Montrose’s decision to kill Yahima comes from wanting to protect Atticus from getting further involved in the mystery surrounding the Sons of Adam. In his own terrible way, he thinks he’s doing a good thing for his son. Also, as addressed in the podcast Lovecraft Country Radio, Montrose is already uncomfortable with his sexuality, and Yahima–especially Yahima’s ease with being themselves–is a threat to Montrose. In the context of the show’s time period, it makes sense that Montrose would be struggling with his sexuality and that he’d feel threatened by someone experiencing a freedom he thinks he can’t attain. But was it the show’s best decision to kill Yahima without exploring what they could add to an already rich series?
I feel like something else could have happened plot-wise with Yahima. They didn’t have to exist solely as Montrose’s foil, nor did they have to act as walking, talking exposition. The writers have shown they have the capability of tackling challenging, complex storylines. They’ve also demonstrated that they love using research and personal experiences to bring harsh truths to light. Since that’s the case, its astounding that the team would go the lazy route when addressing Montrose’s fear of himself and his fear of Yahima’s existence.
During Lovecraft Country Radio, series writer Shannon Houston expressed her concern about the decision to kill Yahima.
“I know that a lot of people will watch this show and will read this character as intersex and so they’ll watch Montrose murder this person and feel really angry about it, and I feel really angry about it and [co-host Ashley C. Ford] does too, so you should feel angry about it,” said Houston. “But what else do we do with this? There’s a part of me that’s afraid that Montrose’s act will make the show read as queerphobic, but what Montrose is doing is also necessarily queerphobic. It has to be read that way, and it’s also complicated because of who Montrose is[.]”
“I guess I’ll admit that I’m saying that because I’m also concerned about the show and I’m concerned about our intentions and how they’ll be read,” she continued. “I’m going to try to push that aside. But I’m also admitting that there’s something about that that’s f—- up, that I’m going, ‘Oh my God, are people going to think that the show is queerphobic?’ I have to be open to that and to also be like, ‘If that’s what it is and the show is critiqued for doing that, then that’s what it is and we need to wrestle with that and grapple with it and think about ways to tell these stories that are also not harmful to the queer community.”
Houston and her co-host Ashley C. Ford bring up a good point about creators being allowed to grow and learn from their shortcomings. Indeed, this episode should provide the writers with a lesson in how certain ideas can have harmful effects, regardless of intent. But I also wonder if there were concerns about this episode’s storyline within the writers’ room. If the concerns were significant–which seems like it, from Houston’s worries–why did the storyline get the greenlight? Why didn’t the writers try to find another way to address Montrose’s discomfort with himself that didn’t tear down another mistreated person?
I feel like the writers let a lot of folks down with this episode. Lovecraft Country is supposed to be about reclaiming forgotten and hidden histories and narratives. But if the show will put Black humanity above the humanity of other minorities, as shown with Montrose’s actions towards Yahima, then the show won’t live up to its potential.
“A History of Violence” focused on how the violence of white supremacy can permeate its victims. That violence was displayed in Montrose’s actions towards Yahima. But, by showcasing that scene, how much did Lovecraft Country also play into the violence it’s critiquing? I think that’s something the writers should take into consideration for future seasons. A series aiming at healing an audience can’t achieve its mission by sacrificing those who also need representation.