There has never been an episode of Lovecraft Country quite like “Meet Me in Daegu.” While of course, the series has had its considerable peaks in the form of episodes like “Sundown” and “Holy Ghost,” the sixth episode of Lovecraft is extraordinary for how it exists as not only an example of the series at its best, but simultaneously so apart from what we’ve seen before as to feel like another show entirely. But if there’s one thing that Lovecraft Country has proven time and again throughout this season, it’s that it is a series that contains multitudes.
The first face we see in “Meet Me in Daegu” is neither Atticus, or Leti, or even Montrose’s, but rather Judy Garland’s. The year is 1949, and in a darkened theater house in the city of Daegu on the eve of the Korean War, a young woman named Ji-ah is watching a musical. Despite the war being the immediate followup to the resolution of World War II and the first of what would be many proxy wars waged between the United States and the USSR throughout the mid-to-late twentieth century, the Korean War is a conflict all but entirely unknown to most Americans and seldom if ever depicted in Western media, with the exception of the 1972 war-sitcom *M*A*S*H*. That Lovecraft Country chose to devote a substantial portion of this episode’s run-time to the mortal cost of this war is no small or inconsequential decision for how it sheds light on a consequential, yet too-often-overlooked period of history that exists in most Western viewers’ collective blindspot. In essence, it’s similar to how HBO’s Watchmen brought the events of the 1921 Tulsa Massacre to the collective attention of a generation of viewers who might never have even known about it otherwise.
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When we first meet Ji-ah, played by Jamie Chung (Sucker Punch, Big Hero 6), she is rapt in the euphoric glow of Vincente Minnelli’s “Meet Me in St. Louis” to the utter exclusion of anything else around her. What can be said of Lovecraft Country is that, in spite of its occasional faults and shortcomings, whenever the show cedes its attention to the considerable talents of its female stars, the results are nothing short of electric. Chung’s performance in this episode is phenomenal, on par with anything we’ve seen yet from series regulars Jurnie Smollet, Wunmi Mosaki, or Aunjanue Ellis, and an emotional force to be reckoned with whose presence and pathos is positively magnetic from the episode’s entrancing opening scene to its devastating final shot.
“For once in my life, I just want to feel…to be hit by that bolt of lightning,” she tells a prospective suitor across from her at an after-hours matchmaking event. “Like how Judy Garland felt when she saw her neighbor for the first time in ‘Meet Me in St. Louis.’” This scene is an excellent and effective one for what it reveals about Ji-ah at the heart of her identity as a woman, as a dreamer, and as an aspiring medical student. And that is that she is utterly and desperately alone. Ji-ah yearns for something, not just physical communion, but the very ability to feel and experience a sensation larger than any she has yet ever experienced before. But something is holding her back. “The only way for this family to be whole again is for you to bring home men,” her mother witheringly scolds her. Emphasis on plural.
Only later do we learn, after she brings a stranger home from a bar and spends the night with him, that Ji-ah is a Kumiho: a vengeful nine-tailed fox spirit bound the body of a beautiful woman in order to ensnare men, siphoning their memories and life-force from their body before destroying them in a hail of blood and viscera. This condition, combined with her mother’s neglect, is the cause for her inability to feel or experience love fully. Ji-ah was not born a Kumiho, however; she was made one by none other than her own mother, as a way of exacting vengeance on her late husband for sexually abusing Ji-ah when she was a child.
Ji-ah’s mother looks at her daughter with disdain, ashamed of her own role in Ji-ah’s plight and embittered by the emotional, physical, and spiritual toll reaped by her late husband’s predilections. “My husband hurt my daughter.” she says while scrubbing away the viscera of Ji-ah’s latest prey. “You don’t understand why his love was wrong because you can’t feel love. You can’t feel anything because you’re a monster.” But as Ji-ah points out, she is a monster of her mother’s own making – she’d transformed her daughter into a sacrificial vessel for her own vengeance under the pretense of “protecting” her. The place where Ji-ah’s experience of sexual abuse sits within Lovecraft Country’s greater themes of generational trauma and familial abuse is an uncomfortable one, for sure. However, it’s wholly relevant and even arguably necessary to the series’ holistic approach in unpacking the many ways in which intimate trauma not only radically reshapes one’s relationship respective to that of their abuser, but to all their potential partners in the future.
Ji-ah’s emotional relationship with her mother is untenable at best and toxic at worst. “No, that is not love,” Ji-ah’s best friend, Young-ja, tells her as she confides about her mother’s protection. “Your mother can’t see you, just who she wants you to be. You cannot let her fear control you.” Of course, Young-ja is entirely correct. How is Ji-ah’s mother’s “love” any less a form of abuse than what was inflicted upon her by her stepfather? Though her abuser is dead, it is Ji-ah who must bear the consequences of not only his indiscretions, but of her mother’s premature pact with an otherworldly force. This parallels Atticus’ own burden of having to bear not only the weight of his father’s abuse growing up, but the generation-spanning machinations of Titus Braithwhite and the Order of the Ancient Dawn as an adult.
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It’s not until the mid-point of the episode when we’re finally introduced to Atticus, then serving as a G.I., as he is called over by his superior officer in order to accelerate an interrogation involving Ji-ah and her fellow nurses. When Atticus’ superior, another black man, shoots one of the nurses point-blank in cold blood, it’s the type of dispassionate sacrificial violence inflicted by one non-white person onto another that echoes Montrose’s own reprehensible violence against Yahima in the the fourth episode of Lovecraft Country, “A History of Violence.” It’s a horrifying and affecting scene, not the least of which for how uncompromisingly it depicts the way in which members of historically disenfranchised populations can be coerced into becoming complicit perpetrators of state violence through the implied promise of respect, an obligation to the “greater good,” and the sheer force of imperialism.
Soon after, the communist spy the G.I.s are searching for turns out to be none other than Young-ja, leaving Ji-ah, covered in the blood of her peers, to watch helplessly as her friend is dragged off to be executed. This scene is meaningful not only for its role as the inciting incident of Atticus and Ji-ah’s relationship, but as a significant turning point in our ever-broadening understanding of the depths to which Atticus’ life has been shaped by the trauma he has endured both at home and abroad.
“You went to the movies to get away from everything, everybody. I stuck my nose in books,” Atticus tells Ji-ah later in a hospital courtyard, explaining why he voluntarily enlisted in the war. “I guess it just got to a point where they couldn’t take me far enough away.” Though she initially plots to take Atticus’ life as retribution for Young-ja’s death, something unexpected happens: she falls in love with him; first through their shared love of storytelling, and later for his immense generosity and kindness of spirit. These qualities she sees in him allow her to realize their potential within herself, where once she thought she was utterly incapable of ever feeling.
“The first time I saw you at the hospital, the anger shot through me like lightning. And all I could see was a murderer,” she tells Atticus through tears outside the military base, tearing through his emotional defenses with an emphatic plea of love that rends both of their fears asunder. “Then I got to know you and I realized how this war has torn you apart. We’ve both done monstrous things, but that does not make us monsters. We can be the people we see in each other. We just have to choose to be.” It’s a message that reverberates beyond its own moment, touching home to relate to the lives of every single one of the Lovecraft Country’s main characters as if to say, emphatically, that each of these characters is more than the sum of either the worst thing that they’ve ever done or have ever had done to them.
The episode’s climax and denouement are heart-wrenching depictions of love and fatalistic despair. Despite her pleading with him to stay with her, fearing that he will be killed if he returns to America, Atticus nonetheless flees from Ji-ah out of terror when her true nature is revealed, breaking her heart. The scene mirrors the sentiments of Ji-ah’s earlier scene voicing her desire to know love– she is once again alone but forever changed for what she felt while with Atticus.
And finally, as Ji-ah and her mother plead to be released from their bargain with the Mudang shaman that first bound the spirit of the Kumiho to her body years ago, she begs to her to know whether Atticus will die. If the Mudang’s answer is any indication, there will be yet more death to come before either Ji-ah or Atticus’ journeys are over.