“Strange Case” takes the idea of being difficult to watch as a challenge, and comes up with as many varied ways of turning your stomach as possible. Some might stick with you for a while.
This recap of Lovecraft Country season 1, episode 5, “Strange Case”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
The idea that something is “difficult to watch” gets tossed around all the time, for a variety of reasons, and it’s usually nonsense. People like the idea that something is difficult to watch because it implies that, in watching it, they accomplished something; they endured an ordeal of some kind and came out the other side to bravely tell people all about it and advise those of more delicate constitutions to be careful. Lovecraft Country episode 5, “Strange Case”, takes this idea as a challenge, like it’s trying to be difficult to watch in as many varied and unexpected ways as possible. In this endeavor, it succeeds rather admirably.
If you’re keeping count, the subgenre of the week here is gross-out body horror, and the vessel the show chooses for this is Ruby, who made the mistake last week of visiting William’s house and in “Strange Case” wakes up in it in the body of a white woman. Not just any white woman, either, but Jamie Neumann’s Dell, last seen in Ardham, and she quickly deduces the benefits of such a disguise by heading to the South Side and being warmly looked after by the Black residents, one of whom, a young teenager, a white cop tries to batter for just assuming he was hurting this poor, confused white woman. Lovecraft Country is, as ever, unsubtle, but subtlety is hardly a concern of an episode that later literalizes Cardi B lyrics in a manic scene of violence involving a stiletto heel. But more on that in a minute.
Anyway, the point of this sequence is that Ruby discovers being white is basically a superpower. The cops don’t shoot her to death when she tells them not to club the young boy, for instance. Once she realizes that she will eventually change back into herself via a grisly, bone-snapping, skin-sloughing transformation, temporarily becoming white becomes a choice for her, which is an incredibly important distinction from being trapped in the body of a white woman indefinitely, which is how it seemed at first. William gives a vague, hand-wavey justification for how this mimics the circular metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly and back again, and I’m willing to accept this obviously preposterous notion because it’s just an excuse to facilitate a Black character experiencing life as a white woman and, of course, to relish the gleefully over-the-top transformation.
Naturally, Ruby takes this opportunity to land her dream department store job, and she’s immediately made the Assistant Manager after an interview that prioritizes whether she can morally cope with working alongside Black people rather than, you know, any actual skillset. This isn’t an accident either. It’s actually quite a funny joke that Ruby – masquerading as one Hillary Davenport – gets a coveted position on the strength of being able to tolerate the token diversity hire when she herself is being hired on the basis of her whiteness and literally nothing else – unless, of course, you count her being a woman hired by a man who clearly likes the look of her, which you should, but we’ll be glossing over that bit since these recaps can’t really be 17,000 words long.
Ruby takes to the new position perhaps slightly too well, which – all together now – is obviously intended to reiterate the fact that she’s quite a complex character and that simply being Black in a time of unashamed bigotry doesn’t automatically make her “good”. She’s a complicated, flawed human being like all of us, and she isn’t immune to the allure of power and authority, even if it’s obviously informed by a lifetime spent on the receiving end of undeserved racial abuse. But how does she exert her newfound power once she gets it? Does she start taking her white co-workers to task? No, she tells the only Black employee at the store, Tamara, that her hands are ashy. It’s a funny line, and it comes right after a conversation in which it’s made clear that even Ruby’s genuine concern appears condescending and threatening by virtue of her newfound white skin. But it also exemplifies how easy it is to become the rule, even – perhaps especially – if you’ve spent a lifetime being the exception.
But there’s only so much of this Ruby can rightly tolerate. She gets sick of hearing her co-workers disparage Tamara on the basis of her being a “Negro”, and she witnesses an attempted assault by her manager on a Black woman that he follows up with an awful slur. This she decides to avenge, and the way she chooses to do so is, to put it mildly, a lot. Let’s break it down.
So, what happens is that Ruby repeatedly sodomizes this man with a stiletto heel while Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” plays in the background; the lyrics “these expensive, these is red bottoms, these is bloody shoes” take on an uncomfortably literal new meaning. What Lovecraft Country is doing here is juxtaposing the expected catharsis of seeing a detestable man receive his comeuppance with the revulsion we feel at just how sadistic and violating the act is. It’s contrasting the generations of literal and systemic violations Black people have experienced with an individual act of revenge perpetrated by a Black woman against a white man and asking if one justifies the other. And it’s being deliberately idiosyncratic by setting that act to a contemporary song that’s largely about female (financial, mostly) empowerment. That last one is a technique deployed elsewhere in “Strange Case” when a typically romantic Frank Ocean song plays over a decidedly unromantic sex scene.
Lovecraft Country episode 5 doesn’t make it clear how we’re supposed to feel about this scene. Throughout it, Ruby’s white skin gradually and messily peels off, leaving behind her true, Black self so that her victim can ultimately know exactly what kind of person did this to him. It makes for a good zinger but not necessarily an obvious theme since the guy spent the entire transformation facing the floor; it was only visible to us, the audience, and we’re left to reckon with something that is I think deliberately difficult to process. This isn’t a triumphant moment of realization for a main character, but almost a corruption of that character; them embracing the kind of sadism and violence and anger that they have thus far risen above.
The idea of transformation occurs elsewhere in the episode, too, though less effectively. Here, it concerns Montrose embracing his true identity as a gay man and traces his relationship with Sammy (Jon Hudson Odom) from a secretive, passionless, and rather aggressive encounter to something much more romantic and open that is staged pretty explicitly as a kind of come-to-Jesus moment, a spiritual liberation that doesn’t land as it should since Montrose has been depicted either as a decidedly unpleasant character or not at all, brooding mostly off-screen. His acceptance of his sexuality is too truncated for it to have any real impact since we never saw him struggling with his identity and were indeed only really aware of it because of offhanded remarks. The visual composition here, especially during the ballroom scene, is striking, but it’s style over substance.
The ways in which “Strange Case” furthers the overarching narrative are also mixed. Tic spends the entire episode trying to decipher photographs Leti took of Titus’s pages from the Book of Names, but it’s a minor plot and I spent most of it wondering who’s paying for all his long-distance calls to Korea. But Ruby’s story amounts to a fairly significant twist: Christina is William, and has been wearing his skin this whole time. Just when you think you know people.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.