Lovecraft Country S1E5: A “Strange Case” of Loving The Skin You’re In
Well hello, Lovecraft Country fans! If you’ve just finished watching S1E5 and you’re anything like me, you’re probably exceedingly pleased with how great “A Strange Case” was. My favourite episode so far by a mile, with many revelations, a lot of ‘ewwww’ moments, a couple of ‘ouch!’ moments and even some tears of joy.
It was an episode that focused, yes on racism and white privilege, but also on consent and how one person’s needs and desires may not be the same as yours, but it doesn’t mean they are wrong. Likewise, someone may have the same desires as you, but you can’t just go and take it. Someone finds that out in a really brutal way this episode.
Leaving off from Episode 4, Ruby wakes up in a very luxurious circular bed with silk sheets, after a night of passion with William. Only that Ruby is not quite Ruby; she is white. Not only has her skinned paled but she has the form of the woman who was protecting the tower where Montrose was being held way back in Episode 2. It makes me question whether that woman was bred for a purpose. Is she a clone of sorts, or a prototype? Or did her DNA go into to making the potion or something like that? Whatever the case, you can bet Hiram Epstein (the dead guy who owned Leti’s house before her) was the guy behind the formula. Was the woman guarding the tower someone else in disguise right then? If so, who could that be I wonder?
Ruby, understandably in a total panic, runs outside in her nightgown and to her neighbourhood, where everyone looks at her like a crazy person. It is very clear that if she was behaving in this manner in her natural skin she would have been carted off to the asylum or jail, not treated with care by the police. In fact, when a black boy steps in to help her, the police assume…actually, make that decide…that the boy was assaulting the white Ruby, a damsel in distress, and are about to give him a beating when she stops them. She’s ferried away by the police and delivered back to William.
There she undergoes the hideous transformation back to the original Ruby, shedding the white skin in such grotesque ways that king of Body Horror David Cronenberg would be proud. William comments on how caterpillars become butterflies, during complete metamorphosis. Then comes the dilemma. Now that Ruby has had a taste of what it’s like to be white, her mind sparks as she imagines what she could do with the privilege. She can’t resist the temptation when William leaves the potion on the dresser for her and the first thing she does is go and claim that job at Marshall Field’s she longed for.
The transformation process from her alter-ego Hilary Davenport back to Ruby is like a reverse metamorphosis from say An American Werewolf in London. We don’t see her transformation to Hilary; we see her shedding the skin monstrously. Kudos to Jamie Neumann for playing the character of Ruby playing Hilary so well. Hilary charms the sleazeball store manager Paul, not only into giving her a job but a managerial position—she does have the qualifications for it after all. Would those qualifications have been taken into account if she turned up there as Ruby? Almost certainly not, but when ‘Hilary’ meets Tamara, the black girl who works on the department store counter, as her new boss, she gives her a hard time for not being the very best she can be and is not happy to find that she doesn’t even have any qualifications. Was Tamara given the job purely as a ‘token black girl’, or is this a case of ageism? As we later learn, Paul, the manager, wants a taste of Tamara—did he employ her because of her age and looks? In addition, he would be fully aware that she would never be taken seriously if she complained about sexual harassment from him, the kindly family man. Tamara was an easy target for this weaselly white man in power.
The other girls working at the store are all white of course and are less than pleasant to Tamara. It’s cringeworthy to see how mean they are about her. Ruby as Hilary has to bite her tongue, but has the perfect opportunity to educate the girls being that she is their boss, has got a groove that they think only belongs to black people and has a ridiculously hot younger boyfriend with a flashy car. Ruby can’t live this charmed life without a catch of course. William tells her he needs a favour, and that he needs her to meet Miss Braithwhite tonight, at a party. As Ruby.
At the Sons of Adam Lodge party, Ruby has to play waitress for a room of middle-aged white men who don’t so much as look at her, never mind thank her for her service. The police captain is there, as smarmy as ever. Christina waits for Ruby in the kitchen and asks her to plant what looks like a rock with a magic symbol etched into it in the captain’s office. Ruby hesitates at first but is encouraged by Christina who tells her that William is the rightful heir to the lodge, but that Captain Lancaster tried to kill him to take his seat, shot him in the back and dumped his body in the river.
Let’s take a pause here. Is what Christina is saying true? We know that Captain Lancaster is aware that Christina is alive as they spoke last week, and Lancaster’s henchmen know that William is alive as he beat the crap out of them. So it seems that Christina was playing on Ruby’s heartstrings to get her to do her bidding, as she does have a soft spot for William (as you’d hope seeing as she’s sleeping with him). Fast forward to the end of the episode and my theory that Christina and William were one and the same is proven to be correct. Like Ruby transforms into Hilary, Christina morphs into William, as no matter how white you are as a woman, you’re still not quite as powerful as a white man. With so many things she needed to get done, she could only be a man to do it. There must be a good reason why Christina let Ruby into her secret, for her bargaining power as William has been abolished now.
This brings me to the subject of consent. Ruby was drugged to become someone else without her permission. Then she had sex with someone thinking that they were a man when they were actually a woman. As Ruby is straight, she would not have done this knowingly, so she has been raped in a sense. How Ruby deals with that will be interesting to see, as she clearly does not have the patience for men who try to take what they want without permission. Christina, as her true self this time, encourages her to do more than just play the role of department store manager with her white privilege and goads her into seeing what she could really get away with as a white woman. Could she make a difference to how men treat women by taking revenge?
Ruby and Tamara take the girls and Paul the manager to the South Side for drinks and dancing. The white girls gawp at the crowds of black people as if they were a novelty, almost as if they were ‘cool’ for hanging out and dancing with black guys. I can imagine one of them saying, “I’m not racist, I have a black friend”. Which might be true now, Tamara may be a friend of sorts, but that doesn’t make them any less racist. You can like people of colour but still be racist if you don’t believe that black lives are equal to yours because of their shade of skin or culture. Part of me wants to say though that at least they are trying to learn. The girls would have been brought up to think that black people were to be feared, so for them to mingle with, dance and rub up against these men would have felt brave and exhilarating no doubt. It’s embarrassing to think we ever felt that way, and more embarrassing that so many white people still do 70 years later. I hope that the girls here learned something from their time in the bar, that the punters were just the same as them, but I fear that when the morning comes they may be ashamed of their behaviour and accuse the men of violating them. Especially when they find out what happened to Paul (assuming they do). The way that Ruby (as Hilary) and Tamara watch them solemnly, realising that the girls fun and laughter is just a novelty, a taboo, an act of rebellion, makes me wonder if they have the same fear, that this will end in tears.
Outside of the bar, Hilary sheds her white skin and Ruby is released. She witnesses the slimy boss pawing over Tamara, pinning her up against a wall trying to sexually assault her while making crude, racist remarks. Luckily Tamara manages to break free and run away, but you can bet she won’t have a job in the morning.
That is precisely what happens when Hilary goes to see Paul to hand in her notice. By this point Ruby is sick of herself playing this role, ashamed of even pretending to be something other than the beautiful woman she is. Then Paul tells her that Tamara is going to be fired, and she snaps. As a white woman, she might just get away with carrying out a crime this violent and disturbing. Giving the reason that she is too attracted to him to keep working there, she seduces Paul as Hilary, tying his neck with his belt and then removing her stiletto, repeatedly forcing it into his rectum. It is grim indeed, but deserved? It’s an eye for an eye that’s for sure and will certainly teach him a lesson. Does he survive the attack? If he does then Ruby could be in a lot of trouble. While it was Hilary, to begin with, it was Ruby standing there covered in flesh and bloody gore victorious at the end.
The camera lingers on a piece of dropped body matter for a second, which made me wonder about DNA testing back in the 1950s. Serological Testing was invented in the 1930s when scientists discovered other proteins on the surface of blood cells that could be used for identifying people. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that accurate DNA Forensic tests were completed. So, if Paul survived then it is likely that his testimony and maybe fingerprint testing could put both Hilary and Ruby at the scene of the crime. If it is Hilary that is suspected then Ruby may just get away with it. If it is Ruby in the frame, then she may have to stay white if she wants to be free.
It’s not just Ruby playing at being white. In an unexpected turn of events, Ruby (while planting the magic stone in the police captains office) sees Captain Lancaster without his shirt on and discovers that he is black. He has white skin grafted onto his face and hands, presumably taken from the (literally) stitched up, rotting alive man hanging in his closet. What’s that all about then? It certainly crossed my mind that it could be a dig at black police officers who instead of making a difference from within the system, conform to the systemic racism and prejudices against their black brothers and sisters. It is perfectly possible for black people to be racist towards other black people, and I don’t mean between different classes of people, or between regions. When society as a whole is inherently racist, of course the effects of that will trickle down to everyone.
Take this as a generalistic situation: It is much harder for a black person to succeed, they are placed at the back of the race the second they are born. Black communities are more likely to live in poverty because the jobs available to them are lower paid, non-managerial positions. African American children’s education is effected because parents can’t afford to send their child to college, even if their child is smarter than their white peers. All of these things have a knock-on effect. All people, no matter their colour of skin, do desperate things to survive (I mean look at how hysterical all the white ‘Karen’s’ went when they thought they’d run out of toilet paper at the beginning of lockdown—and that was hardly a life or death situation). It’s easy to see why people would turn to crime to feed their kids or pay the rent. Or perhaps turn to drugs and alcohol to numb the horrors of everyday life. But if you are the victim of a crime carried out by a black person, especially if it happens repeatedly, you will become prejudiced towards black people in general. It’s natural.
So while Trump and his cronies spout on about crime levels being higher in black and Latino communities, which is quite often true, that’s precisely how he wants it to stay. Keep oppressing the non-white communities, make it impossible for them to achieve their dreams while keeping white privilege alive so they can greedily reap the rewards for themselves. They don’t want to get to the root cause of it, because the root cause is themselves. It’s really, really gross. Suffer the little children.
So I’m trying to work out just what Captain Lancaster is up to here. Does he know that Christina/William have the potion of his dreams? Is it their magical power he is after? We can assume he wants to be white so that his opportunities are greater. He most certainly could not be the police captain or the leader of the Sons of Adam as a black man. His two henchmen know the truth though, which makes me wonder—are they not the racists that they make themselves out to be, but actually trying to infiltrate both organisations from the inside? It seems unlikely. Lancaster is a truly nasty piece of work. He was providing African Americans to Hiram Epstein after all. But what if Epstein’s experiments were conducted to help black people? Unfortunately, many of the greatest medical discoveries have been made while experimenting on animals and humans. Of course, it doesn’t sit right with us, but where would civilisation be without them? There are moral dilemmas a-plenty in this strange case.
We didn’t see a whole amount of Tic and Leti this episode, and I enjoyed that. Not that I don’t like the characters, it was just good to focus on other people. Montrose waits pensively for Tic to discover that Yahima is gone. It takes Leti a lot longer to catch on that he hadn’t just let her go, but that he had taken her life. In a rage Tic beats his father to a pulp, leaving one of his eyes so puffed up he reminded me of when your character gets stung by wasps in Animal Crossing.Assuming that Montrose destroyed the scrolls that they went to such lengths to find in last weeks episode, Tic races to Leti’s darkroom to see the pictures she took. Being able to decipher some of the letters from the engraving on his Sons of Adam ring, he and Leti begin to put pieces together of this secret language.
I fear for Atticus though. Like Bilbo Baggins, he is drawn to the power behind the ring. He is able to empathise with his father’s actions, thinking that he did what he could to protect his family. But is the murder of an innocent ever okay? No, is the correct answer. And if Tic really believed that his father was trying to protect him, then he should stop getting deeper involved in magic. Hanna, his grandmother, seven generations on, visits him in a dream, clearly warning him about his future choices. In the dream, she looks back at him as she flees the burning Lodge, and watches Atticus burst into flames, just as Titus Braithwhite did. If Tic abuses the power he will wield, he will get burned. Leti and Tics relationship steps up a notch in the passion department, but she is disappointed with his defence of Montrose after killing Yahima.
All beat up and weary, Montrose goes to visit the bar owner Sammy, and we learn that Tree was telling the truth about the two men being in a relationship. The question of consent rises again here. On the surface, you might think the way that Montrose forces himself onto Sammy to be quite violent. But this is exactly what they both want. Sammy enjoys it, and the love between them is abundantly clear. Unlike the way that Paul tried to take Tamara against her will or the way that Christina tricked Ruby, the sex between these two men was rough but consensual. Montrose struggles with his identity as a gay man and it has been a secret carried for many years. I imagine that Tic’s mother and George both knew the truth and protected him. It explains why Montrose was OK with his brother having an affair with his wife. It looks more likely then that George was Tic’s real father, but kept the secret to keep his brother safe. The decriminalisation of homosexuality did not happen until 27 July 1967, and being a black gay man would have been twice as hard—the kind of thing that would get you lynched.
Hidden away safely at the back of the club that Sammy performs in as a Drag artist, Montrose begins to loosen up a little, safe in the company of others like him. He watches Sammy as he wins second place, gorgeously parading his beauty, confident to show others his true self. It is the inspiration Montrose needs to let go. There in that club at that moment, he is free. Truly free to live in the skin he is in as a queer black man. These scenes are so gorgeous, like a Baz Lurhman film, as Montrose is lifted into the air with golden glitter falling around him. Glorious, moving, inspirational, I shed a tear of joy. Something awful is going to happen to them isn’t it? This is Lovecraft Country, and life is not fair here.
There were some really great shots in this episode, like the butterfly landing on Hilary’s newspaper as she sat in the park feeling fancy and confident. Also, in two very similar shots, one at the beginning as William helps Ruby out of her Hilary suit, a newsreader talks about a plague of locusts on the television. Similarly as Ruby sodomises Paul with her stiletto heel, a television plays a shot of a man dumbfoundedly gawping at himself in the mirror, not quite sure what to make of himself.
What would Ruby think if she saw herself in a mirror right at that moment? She has become a reflection of the monster she was trying to beat. When Christina suggested that Ruby should do something more with her white privilege, she could have done more than exact revenge on one man. She really could change the way people of colour were perceived by being a white woman actively encouraging black women to work for her, making progressive changes to allow people of all races to live in harmony together, for example. I think that is the point being made here; racism is a problem that white people need to fix, black people are the victims, not the cause.
Right at the end Tic deciphers something from the text which I think suggests he will die or needs to die. He runs to the phone and calls the woman (Ji-ah?) in Korea. Unlike the last time, he speaks to her, asks her how she knew. So now we have to wonder what happened in the war.
I admit that at this point, I am not entirely sure where the plot is headed. Tic needs to learn about his legacy but how are the others involved? Lovecraft Country seems to be more than a show highlighting the horrors of racism, sexism, homophobia and ageism, its about accepting who you are, your history, your future and learning to love the skin you’re in.
Final thought of the episode: Will Ruby tell anyone about the man hanging in Captain Lancaster’s closet? Who could she tell? How did she get out of there? Let’s see if we find out more about him next week or if he will just end up being a skeleton in Lancaster’s closet.