Lovecraft Country Episode 5: “Strange Case”

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Halfway through the season, Lovecraft Country shifts its attention away from its main characters, Tic and Leti, to Leti’s sister Ruby (played by Wunmi Mosaku). The title “Strange Case” alludes to one of the most famous tales of duality in the history of literature, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a tale of transformation as a means to self-revelation.

jamie-neumann-0-1600103255In last week’s episode, Ruby encountered a handsome white man in a local bar. The audience knows that he is William, an ally to the Braithwhites. But Ruby merely knows that he is the man that she wants to spend the night with after a particularly bad day. As Episode 5 begins, a woman wakes up in bed. It’s Ruby, and she’s shocked to discover that she woke up as a white woman. As she wanders the streets of her neighborhood in a confused daze, a black boy approaches and tries to help. The police quickly descend upon him, convinced that he has harassed or assaulted the white woman at his side. Ruby calls them off, explaining that the boy was trying to help. When the cops listen to her, despite her disheveled and disoriented state, Ruby understands the power of her newfound whiteness. Initially horrified by the change, Ruby becomes intrigued when William reveals that it is temporary, the result of a magic potion. Painfully, her natural, black form literally tears the white skin to reveal the true Ruby when the potion wears off, much as a butterfly tears out of its cocoon. William offers Ruby regular access to the potion, in exchange for a favor. What would Ruby do if she had the ability to turn into a white woman whenever she chose?

Meanwhile, Montrose (the always excellent Michael K. Williams) is undergoing his own transformation, perhaps born out of the grief for his killing of Yahima, and the resulting outrage from his son. Certainly, Montrose’s journey in Episode 5 also stems from the accumulated frustration, anger, and rejection that has built up in his existence as a closeted queer black man. In this moment, Montrose, like Ruby, is tearing through a façade, except this one is of Montrose’s own making. In the company of his lover and other gender non-conforming people, Montrose is liberated to be the person he wants to be. It is a moment of revelation, rather than transformation, but I wonder if this freedom will last. Montrose still has to deal with the violence he has visited on Tic and on Yahima.

The interesting thing about “Strange Case” is that the transformations serve to reveal character (a la Jekyll and Hyde), but also to test character. Ruby knew white privilege existed, and this is confirmed for her when her white counterpart Hillary Davenport (played by Jamie Neumann) is instantly hired for a greater position than the one she applied for at the same store that had rejected Ruby. As she had explained in an earlier episode, Ruby has bought into the notion that hard work would gain her some measure of respect in the world (what we now call “respectability politics”). It is striking and somewhat heartbreaking that when confronted with the ability to wield magic, her big wish is to apply for a rather modest job. What she doesn’t realize is that all the hard work in the world will never erase some people’s perceptions that black folks are less qualified or capable. With her old ideas about advancement clashing with her new insider’s insight into white people, Ruby’s interactions with Tamara (Sibongile Mlambo) are all over the place. She resents Tamara for being the first black woman hired at the department store, especially in light of the fact that Tamara is less qualified and educated than Ruby, but she also resents that everyone treats Tamara as an inferior due to her race. Ruby is also keenly aware that as a white woman, she remains a WOMAN, which means she is subject to the whims of white men around her, like her store manager, or the cops who bring her “home” despite her protestations, acting on the orders of her “husband” William. As Hillary, she has achieved greater power and racial privilege, but she is still subject to male dominance. The series thus explores questions of gender, as well as race.

This brings us to the horrifying finale. When Ruby finally understands what she can achieve with the potion, she is free to do whatever she wants. The potion revealed to Ruby another way of life, one from which she had always been excluded. The biggest revelation, however, is what the potion revealed about Ruby herself. How much rage lives in her body? How much violence? If granted unlimited freedom, as Dr. Jekyll achieved with his potion, would she choose to inflict violence upon others? The answer is shocking (and graphic).

Though relegated to the background, Tic also had a brush with his violent, hidden self. He experienced violence at the hands of Montrose as a child, and swore to become a better man than his father. The war in Korea did not make Tic more peaceful. When he realizes what his father did to Yahima and the pages that they risked their lives to find, Tic becomes enraged and almost beats Montrose to death, stopped only through Leti’s intervention. Luckily, Leti had photographed the pages. What answers will they yield? As the episode ends, Tic’s research compels him to make a call to Korea. What happened to Tic there, and how is it related to the Sons of Adam?

It seems we’ll find out more about Tic’s wartime experiences in next week’s episode. Check out the promo before you go:

 

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