Ruby gets a taste of how the other side lives in “Strange Case,” an aimless, disappointing episode.
Warning: don’t read until you’ve watched the entire episode!
I’m about to make a shocking observation that no other TV writer has made before: HBO has problems sticking the landing with its dramatic series. For every Watchmen, which was superior from beginning to end, you have The Outsider, which started strong, then lost its steam halfway through, with an ending as tired as Ben Mendelsohn looked. Yes, there’s Chernobyl, which was a relentless nightmare, but there’s also His Dark Materials, which, for all its high quality production design, had pacing that could be politely described as “glacial.” We’re at the halfway point of the season for Lovecraft Country, and while there’s still a lot to like about it, and plenty of time to get back on track, it’s starting to show some signs of struggling, trading in character development and plot cohesion for lurid “shock the normies” moments.
In the fifth episode, “Strange Case,” it’s quickly discovered that Montrose (Michael K. Williams) didn’t just kill Yahima, he destroyed the spell book pages he, Atticus (Jonathan Majors) and Leti (Jurnee Smollett) risked their lives to get in last week’s episode. Leti witnesses some of the rage Atticus has kept bottled up for so long. Oh, and Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) wakes up from her passionate night with William (Jordan Patrick Smith) transformed into a white woman.
Let’s start with that, since it’s the primary focus of the episode. “Transformed” isn’t exactly the right word — it’s more like she’s trapped inside another woman’s body, for a limited time before the skin gruesomely sheds away. In her other body (played by Jamie Neumann), Ruby is confused and distraught, but treated far more kindly and solicitously than the Black neighbors who try to help her. She’s also condescended to by the cops who buy without needing proof that William is her husband, in one of several attempts Lovecraft Country makes at comparing sexism to racism. It’s a weak argument, particularly when Christina (Abbey Lee) keeps using it to try to get Atticus and Leti on her side, and it’s my sincere hope that it’s dropped eventually.
William talks Ruby into continuing to take the potion he created for her, and she explores the white side of life like the alien planet it is, where everything is a little too friendly, with secret winks and free ice cream. It comes off like nothing so much as Eddie Murphy’s short film “White Like Me,” and while it’s funny, it’s a little creepy too, like everyone Ruby encounters is about to rip off their human faces to reveal that they’re actually lizard people.
Calling herself Hillary Davenport, Ruby returns to Marshall Fields, where, presenting the same credentials Ruby as herself offered for a job as a mere cashier, is hired and instantly promoted to assistant manager. This puts her in charge of Tamara (Sibongile Mlambo), the young girl who was chosen over Ruby as the single token Black employee, whom she treats with both protectiveness and resentment. She’s also forced to socialize with her vapid co-workers, who talk about the South Side of Chicago with equal parts fear and excitement, like it’s a fairy tale world with dragons and ogres. All this, while struggling to prevent William’s spell from reversing itself in a most grisly manner.
Meanwhile, in what’s the B-plot for this episode, Atticus, enraged at Montrose’s betrayal, beats him senseless and sets about trying to translate the spell book pages (which Leti cannily thought to photograph) on his own. Montrose soothes himself with the company of his secret lover: Sammy (Jon Hudson Odom), the bartender from back in the premiere episode. They have spit in the hand sex (ugh), but Sammy seems pretty into it, so, fine.
Not having read the book, I’m coming away from the reveal that Montrose is gay (or at least bi) with a puzzled shrug. It doesn’t seem particularly relevant to the plot, and if it serves as some hasty character dimension, it’s ill-served by being revealed immediately after Montrose has murdered someone. Surely a show so rich in potential, and so effective at mixing real-life horror and fantasy horror, can do better than making a male character angry and violent to mask his repressed homosexuality.
It’s starting to show some signs of struggling, trading in character development and plot cohesion for lurid “shock the normies” moments.
Later, Montrose attends a drag ball with Sammy, and though he initially looks miserable, soon he loosens up enough to dance and even kiss Sammy, something he was unwilling to do before. It’s a touching and tender moment, but it also feels like the lead-in to something terrible happening to Sammy. It also creates some level of confusion, since five episodes in we still don’t know how we’re supposed to feel about Montrose. That’s through no fault of Michael K. Williams, who gives his usual quietly powerful performance, but rather an issue with pacing. Yes, it’s very sweet that Montrose is able to live his truth when it comes to his feelings for Sammy, but he’s also a barely reformed abusive parent, and, oh yeah, a murderer. It’s likely that his misdeeds (at least the recent ones) are in service to protect Atticus, and not out of sheer malevolence, and eventually the truth will come out. But right now, this “see, he’s not such a bad guy” reveal is so clumsy and ham-handed that it borders on offensive.
After being told by William that she’ll be expected to do a “not inconsequential favor” in return for the spell, Ruby must appear as herself in full maid garb at a party hosted by Christina. Christina asks her to plant a carved rock in the office of the odious Captain Lancaster (Mac Brandt), who once shot William and left him for dead, hoping to take his place in line for leadership of the lodge. While hiding from Captain Lancaster, Ruby encounters a man chained up in a closet, still alive, but with his tongue cut out. Who is this guy? Who knows, but these people are almost comically evil. “White folks are even more fucked up than you think they are,” she warns Tamara, as Hillary. “They have got shit you can’t even imagine.” Honestly, as a white folk, I can’t disagree with her.
It isn’t quite clear why Ruby throws Tamara to the wolves by talking her into accompanying Ruby-as-Hillary, their insufferable co-workers, and their officious boss on a trip to the South Side, or why she quietly watches while her boss makes a violent pass at Tamara, who runs away. On the other hand, as Leti suggests when she learns that Montrose killed Yahima and destroyed the spell book pages, perhaps too much exposure to dark magic, even inadvertently, corrupts the soul. At any rate, Ruby takes the potion one more time, long enough to quit her job at Marshall Fields and rape her boss with a stiletto-heeled shoe.
I assume that I was supposed to view this scene while triumphantly pumping my fist, but all I could muster was an exasperated sigh. Surely a show that is so committed to being deliriously out there could do better than resorting to male rape as a shock tactic. Who knows, maybe it still is effective for male viewers, but women have been so inundated with rape imagery in pop culture that the impact is muted. That’s not to say that Ruby’s boss doesn’t deserve to be humiliated, because he absolutely does, but there are so many different ways “Strange Case” could have gone about it, while still being lurid and shocking. It’s weird to say that a show that began with literal Lovecraftian creatures eating people needed to try harder, but in this case, Lovecraft Country needed to try much harder.
Dispatches From Kingsport:
- “Strange Case” was capably directed by Cheryl Dunye, who wrote, directed and starred in the landmark queer film The Watermelon Woman. Whatever issues Lovecraft Country is having, it’s not with the directing or the acting.
- Speaking of acting, we get another great moment from hopeful future Emmy nominee Jonathan Majors, when he explains to Leti that despite his best efforts to not grow up to be like Montrose, “The violence that wasn’t in me, I found it, in the war.”
- Sammy reappearing isn’t the only callback to episode one: something that Atticus discovers while translating the spell book pages links back to the woman he called and subsequently hung up. He’s letting her talk now.
- Given the title of the episode, Ruby’s transformation is meant to evoke Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for me it resembled the body horror of The Fly, particularly when chunks of flesh fall away from her with an audible splat.
- It’d be nice if Leti and Atticus could have sex laying down in a bed, just once.
- Though evidently in the book Ruby’s white persona is a sexy redhead, here she’s just kind of regular looking. It’s a good move, as proof that the only thing required to get treated with some level of respect and dignity is just to be white.
- I don’t want to brag, but I absolutely called it when I said in last week’s recap that William and Christina are one and the same. Sometimes I get it right!