Episode 5 of Lovecraft Country, titled “Strange Case”, is very strange and very illuminating about the desires of several characters. But, given the previous entries’ utilization of pulpy fantasy and unusual metaphor, this may be the most straightforward episode to date. In the last episode, Ruby was being comforted by an opportunistic William. Shortly after realizing she couldn’t get the job she set her sights on, William promised her he could fix her problems for good. Fast forward to this episode where Ruby, after a rendezvous with William, wakes up in the body of a white woman. William has given her a potion that temporarily changes Ruby’s appearance, given her the opportunity to take advantage of her new form.
Understandably, she’s hesitant at first, creeped out and disgusted by this grotesque transformation (the episode goes heavy on the body horror). But the allure of social power is too enticing. Ruby takes the opportunity to become “Hillary”, and she ends up applying for her desired job at Marshall Fields. Except, now she’s offered the role of assistant manager, and she enjoys all the perks of being an upper class white woman in downtown Chicago. Ruby’s experience is one worthy of great discussion – how many of you would morph into something you’re not in order to seek it’s benefits? How many already benefit from this, whether it be related to colorism, sexuality, or politics?
But if Ruby has found herself in one lie, Montrose has been living several for awhile now. He’s been lying to his son, Atticus, regarding what he knows about the Book of Names, as well as Atticus’ heritage. Montrose feels he needs to protect Atticus from the Braithewaites, fearing the extent that magic and the ill-intentions of their white counterparts could have on his son. He even goes so far to kill Yahima, a woman who could translate the language of Adam and potentially lead Atticus to what he’s looking for. Montrose’s lies are used mostly for his son’s “benefit”, but they speak more to the cowardice of Montrose. Atticus is his own man and should be trusted to make his own decisions. But Montrose refuses to let Atticus explore his history.
But what is just as troubling is Montrose’s hidden sexuality. Granted, this is the 1950s, a drastically different time in society’s treatment of homosexuals. As a result, Montrose’s sexuality is hidden from not only society, but his son as well. After suffering a brutal beating from Atticus, due to his concealment of information regarding the Book of Names, Montrose finds solace in his lover (although I could have went an entire lifetime without seeing Montrose’s wad of spit before the tryst begins, thanks HBO!). Over the course of the episode, Montrose seems to grow more accepting of his sexuality. But its difficult to feel joy for him, given his murderous actions in the previous episode. Montrose’s eventual fate could either lead to redemption or end grimly; i wouldn’t be surprised by either.
But, the show’s most urgent development concerns Ruby’s relationship with William, and her revealing conversations with Christina Braithewaite. While Ruby is somewhat tolerant of the partnership with William, due to his access to the body-shifting potion, she suspects that something is going on that William isn’t telling her. As for Christina, its clear the determined Braithewaite wants Ruby to see the world from her eyes. They may be different races, but they’re both women, and Christina believes they can bond over a shared sense of oppression. She tried and failed to convince Letitia of this in the previous episode. But Ruby seems more receptive, if only because she experiences a whirlwind of power dynamics throughout the episode.
A common theme throughout the episode centers around how different classes of women relate to one another. Ruby, as “Hillary”, strikes up an interesting relationship with Tamara, the black Marshall Fields employee who nabbed her job before Ruby could apply as a black woman. Ruby initially urges Tamara to perform at her best, exclaiming that Tamara’s actions are representative of her race. However, Ruby’s strict mentorship turns into disdain when Tamara reveals she doesn’t have a high school diploma, and her highest level of education is the 7th grade.
Ruby’s credentials, even without the “aid” of being white, blow Tamara’s out of the water, causing resentment within Ruby that she has to go to these lengths to get a job. But despite her anger, she’s still disgusted when her white co-workers gossip behind Tamara’s back and label her with racially-charged insults. “Hillary” goes through a high-wire act of balancing her own desires of advancement with railing against the mistreatment of women, specifically black women. Its a complex test of character that speaks to the challenges one can find while navigating the workforce. Ultimately, we learn that Ruby, unlike her sister Letitia, is more willing to shed (figuratively and literally) who she truly is to gain greater social access. This reveal of character is complimented by a revelation about Christina that may prove Christina’s point – these two people aren’t as different as we previously thought.
“Strange Case” is a lot of fun because we get to see several characters outside of their comfort zones. Instead of relying on speeches that tell us what to think, the episode does a great job of dramatizing our characters’ goals and ideas, revealing a lot of bitter truths about society. Not every scene works (the violent subplot involving Ruby and her boss could have used a re-write, or been left on the cutting room floor). Also, not every character makes decisions we can root for. But that’s part of the excitement. Lovecraft Country, contrary to the near-perfect cinematography, is not a perfect show. Some of it’s attempts at revealing “truths” in our world are incredibly ham-fisted, and the structure of the plot can be a bit messy. But it swings for the fences, and truly feels like nothing else on television at the moment. Each week, we don’t know what to expect and that’s the draw. Sometimes, we need a little strange.