LOVECRAFT COUNTRY, Episode 5: “Strange Case”

Interesting Idea, Terrible Execution

Critics love to be mean…it’s not true, but there’s certainly a large crowd of folks out there who think that a critic’s day isn’t made until they’ve been able to savage something others have poured their hearts and souls into. In fact, it’s the opposite: it’s really difficult to savage something over and over (especially if you have a word count to hit) because there’s only so many ways to say something is terrible without resorting to obscure language from the thesaurus.

Lovecraft Country is a book I greatly enjoyed and thought was a long time coming in terms of someone wrestling with the actual racial issues inherent in the still-lauded work of ol’ Howard Phillips, but the show has been a mixed bag. Never more mixed than now in “Strange Case,” an episode presumably named for Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (where it takes its A plot from), an episode with three credited writers who apparently raised no flags amongst each other over the mess they hashed out. 

The A plot of the episode concerns Ruby, reeling after her night with William, where she wakes up to discover she’s in a reverse Watermelon Man scenario: something has turned her into a white lady played by Jamie Neumann, who played Dell in the first episodes and returns here as Ruby’s white persona, Hillary (in case you were wondering how on the nose the references would be). Ruby understandably freaks out until she goes running into the streets where none of her South Side neighbors recognize her and she gets rescued by two racist cops who want to start busting the heads of teens whom they assume have attacked this disoriented white lady. She gets dropped off back with William who, when she starts to bubble and writhe, plunges a knife into her as she lays supine on a floor covered in painter’s plastic. It’s the first, and least grotesque, scene of what will be an outrageous body horror transformation throughout the episode: every time Ruby starts to revert from her Hillary persona, she literally bursts and tears her way out of the other flesh which puddles at her feet in a bloody heap of skin.

Taking advantage of her abilities to live as a white lady, she spends a free day (and when I mean free, I mean free) as every white person just gives her things simply by virtue of them having the corresponding lack of melanin. It’s like Eddie Murphy’s 1984 White Like Me bit on SNL, but played as if it’s real life. She eventually ends up becoming the assistant manager of the Marshall Field’s she wanted to work at as a counter girl just by playing up to the manager, Paul, with made up stories of her childhood in Maine based on a guess about a family photo she sees on his desk.

Tic, meanwhile, wondering where their poor intersex Arawak has gone from the last episode, beats the leaving hell out of Montrose when he realizes that he did something to their living prop. Montrose, in his turn, takes his frustrations out at a nearby seedy motel where he encounters a neighborhood gay man Tic saw being fellated in an alley by a stranger in an early episode. Closeted and fraught with all the feelings of a gay person of color, Montrose engages in grotesque, spit-lube, William Friedkin’s Cruising-style sex. If the episode left this story to end there, it might have been barely passable as an exercise in self-loathing. Except it doesn’t.

Ruby/Hillary has cozied up to her white co-workers, mostly by dancing (almost as good as a Black woman, wink) to their Pat Boone Tutti Frutti record while they try on the latest merchandise, taking their break in the stock room and dishing about how white bread their boss is. She hears them brag about how they talk to their fellow Black floor worker (it’s supposed to be a treat they call her a Negro and not the “impolite” word). Their dearest wish is to take advantage of the poor Black girl to make her tour them through Chicago’s South Side so they can feel safe experiencing the Black side of town. Ruby/Hillary eventually finds out the Black floor worker is far less educated than she is and takes out some of her personal frustrations in a way that sees her using her newfound whiteness to her advantage.

Montrose, meanwhile, is awkwardly hanging out with his gay lover and his lover’s friends who are prepping for a drag show, while listening to Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti (and though it makes a nice contrast with the earlier version of the song, it’s still extremely on the nose to have a roomful of Black men in drag soundtracked by this). Said friends make the point that the two men aren’t in a real relationship since they haven’t even kissed.

Ruby, doing a task for William in exchange for the vials of Jekyll juice he keeps giving her, plants a magick rune in the office of the police chief from the prior episode, a man who she sees has a Black chest grafted on Frankenstein-style in an even more explicit version of the premise of Get Out. She sees this while hiding in his closet with the body of a white man he’s been whittling parts off of, who ironically moans and screams because there’s a Black lady next to him. She takes the next day to try to scare the Black floor worker straight, now knowing just how depraved whites really are, but all she does is cause a ruckus that ends with her saving face by suggesting to the underling that she take them all on a tour of the South Side.

While on their trip through gin joints and music halls (one of her white co-workers calls the music “Groovy” using a well-known ‘60s phrase that seems jarring for the 1954 of the setting), she sees her boss threaten her Black co-worker in the alley outside when she won’t let him come onto her. Meanwhile, Montrose is enjoying his own party, a drag show at an all-Black nightclub where he’s eventually lifted into the air, covered in a rain of sequins, and ends his night by kissing his lover and cementing their relationship. It’d be lovely if Montrose’s spring awakening wasn’t preceded by him murdering an intersex person in cold blood (thus setting up the aberrant nature of gays in a psychological exercise seemingly out of Victorian times) and then having ugly, unloving sex, but Tic’s black eye and this coming out party is the “comeuppance” the writers chose to give him. When the next scene is that of Ruby/Hillary setting her boss up by coming onto him at work, strapping him down, then violently jackhammering a stiletto heel up his anus as blood spurts out, it makes the show’s disdain for the LGBT community stark.

Ruby, having transformed back to her old self, returns to William’s home just in time to see William go through his own transformation back into Christina who steps out of her newly shed skin. It’s an unnecessary complication (unlike the book having the singular Braithwaite son, Caleb) made even more fraught by the show’s handling of LGBT issues. And simply on a story level, a potion that can change sex or race is not only bizarre, but calls to mind how many times Christina and William switched in basically every other scene at Braithwaite Manor in episodes 1 and 2. It leaves the viewer to wonder how many puddles of flesh Tic, George, and Leti just missed by a hair and how many peeled Hillarys the Chicago PD will end up finding around Marshall Field’s in Ruby’s wake.

But that needless confusion is perfectly emblematic of the show’s storytelling issues. Where they could’ve had a relatively straightforward Jekyll/Hyde-meets-Watermelon Man story, they decided to write it so over the top it’s funny but play it deadly serious while peppering in the story of a closeted gay murderer having a moment of deep personal growth. That none of the three writers brought this up as a negative is the worst of all. To be clear, this isn’t an adaptation issue: aside from the skeleton of the racial Jekyll/Hyde angle, these ideas are not from the book, but from the minds of the people writing this purportedly “woke” show.

Ruby/Hillary’s shoe moment, in an episode not about murderer Montrose having risky, violent gay sex, might have had the weight of Lisbeth Salander’s revenge against her guardian in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (I emphasize might since we barely know Ruby’s character and her boss had maybe all of 5 minutes screen time). As it is, it follows immediately on the triumphal moment of a man coming out of the closet, nastily punctuating that with another man’s anus being graphically destroyed on camera.

It’s the kind of scene that’s hard to watch, utterly bizarre to write about, and indicative of this show’s view on the LGBT community for two episodes now, following last week’s pointless murder of the intersex Arawak. It undercuts the horror of Lovecraft’s extreme xenophobia by making these things gross and fearful on their own, and it ends up a shame. Whatever was going through the writing team’s head as they concocted this awful episode is a strange case indeed.