The History of Violence episode of Lovecraft Country ended with some problematic choices. This week kicks off with the fruition of Ruby’s own poor choice to sleep with William as she wakes up as a white woman. The title of this week’s episode is Strange Case, a direct reference to The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. As the episode’s title card emerges we see a graphic depicting the transformation of a swarm of butterflies into a face in profile. A story of transformation, perhaps not just for Ruby but many characters. Who are they uninterrupted, as Christina will put it later. This week the show continues to excel with its effects work and some striking stand alone sequences while continuing to stumble with some characters.
We find Ruby, in a white body played by Jamie Neuman (a dual role as she played our casual racist, shotgun-toting villager Dell in episode 2) shocked to find black people and white police officers treating her differently. A boy accidentally bumps into her and a cop car comes screeching to the curb. Ruby, in her new body, immediately strikes the position she is used to assuming when the police arrive. Her arms spring into the air before realizing she’s being treated with respect is prime Lovecraft Country. The economy of showing so much historical oppression in seconds and the levels that surround it is incredibly effective. Predictably though, the officer is seconds away from killing the boy until she intervenes. He reassures her this “animal” can’t hurt her anymore.
Ruby is escorted into the police car and is informed she is being ushered back to her “husband” who has told them she needs medication because she has “fits.” The turn from one level of oppression to find there’s another is just expertly handled here to the creepy playing of Tonight You Belong to Me by Patience and Prudence as William carries her against her will back into the home she had just escaped. The real horror begins as William splits her open on some serial killer plastic, disemboweling Ruby in as gruesome of a scene present in this show so far as a single eyeball twitches inside the white Ruby’s throat.
Next, the show cuts back to Montrose as Leti and Tic return to find him literally with blood still on his hands. Yahima is gone and so are the pages. Tic loses it and levies an absolute brutal beating on his father. It’s immediately obvious that Tic is dead set on murdering Montrose. Which, if we assume Tic knows he murdered Yahima, we could probably forgive his emotion. But it isn’t Yahima’s death that sets him off. It’s clearly the missing pages. The subsequent scene makes this even clearer. This choice makes what happened last week even more troublesome as Yahima’s character clearly means less to these characters and these writers than missing exposition. Not a good look for Montrose, Atticus, or Lovecraft Country.
This is followed by Atticus screaming at Leti downstairs about possible pictures of the missing pages. As Tic’s rage subsides we see that Leti is clutching a bat as he runs back upstairs, presumably a defensive weapon if Tic turns his violence toward her. Our hero.
We cut back to Ruby, who finds herself back in her real body with a nude William dropping some of that exposition on us with ramblings about butterflies, research mumbo jumbo, stealing ideas from Hiram Epstein, and Ruby learning that magic exists. She also learns about the possibility of repeating the transformation. William drops a small vile on the desk before departing. What are you going to do, Ruby?
We don’t wait long to find out. We are treated to the show’s signature move; an incredible montage with a fantastic voiceover. This week it’s an excerpt from Ntozake Shange’s 1976 piece For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf as Ruby, now white “Hillary,” takes to the street getting free ice cream, reading uninterrupted, just living her best life free of the harassment she is so used to. For any complaint against the show, it does find a unique, stylish approach in handling an exposition slog. A couple scenes handle the heavy lifting and open the rest of the show to the opportunity to have beautiful, human moments like these.
Back in her own body, Ruby is getting sponged bathed by William while being told that he really does have a favor to ask to be named later. This is sweetened a little as William works his magic tongue as the devil does, convincing Ruby that she needs to take this opportunity. So, we find Ruby transformed again into Hillary at the Marshall Fields while Cardi B’s Money plays. Last week, when she discovered Tamara had taken the position, we got Leikeli47’s Money. Not sure what the show is trying to say about the comparison of those two songs but it won’t be the last time we hear Cardi B in this episode.
We move into the boss’ office as Mr. Hughes (David Stanbra) is falling all over himself to hire Hillary based on the identical criteria Ruby had been turned down for multiple times. She’s offered a job as assistant manager as she hasn’t turned her nose up at dealing with a colored girl like Tamara, as some of the previous employees have.
There’s a few interesting items here to sort through. Mr. Hughes drops this line in reference to the hiring of Tamara:
“Corporate aren’t race crusaders. They’re just after that all mighty dollar.”
This is a less subtle nod, but one that’s even more important, especially in the face of the pushback of corporations using empty Black Lives Matter slogans. We see this isn’t a new strategy. Under capitalism empty wokeness is the status quo if it fills the pockets of white CEOs.
A second point of interest in this scene is how Ruby as Hillary starts to turn back into her former self during the very informal interview process. This flourish may be a gesture to how black people feel like they are forced into performative roles in the workplace through code switching. As the scene ends, the white boss gives affable head nods and overly generous hugs, Ruby running from the office as her bones crack and the transformation begins. Fear spreads across her face as she may emerge in her true body at any moment and be less palatable to the be speckled smug Mr. Hughes.
The show returns focus to Montrose as he’s shown arriving at Sammy’s (Jon Hudson Odom) apartment. Sammy is the bar owner referenced last week by Tree whom we saw receiving fellatio in an alley in episode 1. They engage in rough, unromantic sex, which in comparison to the romantic heterosexual intercourse we see between Leti and Tic earlier, seems like another misstep by this show. There are implications that Montrose is still not coming to terms with his identity but the scene seems like one more mistake with this character and it really leaves me hoping we can be done with Montrose in this show. It’s a shame as Michael K. Williams is magnificent as always and there's still slight hope that he will have the opportunity to reckon with his actions later in the season. For me though, Lovecraft Country dug too deep a hole for this character even for Williams to dig his way back to level ground.
Back to Ruby, as Hillary. She’s in deep with Tamara, the counter attendant from last week and the one black employee at Marshall Fields. This is another interesting turn as she learns that Tamara doesn’t have nearly the qualifications she does. The jealousy and infighting forced upon them as the limitations of opportunity caused by white supremacy is really subtly done in this moment and superbly acted by Jaime Neuman who, in a strange almost metatextual turn, actually is directly stealing opportunities from Wunmi Mosaku as she grapples with the situation’s gravity. The show’s strategy becomes somewhat clearer as we move into the break room to witness the politics and infighting between the white women floor supervisors. They talk disparagingly about Tamara, Hillary is shamed for dancing with her hips too much like a black girl, and we are given a second nod at Mr. Hughes’s sexual harassment. There’s always another level of oppression.
This culminates in the girls asking Hillary to speak to Tamara about taking them on “safari” to the south side of Chicago. There is a long standing history of white people traveling into black communities to “slum it” because of the sexualization of black people, which we see in a later bar scene. It makes Hillary uncomfortable, but she has to reluctantly accept.
As the group leaves work we find William waiting outside for Hillary. The other girls gawk at how handsome he is, but he’s really there to let Ruby in on what’s owed to him. He needs Ruby to attend a party, as a serving girl in the Police Captain’s lodge party. All this in front of a mural of Double Mint Gum. Cute.
And so Ruby is handing out canapes at the party, listening, observing, and waiting for Christina who’s shown up late, to let her know she needs Ruby to slip a magic rune into the police captain's office. Ruby again reluctantly agrees after finding out the captain had nearly killed William but Christina saved him and this is their revenge. Seems like poor Ruby just can’t win.
Leti and Tic aren’t having such a great time themselves, as they are trying to decipher the Book of Adam from the pictures Leti was able to uncover. Could be that one of the pages might translate as Tic’s initials. All this while Leti learns that Yahima was murdered. Evidently she thought she was just roaming the streets somewhere? And then, upon learning this, Leti immediately blames the book for infecting Montrose? Yeah, no, not buying that one Leti, sorry.
Back at the lodge Ruby breaks into the office and plants the magic rune and finds herself hiding in a closet with a bleeding, half-dead man, as the captain returns with his goons. Also, it’s hard to see, but it seems the captain is doing some transforming of his own as he appears to have a black torso? Whelp, maybe we will get an answer to that in another episode as this scene is strangely edited as we cut directly back to the department store with Ruby already transformed back to Hillary. I mean, I don’t need everything explained to me, but it might be nice to find out how Ruby escaped from the closet.
It’s almost all forgiven as we are treated to the funniest moment of the episode, as Hillary is losing her shit on Tamara who can’t pair the shoes correctly with the proper dress:
“You want to be a credit to your race? You got to be better than mediocre. And you wanna know why? Because white folk are even more fucked up than you think they are! They have shit you can’t even imagine!”
She’s near screaming as Mr. Hughes walks up to them to try to defuse the situation. It’s hilarious to think Ruby believes that every white person is some wizard who bleeds people to death in their closets. The interaction also forces Hillary to change the subject by offering to go to the south side with Tamara.
This leads us to a cross cutting sequence of two scenes at different bars. The first is the Marshall Fields gang “slumming it” with the white girls grinding on the black guys and Mr. Hughes eagerly charging the dance floor in pursuit of what he’s after. Hillary, disgusted, opts out into the alleyway, where she chooses not to take the potion as she begins to transform. A bloody, skin shedding, act that would make Cronenberg stand up off his couch and shout. It’s awesome. Our now blood and guts covered, back to her original body, Ruby hears a noise as she sees Mr. Hughes attempts to sexually assault Tamara, unleashing his inner full racism screaming the N word at her as she flees the scene.
The other bar scene is set in a magnificent looking establishment where we find Montrose being coaxed from his own pupa, in the midst of a magnificent looking drag show. He’s slowly overwhelmed by the incredible looking costumes, direction, dancing, acting, not to mention the music choice of Lonely World by Moses Somney, which breaks him down and opens his heart until he’s lifted above the crowd. It’s really a fantastic scene, even if for me it falls short on me being able to fully take this journey with this character.
Back at William’s house, Ruby has come home bloody and exhausted and instead of William she finds Christina. The two share a conversation about the false disillusionment of white women. Christina assures her she agrees while pointing to the true power Ruby has been gifted. The ability and freedom to not give a fuck.
This leads Hillary to return to Marshall Fields, for, in my opinion another huge misstep for this show. It’s a revenge sequence, where Hillary ties up Mr. Hughes and punishes him for his racism and sexual violence with a dose of her own sexual violence to Cardi B’s Bodak Yellow playing in the soundtrack:
“These expensive/These is red bottoms/These is bloody shoes”
Cardi raps as Hillary jams the stiletto heels of the shoes her co-workers coaxed her into trying on earlier, into the ass of Mr. Hughes. All the while Hillary’s skin sheds as Ruby becomes herself.
I have many problems with this. One, sexual violence isn’t justice. Ever. It’s a really bad trope that a show that predicates itself on wokeness probably shouldn’t be employing. Secondly, I don’t usually invoke the book in these reviews, as I promised I wouldn’t in the first article, but there’s a passage from the book during the chapter that covers Ruby’s transformation story. The passage discusses the episode's namesake The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, hypothesizing that Dr. Jekyll was really Mr. Hyde all along and the entire enterprise was simply an excuse to be himself. If that’s true, are we saying Ruby is really the monster all along? After all, we find Hillary becoming Ruby at this moment. This combined with Hillary’s treatment of Tamara could all be interesting plot points. But they can’t overcome the text of the scene as we watch Ruby, glorious, jam a heel into a man’s bloody ass before she struts away with her chin held high. It really feels like for the first time the show is losing the messages that were so clear just two weeks ago with Leti and the Winthrope house.
In the last couple of scenes we get Atticus confirming with Leti that he wants to emerge as a better man, a man that loves Leti. We also learn the name of Atticus’s girlfriend in Korea as he discusses what he left behind in war. Her name is Ji-Ah and he lets us know the relationship ended...strangely. We will be back with her much sooner than expected though, but not before Leti and Tic discuss their parents and their attempts to break the cycle of their heritage to become their own, better people. It seems as if the only loving couple we might get on this show is Leti and Tic. It really makes me miss what George and Hippolyta had together in that first episode.
This moment of sweetness gives way to Ruby witnessing a reveal we expected since last week as William transforms into Christina before our eyes. Her face literally rips through Williams in some awesome gruesome moments for the episode and we are left to wonder what’s in that locked basement Ruby can’t get into. Maybe we’ll find out next week.
But we aren’t quite done yet. We’re back with Tic, who seems like he has had a breakthrough with the cypher. He rushes to the phone and calls up his Ex in Korea, who evidently has known something all along. We see that the cypher spells D-I-E. Is this about Uncle George? Is Atticus going to die? Someone else? I think we may find that out quickly as it appears we may get some stories based on his time in Korea, the biggest departure from the book yet. I’m excited to see where this goes, especially as leaving the country entirely might give us a chance to hopefully leave some of the show’s more problematic elements behind.