The fifth episode of Lovecraft Country, “Strange Case,” opens with an overhead shot of a white woman roused from a bed of satin sheets, staring blankly at her own reflection in the mirror. This comes as quite a shock to Ruby Baptiste, the woman in question, as not more than a night ago, she was a black woman. As predicted last week, this week’s episode of Lovecraft Country adapts “Jekyll in Hyde Park,” one of the more out-there chapters of Matt Ruff’s original novel. And considering all that we’ve seen from the series so far, that’s really saying something.
Though she hasn’t had as much screen-time as her sister Leti, we’ve gotten to know Ruby a bit through the time we’ve had with her. She’s a singer, a hustler; a woman who lives as hard as she works and who unerringly believes that the price of a black woman’s success in a white world is owed to nothing more than her own grit. “I’m willing to work harder than anybody else if that’s what it’s going to take,” she announces defiantly at a poker table in Lovecraft Country’s third episode, “Holy Ghost.” “Y’know, if more colored folk thought like me, the race would be a lot further along.”
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She clings to this belief — she has to — because if it weren’t true, then there would be no meaningful difference between the challenges Ruby has faced throughout her own life and the misfortunes suffered by her sister and mother. Rather than their own efforts, the course of their respective lives would instead be determined in no small part by the capricious whims of a predominantly white society that views their bodies with either charitable disdain, covetous hunger, or outright malice. What made the Old Gods of the Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos so terrifying was neither their immense magnitude nor even their inscrutable cruelty, but their apparent utter indifference to the plight of humanity’s search for meaning in the universe. It’s a fear that Ruby knows all too well from experience; one that, when confirmed, drives her reluctantly into the arms of a Faustian lover offering easy promises of comfort and salvation.
After discovering that she has transformed into a white woman, Ruby stumbles deliriously out of an alleyway in nothing but a bathrobe, as if into a dream. It’s not, at least not literally. And yet, as the episode progresses, Ruby’s experience unmistakably resembles one. “[The Dream] is perfect houses with nice lawns,” Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his 2015 book, Between the World and Me. “It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is treehouses and the Cub Scouts. The Dream smells like peppermint but tastes like strawberry shortcake.” And for Ruby, now a white woman in 1950’s America, the dream means the power to destroy a young black boy’s body and life with nothing save an affirming shrug to a nearby police officer, if she’s so inclined.
Whiteness is an invention, an especially pernicious and resilient one at that. It has existed in America for as long as there has been a need for an “other,” and for as long as there has been a desire to confer status upon those who benefit from it. “You misunderstood William’s invitation,” Christina Braithwhite tells Ruby in a heart-to-heart back at William’s Hyde Park mansion. “It wasn’t just to be white. It was an invitation to do whatever the fuck you want. That’s the currency of magic: unmitigated freedom.” Or to put it in other words, “Do What Thou Wilt” shall be the whole of one’s white privilege. Aleister Crowley would’ve been proud.
And so we watch Ruby, at first reluctantly, then happily resign herself to the freedoms of her newfound life. Narrated by Janet League’s reading of Ntozake Shange’s 1975 poem “Dark Phrases,” we see an idyllic montage of Ruby leisurely strolling through the streets of Chicago, “passing” as a white woman while League rhapsodizes a young black girl’s plea to be seen and heard. Everything comes so naturally to Ruby now, whether it be an ice-cream cone on a sunny afternoon or a promotion on her first day at a new job. All is well, at least until the potion that allows her to transform wears off. Suddenly, Ruby’s body betrays her, contorting itself in violent spasms as her flesh tears away from itself in bloodied mounds of steaming viscera. A butterfly shucking its cocoon.
The effect is grotesque — it’s supposed to be. The construction of whiteness, and the expectations heaped upon it, are a hideous creation borne out of the forces of chattel slavery and colonial xenophobia. As Ruby’s outward appearance is transformed by William’s potion, so too is she transformed from within for having internalized the prejudices of whiteness in an effort to grasp at a “better” life. “Strange Case’s” depiction of the performative nature of race and gender is less Nella Larsen’s Passing, more David Cronenberg’s The Fly. It’s a visceral, physical depiction of how people of color and gender-nonconforming individuals have had to constrain themselves to fit into a certain model of the world— only to feel torn apart in the process.
“You can’t relate to what I am,” Ruby hisses at Christina, chastising her presumptuousness. “And I’ve spent enough time on your side of the color line to know that the only thing you white women are disillusioned with is yourselves.” We eventually learn that William, far from simply Christina’s glorified gofer or presumed paramour, has in fact been her alter-ego this entire time; a living guise manufactured from a potion similar to one that has bestowed Ruby her whiteness. Christina is a conniving character, though no less tragic than either Atticus or his family and friends, born into a body not of her choice that nonetheless stymies her own ambitions. “I don’t know what is more difficult: being colored or being a woman.” Ruby tells William — Christina — in an early scene. That Christina was William this whole time, up to and including the point where she and Ruby spent the night together, brings home the episode’s larger point regarding the intersection between race, class, and gender.
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The revelation of Montrose’s physical and emotional relationship with Sammy the bar owner in this week’s episode offers not only additional insight to the nature of gender performance, but affords a deeper insight into what might have been the motivations behind his killing of the two-spirit character Yahima at the end of last week’s episode. Was Montrose trying to “protect” his son Atticus from discovering not only Titus’ lost pages, but the truth about his own father? We see Montrose enraptured in the joy of Sammy’s drag show, at ease in the tenderness of his lover’s embrace in a way we have never seen him before. Montrose’s pain doesn’t absolve him of the pain he’s inflicted on others, particularly Atticus or Yahima, but to see him in such a state of catharsis and relief is comforting, if only for a moment.
Atticus’ realization of Montrose’s deception and the killing of Yahima immediately reopens the rift between the two, inciting an act of violence that seems to surprise not only Leti, but Atticus himself. “That violence that’s in him, I thought wasn’t— could never be in me,” Atticus confides to Leti later that day at George’s old office. “I found it. In the war.”
A history of violence, passed down from father to son, tears through the Freeman family like a festering wound, threatening to deny Atticus not only any hope of healing and reconciliation, but of a better life with Leti. Just as the two reconcile once more and commit to building that life together, Atticus’ world is rocked by yet another revelation. The voice of a woman, first teased in “Sundown,” might possibly hold the answers to his questions— but at what cost to Atticus and his loved ones?