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‘Lovecraft Country’ Recap: To Shape a Butterfly

In “Strange Case,” many characters hide their identities, but only some embrace their true selves in the process

HBO/Ringer illustration

“Strange Case,” the fifth episode of Lovecraft Country, begins like a nightmare. A white woman wakes from her slumber on a set of purple satin sheets. We’ve seen this woman before—in Ardham, guarding the dungeon that held Montrose. We’ve also seen this woman die. When she opens her eyes for the first time and looks down at her skin, she panics and runs to a mirror in shock. She moves awkwardly, as if her limbs are alien. She gasps for air. She slaps her face. “Wake up, Ruby,” she says. “Wake up.”

The events of the episode are set in motion in its opening moments. Tic and Leti begin their day blissfully unaware of Montrose’s brutal killing of Yahima, the two-spirit person who the group found on Titus’s ship, but Tic soon realizes the extent of his father’s actions and snaps, beating him to within an inch of his life. Christina—fresh off a failed attempt to capture Hiram Epstein’s orrery—is once again maneuvering in the background, purposefully obscuring her machinations. As for Leti’s sister Ruby, who should be recovering from a one-night stand with the-butler-who’s-not-a-butler (his name is apparently William), something has, obviously, gone wrong.

After the opening credits we see Ruby, somehow transplanted into this foreign body, wandering the streets in a nightgown. She accidentally bumps into a young boy and sirens begin to blare. As police approach she raises her hands, but the officers pay her little mind. They slam the boy against the hood of their car and then into the pavement. She tells them that the boy was just trying to help her and they take her into their patrol car. In the vehicle she begins to experience spasms, and the officers assure her that they are bringing her to her “husband.”

By the time the officers deposit her to William, the “husband” to which they were referring to, she is writhing in pain. “Stop fighting, you’re only slowing the process,” he admonishes her as they enter his home. A TV bulletin about a swarm of African cicadas echoes in the background. A bulge appears beneath the surface of Ruby’s now-white skin. William grabs her by the feet and pulls her onto a plastic mat. As the program describes the molting habits of cicada larvae, he brings the full force of a knife down on Ruby’s body and rips her open like a husk of corn.

“Strange Case” is a tale of metamorphosis. The dictionary defines a metamorphosis as “a striking alteration in appearance, character, or circumstances.” Nowhere in this definition is a mention of intent, and the reason why is simple: A metamorphosis is not defined by its motivation. It is a process that can be consent-full or consent-less; beneficial or toxic. In the context of Lovecraft Country, what is most important about the phrase, is that—at its core—it is simply another word for a journey. And a journey is what you make of it.

When we next see Ruby she is back in her own body, but still in William’s house. While she feigns sleep, he tells her that magic is real and that her transformation was the result of a serum that he created with the help of Hiram Epstein. After initially demurring, Ruby uses the serum again. Her newfound appearance provides her with access to the fruits of white womanhood in America; before she was a threat, now she is a prize to be protected. But even with this power, Ruby is still consumed by the bitterness of her previous station. Instead of using her position to assist Tamara, the only other Black employee at a department store, Ruby undermines and harangues her. It is only after she sees their white manager, Paul, attempt to assault Tamara that Ruby realizes the error in blaming her for a system that disregards both of their beings. Her metamorphosis is complete when she seduces Paul and tortures him as punishment for his anti-Black misogyny.

At the same time that Ruby is undergoing her change, Tic is in the process of something similar. He is haunted by Montrose’s rage, but his response to his father’s actions is fueled by that very same source. After attacking Montrose, Tic lashes out at Leti, angrily demanding she give him any photos of Titus’s lost pages (in addition to killing Yahima, Montrose also destroyed the text). Later in the episode Tic and Leti reconcile, but only after he reflects on his actions. “That violence that’s in [Montrose] I thought it wasn’t, could never be, in me but I found it in the war,” he says. Tic’s time in the Army gave him agency, put a gun in his hand, and allowed him to escape his father—for the first time in his life he wasn’t the one taking the punches. But now that he’s back home, Tic has struggled with confronting the roots of his newfound power. Just like Ruby, he’s trying to find a path to liberation without losing himself in the process.

Whether Tic’s assault ends up pushing his father down a healthier (or at least less-murderous) path remains to be seen, but for most of “Strange Case” it does at least drive Montrose to grapple with himself. After their fight, Montrose turns to his lover, Sammy, for comfort. Bound by the rigid social confines of 1950s America, Montrose has hidden his true self from the world. In “Strange Case” he decides to stop hiding. Maybe seeing his son wielding a similar rage to the one he holds inside of himself pushed Montrose over the edge; maybe he was merely looking for someone to make him feel better, to dull the pain. Maybe it was both. In any case, Montrose’s response to Tic’s actions is to unveil himself. In Sammy he sees a man who is fearless in his identity, unbound by the flawed world they inhabit. By the end of the episode, Montrose looks like he’s chosen to become the same way.

In the next to last scene in “Strange Case,” we see that Christina has been masquerading as William all along. It is in an act that mirrors the perils and privileges on display throughout the episode. On one hand, Christina is manipulating Ruby—she is posing as “William” as a way to gain Ruby’s trust and coerce her. And yet at the same time Christina is using William’s body to gain power for herself, power that she would not normally have access to, just as Ruby does earlier in the episode. But while Ruby realizes that her privileges mean nothing if others can be plundered, Christina seems to care only about furthering herself. She is the ultimate reminder, to all of these characters, and to us: A journey is what you make of it.

Open Mic: The Immortal Words of Ntozake Shange

As Ruby ventures through downtown Chicago in her white body for the first time, a poem plays in the background. It is an excerpt from Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf.” Released in 1976, “For Colored Girls...” is a choreopoem—a term coined by Shange to describe a combination of theatrical techniques that include dance and poetry—whose nameless main characters are described simply by the color of their dresses. Performed for years on and off Broadway, the play is a rumination on gendered racism, Black femininity, and liberation. In “Strange Case” the poem we hear is “dark phases”:

“somebody/ anybody / sing a black girl’s song / bring her out / to know herself / to know you / but sing her rhythms carin/ struggle/ hard times / sing her song of life / she’s been dead so long / closed in silence so long / she doesn’t know the sound / of her own voice / her infinite beauty / she’s half-notes scattered / without rhythm / no tune / sing her sighs / sing the song of her / possibilities / sing a righteous gospel / let her be born / let her be born / & handled warmly”

That last line in the poem, “& handled warmly,” is particularly important in the context of Lovecraft Country. After a lifetime of boundaries imposed by a society equal parts racist, patriarchal, and coloristic, in “Strange Case,” Ruby possesses a truly recognized form of social power: white womanhood. With her new body she has access to freedom of movement, freedom from (a certain kind of) violence, and freedom to labor. For the first time in her life, Ruby holds enough power to simply be; to exist not as an affront to the existing hierarchies that govern American lives, but as proof to their “righteous” magnitude. With her new body she can—at least temporarily—be, as Shange says, “handled warmly.”

History Lesson: Passing

In December of 1848, a man and a woman went to a train station in Macon, Georgia. Their status was a quintessentially American paradox: They were married but could not, at least legally speaking, belong to each other. They were enslaved people. They met when they were teenagers. Their names were Ellen and William Craft.

Until she was 11, Ellen lived and toiled on a plantation in Clinton, Georgia. Her father was her owner, and as a result she had very fair skin. Sometimes visitors to the plantation would even assume she was part of the white family. The mistress of the plantation hated it and convinced Ellen’s father to give her away to her daughter, Ellen’s half-sister, as a wedding gift. William was born in Macon and worked as a cabinetmaker for much of his early years. At 16 he was auctioned off to settle his master’s debts and watched as his 14-year-old sister was dragged away to a different owner. That was the same day he met Ellen.

At the train station they had a plan—they would escape. William convinced Ellen to pose as a white man, a cotton planter, while he pretended to be her slave. William cut Ellen’s hair so that it barely passed her earlobes and she wore men’s pants that she had sewn herself by hand. To avoid any close inspections she wrapped her neck in bandages and donned a top hat. To hide the fact that she could not write they put her arm in a sling. And after a long and trying journey from Macon to Savannah and up through the eastern seaboard, they were successful; Ellen Craft shepherded them to freedom by passing for white.

People have leveraged the ability to pass between American social boundaries since the very moment those boundaries were created in the first place. In American literature passing is a well-trodden theme. Historically, tales about racial passing have centered on biracial women, known canonically as “Tragic Mulattos,” who struggle with the burdens of multiracial identity in a white world. In her second book, Passing, Harlem Renaissance author Nella Larsen explored these themes and more. Her narrative deepened and expanded the genre, illuminating the ways passing can be a cross-cutting phenomenon that occurs wherever a people are excluded from power.

In “Strange Case,” we see much the same. Throughout the episode Ruby uses the white body that “William” has provided her to move between worlds, to access power. At the same time, Montrose and Christina are, in their own ways, leveraging similar tools. But what we see Ruby specifically struggle with is the fact that her new mien is little more than a veil to fool the world. And no matter how frequently she cocoons herself in it, her white skin will not change the terms of that world. Passing is not the same as being, and magic cannot erase reality.

One Lingering Question

“Strange Case” leaves us with a multitude more questions than answers—was that Tic’s ex that he was calling at the end? And what was it he translated?—but the single most important query I have after this gross-ass episode is this: Where does all the skin go?! Ignoring the toll that molting would have on a human body in terms of blood loss, is no one concerned with leaving piles of skin all over Chicago? The first time that Ruby molts it’s within the confines of William/Christina’s home, so I guess I’m willing to believe that she has some sort of plan to get rid of the excess … uh … Ruby … that’s just laying around everywhere. Where I draw the line though is on the second molt, the one that happened after Ruby’s interview in the department store. Are you telling me that a human being is shedding her entire epidermis in a service elevator during the middle of a work day and no one is noticing the after effects? There was no mat. There were no cleaning supplies. That elevator would look like a fucking war zone.

And speaking of, what type of cleanup effort is going on here? After Ruby molts in the alley behind Denmark Vesey’s Bar, we see her sitting on a couch in William/Christina’s house and it looks like she brought her old skin home with her. Seriously, there’s a shot with her just lounging next to her old skin; there are even eye holes left in the face like a halloween mask. Surely that couch is ruined now.

I sat through aryan-wizards that fed their friends tiny, uncooked pieces of their own livers and I did not object. I watched a sheriff show no signs of pain after getting his arm bitten off by a monster and I did not complain. I have seen ghosts with baby-sized heads affixed to adult bodies like the misfit toys from Sid’s room in Toy Story, and I just kept watching. This is where I draw the line. WHAT HAPPENS TO THE SKIN?????