Lovecraft Country Recap: Under the Skin – Vulture

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Lovecraft Country

Strange Case
Season 1 Episode 5
Editor’s Rating 3 stars
Photo: HBO

“I guess I’ve just seen so much bad. I’m just trying to find something good.” When Leti says this, I feel her grief. In this episode and the last, we’ve watched these characters do some things that are extremely difficult to contend with. Leti is searching for something to help her make peace with the magical, violent world around her. As she told Atticus previously, “This is evil, it’s the devil’s tools, it is corruptin’ all of us.” And as the viewer, it’s difficult not to agree.

I felt icky after this episode. And I’m choosing to believe this is intentional, that it’s meant to be a difficult watch. When I first began “Strange Case,” I couldn’t stomach it. I had to fast forward, skip ahead, and make sure Ruby was alive at the end. I had to make sure that she wasn’t eternally damned or enticed into living life as a white woman for the rest of the series. The genre this week is grotesque body horror, and the episode succeeds in making the viewer feel that horror. I was nauseated after, and my nerves were fried. These feelings were further punctuated by Ruby’s final act of violence.

The episode opens with Ruby waking up in William’s house. We watch as she looks at her hands, then rushes to the mirror, only to react in horror: she’s in a white woman’s body, and one we’ve seen before: It’s Dell (Jamie Neumann), the woman in Ardham who Letitia hit with a shovel in “Whitey’s on the Moon.” Ruby, in this white body, escapes to the South Side. But she is out of place. The Black residents look on warily but still offer her help, sensing her panic. The show begs the viewer to consider if this is a kindness that white people would extend if the roles were reversed. And of course, white police arrive and give us an answer. They assume the young Black teenager trying to help Ruby is trying to hurt her. Ruby tells the officers to leave him alone, and it’s the first time she’s aware of her “power” as a white woman: the police stop at her command.

In the back of the cop car, Ruby starts to change back. We hear her bones cracking, her screams of pain, and the breaking of gristle. We see Ruby’s brown eyes take over Dell’s blue ones. It’s a lot more visceral than most of what we’ve seen in the series so far, and it only gets more intense. She is carried out of the cop car by William, and we see the shape of a hand stretching through as if trapped underneath her skin. It’s clear this is about to get bloody — something is bursting through.

The second time I watched the episode, it was easier to stomach knowing Ruby’s life wasn’t in danger and knowing that she would return to her original body at the end of each day. It feels like an important choice that she wasn’t stuck in the form of a white woman for days (or the entire episode, a dark-skinned actress relegated to exist only offscreen in her own story). When Ruby wakes after the grisly transformation, William explains what’s going on: “A butterfly lives a full life before it dies. Then a caterpillar emerges from the same cells, the essence of the butterfly, yet different. It’s more.” The potion Ruby was given “just mimics metamorphosis” and “wears off after a time.” It’s enough of an explanation so that we get an idea of the situation, even if it’s not the complete details and specifics.

In this new skin, Ruby finally gets the job at the department store she’s always wanted — and going by the name Hillary Davenport, with white skin and blue eyes, she’s instantly named the Assistant Manager. When she interacts with Tamara, the other Black woman working for the store, everything she says reads as slightly more threatening coming from a white woman. Her insistence that Tamara does better feels condescending rather than caring. Her remarks aren’t only inflected by her new appearance, either. In “Holy Ghost” Ruby said, “If more colored folks fought like me, the race would be a lot further along.” It’s an arrogant thing to say, a bootstraps mentality wrapped up in respectability that isn’t entirely fair. But it makes Ruby complicated, and that’s good. She occupies this position for a while, always blending in with her coworkers until a white woman, referring to Tamara, says, “of course she’s unqualified, she’s a Negro,” and it stops Ruby in her tracks.

Meanwhile, Montrose takes refuge at Sammy’s (Jon Hudson Odom) apartment. He walks in, not saying a word, and the two have unromantic sex to Frank Ocean. Montrose cries during and he won’t kiss Sammy; he likely never has. I think the show wants us to be conflicted about Montrose, but after last week it’s difficult for me to be invested in his well-being. His hands were (literally) still bloodied after killing Yahima.

The show raises the stakes of this conflict in its queer ballroom scene. Sammy has won second place, wearing an elegant black and gold dress with a golden, shimmering coat. IRL drag stars Shangela and Monét X Change are part of the clique (along with the amazing Darryl Stephens). The scene is frustratingly pretty. When Montrose loosens and spins in freedom, the camera shows him from above having a cathartic, spiritual experience. He’s even raised in the air, a Jesus figure, arms outstretched. Glitter rains down on him. If only this liberation had come sooner. Who might it have saved? And maybe that’s what we’re supposed to think. He shares a passionate kiss with Sammy for the first time, unafraid of who’s watching.

The most uncomfortable part of the episode for me is Ruby’s final act of vengeance. Christina gives Ruby an inverse of Leti’s thinking: “You misunderstood William’s invitation. It wasn’t just to be white. It was an invitation to do whatever the fuck you want.” She holds up the potion to Ruby, asking “Who are you really uninterrupted?” Earlier at the South Side bar, Ruby witnessed her manager try to assault a Black woman (it’s unclear to me if it’s Tamara or someone else, we don’t get a close enough glimpse). The manager calls the woman a slur that’s both racist and misogynistic. Uninterrupted, Ruby won’t let this go unpunished.

Thinking of this episode as an art object, I suppose I’m interested in the question of what proper retribution looks like in this situation. But I don’t know that I enjoy seeing this particular action. Again, I think this episode wants to make us uncomfortable, but what Ruby does to this man — sodomizing him seven times with a stiletto — keeps me from celebrating. Additionally, the on-the-nose-ness of “these is bloody shoes” from Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” is a little too playful for me. This is assault. An extreme violation. But whiteness, too, has violated Black people so much, literally and systemically, throughout history.

The cleaner ending would be Wunmi Mosaku as Ruby, emerging triumphant, having sloughed off whiteness as she realizes it will never get her what she wants, and enacting a less fraught revenge. This is not that. It’s messier, and further complicated by media’s historic use of forced anal penetration in depictions of homophobia. Maybe the true horror of this episode is what Leti speaks about, that these horrors might be corrupting everyone. Ruby leaves her manager alive, and repeats his words from earlier back to him: she wants him to know someone like her did this to him.

Ruby returns to William’s mansion after and witnesses Christina burst from his skin. “You’ve been William this whole fucking time?” she yells, seemingly more in anger than in shock. She’s never seen them in the same room, and neither have we. Now we know why.

Leftover Country

• Ruby/Hillary to Tamara: “Your hands are a bit ashy.” I guffawed.

• The music cues this week were too playful for my taste — I was too nervous to be able to find humor! But the Moses Sumney track in the ballroom scene is gorgeous. It’s called “Lonely World.”

• We do get some visually stellar horror imagery in this episode, like when a bloodied Ruby watches her manager through the wooden peephole.

• Leti took pictures of Titus’s pages before Yahima was killed. Atticus spends the episode trying to decipher them. At the episode’s end, Tic deciphers the message D-I-E from the code, and makes another mysterious call to Ji-Ah, asking “How’d you know?” Next week we might find out.

• “Strange Case” as in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; there are many characters this episode of whom we see different sides. Ruby and William most obviously, but Montrose (who is quiet and reserved for the first time since his introduction) and Atticus (whose anger takes over), too.

• Captain Lancaster seems to have … what looks like a Black person’s torso when he removes his shirt. I don’t like it.

• Atticus finds Letitia reading the Bible in the bathtub. “I’ve been trying to say a prayer for Yahima,” she says.

• It still feels like Christina and William might be separate individuals sharing a body, different from how Ruby simply exists in Dell’s body. There’s a lot of backstory about “William” in this episode and it’s hard to believe it was all just a ruse.

• Here’s how our cameo actors are listed in the credits. Sammy was dressed as Sarah Vaughan, so this seems fitting:
Darryl Stephens: Billie Holiday
DJ “Shangela” Pierce: Lena Horne
Kevin Bertin (Monét X Change): Dinah Washington

• Gaywatch: Well this little recurring bullet point really turned into something much bigger, huh? I’d be more excited about the very queer, complex approach to gender that exists in this Black ballroom space if I didn’t dislike Montrose so much, if I weren’t still mourning Yahima.

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