IT'S A "STRANGE CASE" OF JEKYLL IN HYDE PARK ON A CHALLENGING LOVECRAFT COUNTRY

"The most racking pangs succeeded: a grinding in the bones, deadly nausea, and a horror of the spirit that cannot be exceeded at the hour of birth or death. Then these agonies began swiftly to subside, and I came to myself as if out of a great sickness. There was something strange in my sensations, something indescribably new and, from its very novelty, incredibly sweet. I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a mill-race in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul. I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil; and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine. I stretched out my hands, exulting in the freshness of these sensations; and in the act, I was suddenly aware that I had lost in stature."

—from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson1

It's a "Strange Case" indeed, this week, because I've struggled tremendously with this episode of Lovecraft Country, my reading of it shifting and complicating the more I thought about it. As my Game of Thrones readers know, my favorite thing to do is to unpack an episode of television where all the seemingly disconnected subplots turn out to be dealing with a common theme, resonating with and commenting upon each other across the hour. And "Strange Case"—directed by Cheryl Dunye, and written by Misha Green, Jonathan I. Kidd, and Sonya Winton-Odamtten—is that kind of episode. Each of its separate narrative strands—Ruby's, Montrose's, and Tic's—are dealing with what Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll calls "the thorough and primitive duality of man." The ideas of each storyline play against each other, the character arcs run curiously parallel, and some of the same scenes and motifs play out, with slight variations, in major and minor keys. At the exact halfway point of Lovecraft Country's season, "Strange Case" feels like Lovecraft Country at the height of its powers, sophisticated in structure and integrated in purpose.

And yet on first viewing I rather violently disliked "Strange Case," and I disliked it in part for these very same qualities that I usually admire in an hour of television. The connections between the subplots—though clearly intentional—felt troubling, like they confused the theme more than they clarified it. The episode plays with various dualities throughout—black and white, male and female, straight and gay, erotic and violent—but the way it contrasted and equated these dualities with each other across the separate storylines struck me initially as more discordant than harmonious. Several scenes seemed recklessly sensationalistic, leading me for the second time in as many weeks to wonder whether if Lovecraft Country could really handle all these heady themes responsibly. (I still, for the record, have my doubts about those aspects. There were moments in "Strange Case," in fact, when I found myself forgetting that I wasn't watching a new season of American Horror Storyand my longtime readers will understand just how disturbing that thought was to me.)

So I don't know: This one disturbed me. Horror should be disturbing, of course, but there's a difference between responsible provocation and irresponsible aggravation, and I honestly wasn't sure which "Strange Case" was. I've always said, however, that these "reviews"—for lack of a better word—are a process, not a product: I don't write to tell you what I think, but to discover what I think. And what I found once I started digging into this one was something far richer, trickier, and more interesting than I'd initially credited it for being. (I love it when that happens.)

I still won't claim to feel entirely comfortable with everything happening in this episode, and I definitely won't claim to have figured out what to make of it all. But let's fumble our way through this one together, shall we?

"That wasn't pain. That was something else. Like being unmade."

Ruby and the Butterflies in LOVECRAFT COUNTRY 1x05 - Strange Case

The classic "big three" of Hollywood movie monsters are Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man. The big three of horror literature, however, are Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), and Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886).

There's an apparent disconnect here, but it's rather a superficial one: The Wolf Man has no one, definitive piece of literary source material to equal the status of Dracula and Frankenstein. But while Stevenson's short, macabre tale is not literally about lycanthropy, it deals with the same, deeply archetypal fear: the uncontrolled release of repressed primal urges. Like werewolf stories, the Jekyll and Hyde story deals with the troubling duality of human beings, and the struggle between the conscious constructions of civilization and the baser, more primal instincts of the animal within. It is Henry Jekyll's "morbid sense of shame" about his own moral faults and depraved lusts that inspires him to attempt to "disassociate" the two sides of his soul, so that "the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil."2

In other words, Jekyll thought he could cast out all his baser instincts, leaving the noble and morally upstanding gentleman free to go forth and better the world unencumbered by his animal desires. It didn't work, of course: Jekyll's attempt to separate himself from his own darker half just created a monster. Though "Edward Hyde" began life as a stunted thing, he only grew larger and more powerful the longer the experiment went on, while "Henry Jekyll" diminished both physically and morally, even coming to enjoy the "vicarious depravity" of Hyde's misdeeds. In trying to repress his own baser instincts, Jekyll only made them more powerful and dangerous. In the end, Jekyll—in a sort of spiritual suicide—resigns himself to the fact that the next time he changes will be the last: Jekyll won't exist any more; there will only be Hyde.

As a metaphor for the repression of the Victorian era, Stevenson's fable was pretty on-the-nose, and it works both psychologically and politically. (I've never thought of the story this way before, but—viewing it through the lens of Lovecraft Country—it's possible to see Edward Hyde as British colonialism, sent out into the world to commit monstrous crimes while allowing the "Henry Jekyll" of England to preserve all its self-aggrandizing illusions about its own morality.)

But does the metaphor work in "Strange Case"? That's what I'm still unsure about. "What if I told you I could change your life forever?" William said to Ruby when he met her in "A History of Violence." As Ruby observes this week—"Finally, the devil tells me what deal I made with him"—it was the opening negotiation of a Mephistophelean bargain, and William then spent several hours buying Ruby drinks and feeling her out for what he could offer to tempt her. The key exchange, apparently, occurred as Ruby discussed how she'd never get a job at Marshall Fields now because they'd already hired a black woman. "For us, it's a rat race to the finish line," Ruby explained. "And I damn for sure know that if I was in your skin, I wouldn't even have to run."

Jamie Neumann as Ruby in LOVECRAFT COUNTRY 1x05 - Strange Case

So, this week, Ruby literally wakes up in white skin. Specifically—though Ruby doesn't know this—she wakes up in the body of Dell (Jamie Neumann), the racist white woman who worked for Samuel Braithwhite in Ardham. (We'll leave aside, for the moment, the question of why Ruby looks like Dell: I suspect there's more to it than just Lovecraft Country deciding to repurpose an actress.)

There are a lot of elements to this that are both clever and complicated. On a straightforward level, it's playing on the disorienting experience of waking up after a drunken one-night stand. And is it also, perhaps, playing on the potentially conflicted feelings of a Black woman who sleeps with a white man? The metaphor here would be the fear that—by entering a relationship with this rich white man—Ruby has somehow compromised her Black identity and so "becomes" white.

Ruby (Jamie Neumann) in LOVECRAFT COUNTRY 1x05 - Strange Case

I confess, part of my discomfort with "Strange Case" is that I think it raises questions I don't think I—a straight white man—am really qualified to answer. The Jekyll and Hyde story is largely about self-loathing: Henry Jekyll is not a man of particularly unusual or abject impulses, but in his ambition to be an upright Victorian gentleman they torment his conscience and make him ashamed of himself. ("Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of, but from the high views that I had set before me, I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame.3) And I think we can see "Strange Case" as an exploration of societally-induced self-loathing on the part of Ruby, Montrose, and (to a lesser extent) Tic.

We have already suggested, in earlier reviews, that colorism and body-image issues may influence Ruby's prickly relationship to her lighter-skinned and skinnier half-sister Leti, for example, which brings a complex and emotionally charged subtext to Ruby's embrace of her "Hillary" identity here. (As we'll discuss, a different but similarly socially-constructed self-loathing—internalized homophobia—is at the root of Montrose's story.) And, obviously, Ruby's entire story is an extended, magic-infused metaphor for "passing," and specifically for the experience of Black women passing as white.

Passing was a very popular subject for literature and film in the period in which Lovecraft Country takes place. As Janine Bradbury writes:

Hollywood once loved films about passing. The genre was popular in the 1940s and 50s, when segregation was rife and the “one-drop rule”—which deemed anybody with even a trace of African ancestry to be black—prevailed. Box-office hits included Elia Kazan’s Pinky (1949) and George Sidney’s musical Show Boat (1951), which featured light-skinned, mixed-race characters who passed for white in the hopes of enjoying the privileges whiteness confers. The secrets, the scandal and the sheer sensationalism of it all made for excellent melodrama.

Examples abound—Bradbury also discusses Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life (1959) and Fred M. Wilcox's I Passed for White (1960)—and the trope—rooted in the "tragic mulatto" myth—has never completely gone out of style. (In fact, on our podcast, my wife and I recently discussed Carl Franklin's Devil in a Blue Dress [1995], a neo-noir in which the entire plot hinges on the secret of a woman's passing.) Not surprisingly—and more directly relevant to Lovecraft Country's purpose here—the trope was often used by white creators to play on white fears of Black people "infiltrating" white culture for purposes of revenge. Boris Vian's 1946 novel J'irai cracher sur vos tombes (I Will Spit On Your Graves)—filmed in 1959—tells a lurid, ultra-violent tale of a Black man passing as white to enact a bloody revenge for his brother's lynching. And—half a century before Spike Lee's Black Kkklansman (2018)—Ted V. Mikel's The Black Klansman (1966), also known as I Crossed the Color Line, depicted a light-skinned black man infiltrating the Klan to avenge his daughter's murder in a firebombing.

So there are a lot of pop-culture influences feeding into "Strange Case," and there are a lot of sensitive questions about cultural identity and the internalized prejudices of marginalized people. I'm not an expert in the first, and I definitely don't feel qualified to unpack the second, so I feel like I'm treading a little more precariously than usual this week.

But most of my struggles with this episode have to do with the complicated ways it channels all this charged subtext through the Jekyll and Hyde dichotomy. Let's go back to that cold open to get at what I mean. The familiar trope from werewolf movies (and other transformation stories ) is that, after a wild, forgotten night of being a monster, the human wakes up naked, having transformed back into themselves, often in a strange place like the woods. (In An American Werewolf in London, for example, David Naughton wakes up naked in the wolf-pen at the zoo.) Here, however, everything about that trope is flipped: Ruby wakes up naked in the lap of luxury, in a mansion, on a round bed with silk sheets, and not—except mentally—as herself. That is to say, she awakens to the transformation, not to the restoration.

Joshua Mack, Jamie Neumann, and Jerry Mortel in LOVECRAFT COUNTRY 1x05 - Strange Case

So "Strange Case" complicates the relationship of the Ruby/Hillary personae right from the beginning. Our assumption is that we should read "Hillary" as "Hyde," of course. (We know Ruby's true form is Black, after all, and it is consistent with Lovecraft Country's overall framing of whiteness—or white supremacy, if you prefer—as America's resident monster.) And indeed, we see this reading supported in the very next scene: As Ruby/Hillary, disheveled and disoriented, staggers back to her familiar neighborhood, this white (appearing) woman in a Black neighborhood instantly becomes the most dangerous person alive. She is out of place; the residents stare at her nervously; and her mere presence almost gets a young Black man (Joshua Mack) killed by the police. Without even intending to, she has already weaponized her whiteness.

And, later in "Strange Case," Ruby will weaponize her whiteness deliberately, enjoying the freedoms and privileges that inhere in her new body. (She tells William, "I enjoyed my entire day using the only currency I needed: whiteness.") In the white neighborhoods, she gets free ice cream—in a parlor that would not otherwise have served her—and experiences the novelty of police officers actually stopping traffic so that she can cross the street. She waltzes into her dream job at Marshall Fields, goofs off with other white women back in the store room, and rather cruelly bullies Tamara once she realizes the latter is less qualified than Ruby herself. This feels like the "unknown but not innocent freedom of the soul" Jekyll spoke of experiencing as Mr. Hyde, and it all feels very on-point for Lovecraft Country. 

But it's also troubling. One of my issues with "Strange Case" is that I fundamentally distrust its premise. The notion that what Black people really want, more than anything, is to be white, is itself a hoary and racist fantasy usually concocted by white writers. The episode, to be fair, is aware of this, and is careful to frame Ruby's desire to be for freedom, not for whiteness. ("I don't know what is more difficult: being colored, or being a woman," Ruby says. "Most days I'm happy to be both, but the world keeps interrupting, and I am sick of being interrupted.") And Ruby is clearly not comfortable being white. "You don't want me to kiss you as Hillary," William observes: Ruby will use the currency of whiteness to further her goals, but she wants to be desired and appreciated as herself.

But it's complicated, and it gets much more complicated—and much more troubling—as we become aware that the episode is framing Ruby—not "Hillary"—as the monster. The transformation scenes, for the record, are brilliantly done, and horrific, and incredibly gross; there is truly some Cronenbergian-level body horror going on here. But, following the pattern established in the cold open, every transformation we see is Ruby emerging from Hillary, not the other way around. This is a powerful—and powerfully disturbing—reversal of the usual horror trope. (For an example, I'll come back to An American Werewolf in London. If you've seen it, I guarantee that you remember David Naughton turning into a werewolf, but I don't think the movie even bothered to show us the wolf turning back into human form.) It is Ruby's true form that threatens to come out at inconvenient moments; it is her true form that turns up horrifically covered in blood and viscera; it is her true form that emerges when she is enraged; it is her true form, at the end, that erupts out of Hillary to anally rape the lecherous Paul (David Stanbra) with a stiletto heel. ("I wanted you to know that a n––––– bitch did this to you," she tells him, while the 1955 Jekyll and Hyde dramatization of the TV series Climax! plays in the background.) All of this codes Ruby as the monster. As much as "Strange Case" appears to follow in the general tracks of Lovecraft Country and frame whiteness as monstrosity, it is Ruby, not Hillary, who functions as Mr. Hyde in this scenario.

And I honestly don't know what to do with that. That final scene with Paul's assault feels unnecessarily sensationalistic. (This, for me, was the worst American Horror Story moment in "Strange Case," an almost adolescent indulgence in sexualized violence for the sake of shock and titillation.) Is this scene meant to parody those lurid stories that played on white fears of Black vengeance and a  reversal of the traditional power dynamics? Or does it simply exploit those fears and recreate those problematic narratives? Are we meant to view this as a legitimate, justified expression of the rage and resentment Ruby has had to swallow all of her life, as both a Black person and as a woman? (Particularly in light of the parallel Montrose story, Ruby's assumption of the dominant, male, penetrative role here is interesting.) Where are we, as the audience, meant to stand, in relation to this demonic Ruby? Is she supposed to be a figure of alienation, or identification? Are we meant to fear her, or root for her?

Title Card - LOVECRAFT COUNTRY 1x05 - Strange Case

"A butterfly lives a full life before it dies," William tells Ruby. "And a caterpillar emerges from the same cells—the essence of the butterfly, yet different. It's more." The episode, from the title card onwards, plays with the butterfly image of as a symbol of transformation, or metamorphosis, of emergence. But who, or what, is emerging? Which is the caterpillar, and which is the butterfly? Who—original Ruby, Hillary, or monstrous Ruby—represents the true essence of Ruby? Are we supposed to believe she has become something more now? Are we to think this is who Ruby always was, deep down? Or do we fear that, like Henry Jekyll, this experiment in duality has corrupted, diminished, even destroyed her?

"Seeing that side of you scares me."

Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett in LOVECRAFT COUNTRY 1X05 - STRANGE CASE

And for answers—however tentative and fumbling—I think we need to look at how Ruby's tale resonates with the rest of "Strange Case." Because what we realize is that hers is just one extreme example of a spectrum of stories about duality, anger, and metamorphosis.

For both Montrose and (to a lesser extent) Tic echo her story in their own plot lines. Let us begin with Tic, as his is the smaller and more easily dispensed-with subplot. Upon discovering that Yahima is "gone," Tic immediately realizes that Montrose has killed them, and gotten rid of the pages from the Book of Names. And, without missing a beat, Tic begins beating Montrose, savagely. It is only the intervention of Leti that stops Tic from killing him.

"Seeing that side of you scares me," Leti tells him later. And Tic explains how he once believed he—unlike Montrose—had no such capacity for violence. "I thought it wasn't, could never be in me," he says. "But I found it in the war." So here, again, we have the Jekyll and Hyde theme playing out in a slightly different way: the emergence of another side of Tic, a side he has tried to repress, a side that can erupt in monstrosity. And it's an echo of a theme we've discussed several times throughout Lovecraft Country: the dangers of becoming like that which you hate, that which you fight. (Note that Leti takes up her baseball bat in fear of Tic: This is her white-people fighting weapon, and the fact that she feels she needs it to protect herself from Tic is not a good sign.)

Jurnee Smollett and Jonathan Majors in LOVECRAFT COUNTRY 1x05 - Strange Case

What I realized, however, the more I thought about this episode, is that the relatively smaller Tic subplot stands as a sort of mediator between the other two, more substantial storylines. Ruby's story ends one way; Montrose's (as we'll discuss below) ends another. And Tic stands at a crossroads between them, with the potential to go in either direction. After that bout of violence, he reconciles with Leti, and they make love for the first time (that we know of) since their first coupling in "Holy Ghost." In that initial encounter, Tic was entirely dominant, even rather brutal, and the whole thing ended in blood when he rather abruptly took her virginity. Here, however, the sex—while still passionate—is more tender, and more egalitarian: He throws her down on the hood of a car, but then they move to the couch and it is Leti on top, controlling the experience. If "Strange Case" is about fractured dualities, Tic and Leti here achieve at least a tentative reconciliation of masculine and feminine.

Yet after they make love, Tic falls asleep, and his dream seems to confirm that he is still in danger of becoming that which he fights. In the dream, Tic is once again running from the burning house, following his ancestor Hanna as he did in "Whitey's on the Moon." But this time he does not follow her to safety, but instead hesitates, stops inside the house—and is quickly consumed by fire. Later, Leti says, of magic, "This is evil. It is corrupting all of us," which—as far as Tic is concerned, at least—appears to be a very real danger. The sort of power Tic seeks—no matter how nobly he intends to use it—is potentially destructive, even damning. (Is this, then, the real lesson of Ruby's story?)

"A savage, Africanized cicada is poised to take over the world."

Michael K. Williams and Jon Hudson Odom in LOVECRAFT COUNTRY 1x05 - Strange Case

But let's go back to talking about Tic's anger at Montrose, which stems from a lot of things. First and foremost, Montrose abused him as a child. More recently, Montrose murdered Yahima, and effectively undid everything the three of them risked their lives to accomplish last episode. These are understandable motives. But "Strange Case" also suggests that there's something else driving Tic's assault on his father: his repulsion at Montrose's sexuality, which he discovered by accident last week. "Was it the ofays or the n–––––s this time?" Sammy (Jon Hudson Odom) asks Montrose, when he shows up beaten and bloodied at his door. In other words: Did you get beat up for being Black, or for being gay? (And in this we hear an echo of Ruby's words: "I don't know what is more difficult: being colored, or being a woman.")

So here—by the way the episode juxtaposes these two storylines—we have the Jekyll/Hyde dichotomy, and the theme of metamorphosis, playing out along a different but parallel path. Montrose, we already know, contains within himself these different sides. "You were brimming with love as a boy," George told his brother, just before he died. "Nothing wrong with loving that much." But the Montrose we've seen and heard about is a hard and loveless man, for he had all that love literally beaten out of him by his father, in part—certainly—for being "feminine," for being gay. (Last week we heard flashbacks to Montrose's father beating him for putting a flower in his hair.) We sense clearly—without needing a lot of textual exposition—how Montrose has internalized that homophobia and tried to purge all tenderness from himself. (So in this way Montrose, too, has been "passing" all his life.)

Finding a way out of that self-imposed prison is what his story is about this week, and it ends up following what turns out to be a peculiarly palindromic path with Ruby's. After his beating from Tic, Montrose turns up at Sammy's, and wordlessly—he never speaks another word in the episode, in fact—initiates rough, rather brutal sex. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this anal sex scene—though entirely consensual—is clearly meant to resonate with Ruby's anal rape of Paul at the end of the episode. Montrose is starting his journey his journey in "Strange Case" from the place where Ruby ends hers, in rage, and self-loathing, and a total absence of tenderness.

Throughout, "Strange Case" plays with the theme of transformation, of metamorphosis, as something potentially both good and evil, creative and destructive. Countering the image of the butterfly is the counter-image of the cicada, or locust. At the beginning of the episode—during Hillary's first transformation scene—we hear a news report about 16 billion Kenyan locusts on their way from North Africa to Great Britain, which emerge from nymphs through molting stages and are "destined to devour everything in their path." So, mirroring Jekyll and Hyde, these are the two potential sides of metamorphosis: caterpillar to butterfly, nymph to locust, one a transformation into something beautiful, the other a transformation into something destructive.

Sammy (John Hudson Odom) in LOVECRAFT COUNTRY 1X05 - STRANGE CASE

What's fascinating about this, however, is that the metaphors of metamorphosis are not that clear, or that rigidly locked into meaning. William offers the butterfly image to Ruby, and she becomes something terrifying and destructive. But Sammy offers the cicada image to Montrose, explaining his "ripped from the headlines" theme for the ball his house will walk that night. "Fresh from ravaging the shores of Great Britain, a savage, Africanized cicada is poised to take over the world, leading a drag swarm to lay waste to Chicago's most lavish of balls tonight, featuring a never before seen dance called Locusta Migratoria."

It's a lovely moment. Montrose watches, silent and brooding, as Sammy and his fellow drag queens enact metamorphosis, as they get dressed in their finery and consciously, deliberately, joyously transform themselves into something very different from what was supposed to be determined by the bodies they were born in. (Montrose himself at this point is shirtless—masculine, but undressed, unformed.) And here Sammy reclaims and repurposes the metaphor of the cicada—we do not miss the fact that they are African cicadas—from a symbol of fear and destruction into something beautiful and empowering.

Later, the ball scene itself—positioned in the episode as a direct counterpoint to Ruby's terrible night out with her white friends, in her white body—is as glorious and hopeful a scene as Lovecraft Country has presented since the block party in the pilot. The participants are radiant, resplendent, celebratory, a community of defiant joy and deliberate metamorphosis. And where Ruby's experiment ended in her empowerment to embody violence and horror, Montrose's ends in his finally allowing himself tenderness, even love. "They haven't even smacked lips yet," the drag queens observed earlier, of Sammy and Montrose, and indeed we saw no actual affection between them, for Montrose long ago had all affection beaten out of him. But now Montrose lets himself be drawn onto the dance floor, and kisses Sammy passionately: He is once again "brimming with love," and, in the celebration of his self-acceptance, glitter swarms around him like butterflies.

Montrose at the Ball in LOVECRAFT COUNTRY 1x05 - Strange Case

What I like about this is what a clever and tricky reworking of the Jekyll and Hyde story it is—far more interesting, in its own way, than the more literal one enacted by Ruby. Long ago, Montrose, like Henry Jekyll, tried to deny his own instincts and desires, disassociating himself from the things that made him ashamed even as he indulged them. But—skewed and stunted by internalized societal pressures—he fundamentally misunderstood which aspects of his personality were good and which were evil: He repressed the love, and he embraced the hate. The result, curiously, was the same: Like Jekyll, Montrose ended up living as a monster: the brutal, loveless, abusive man he has been all his adult life. Unlike Jekyll, however—who ends his narrative in a despair of spiritual death, surrendering to his Hyde persona forever—Montrose seems, here, to stop "passing," to make peace with his duality, to reclaim his better self, and to find redemption.

"Who are you really uninterrupted?"

Leti (Jurnee Smollett) and Tic (Jonathan Majors) in LOVECRAFT COUNTRY 1X05 - Strange Case

The question of whether Montrose deserves redemption, however, is a larger one with which we—and Lovecraft Country—will still have to contend. Seeing Montrose seemingly find happiness in the gay and transgender community does not make us forget, or forgive, his abuse of his child, or his heartless murder of the intersex Yahima last episode. Is Montrose—himself formed by a lifetime of cruelty and abuse, of racism and homophobia—forgivable? Is Ruby—in violently raping a man, however odious he was—sympathetic and justified because of the racism and sexism she has dealt with her entire life? Is Tic responsible for the violence within him, and is he somehow justified in embracing violence and potentially corrupting power as long as he's doing it to protect those he loves? Is Jekyll, ultimately, responsible for the crimes of Hyde?

All of these characters have been shaped, and stunted, and warped, by the injustices of the society in which they live: an endless cycle of oppression and repression, of hatred and self-loathing, of prejudice fueling prejudice and violence begetting violence. Where is the way out of the cycle? Is it surrendering to monstrosity, as Ruby seems to do? Is it in seizing and repurposing power, as Tic believes? Or is it in love and self-acceptance that Montrose seems to find in a community of similarly marginalized people?

"All human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil," Henry Jekyll tells us.4 "You've got me between the devil and the deep blue sea," Ruby sings, in the bathtub, after her first day of enjoying the power and currency of whiteness. "Guess I just seen so much bad, and I'm trying to find something good," Leti says, reading the Bible in her bathtub, seeking answers in a faith she admits she does not even really hold. "I know I brought a lot of that bad," Tic says. "I've been trying to bring some good, too." Acknowledging his own duality, Tic begins talking about his relationship with Ji-Ah in Korea, and Leti talks about her mother, and they both talk about how, growing up, they had no good examples of love. Whether they realize it or not, they are opening up, and connecting, over the forces that have skewed the natural course of their lives, the forces that have—to use Ruby's term—"interrupted" them.

There are no easy answers, and I think the jury is still out on all the characters in Lovecraft Country. But it is here—even more than in the ball scene—that I think we find some genuine, if tenuous, hope in "Strange Case." The questions of guilt and forgiveness may be ultimately unanswerable, because there is no way to know who any of these people would have been uninterrupted. But in this simple, tender coming together of two very different people, acknowledging their own dualities, openly sharing their pain and fears, there may be the possibility of healing, the potential for connection, and the thin hope of reconciling all those irreconcilable things. It's not much, perhaps, but it is—as they admit here—special. "I'm not at all confused about that anymore," Tic says.

Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits

  • It's right around this point in writing about a season of television that I usually start to imagine voices telling me "You're way overthinking this." But Lovecraft Country is a show that invites, even insists upon, overthinking: It very consciously uses incredibly loaded signifiers, and it places them very deliberately. (Even minor background details are very carefully chosen. Note, for example, the Wrigley's ad in the back of the scene where William picks "Hillary" up at work, which both offers a variety of "flavors"—as William tells Ruby he wants to kiss her in all her forms—and evokes the long-running "Doublemint Twins" ad campaign, echoing the duality theme of the episode itself. Note, for another example—and remembering back to our discussion of "Sh-Boom" in the pilot—how we hear the quintessential white singer Pat Boone's cover version of "Tutti Frutti" when Hillary is in Marshall Fields with the white women, but Little Richard's original version when Montrose is with Sammy and his drag friends.) Everything in this show means something (which is one reason I have such trouble bringing these reviews in on time).
  • One regret I have about "Strange Case"—with no disrespect to Jamie Neumann—is that it is a Ruby-centric episode without a lot of Wunmi Mosaku in it. She is tremendous, obviously, in the scenes she has, but I keep wondering how this episode would have played if we had seen Ruby, while everyone else saw "Hillary."
  • Pronouns are a conundrum on this show, particularly since pronoun usage was not an issue that would have been discussed in the 1950s. It is also unclear whether Sammy and his friends identify as gay men who dress in drag or as transgender women. I am tempted to switch back and forth depending on how they present in whatever scene I'm discussing, but that could be potentially confusing. So, barring further information, I've defaulted to masculine pronouns, but I'm perfectly willing to be talked out of it.
  • Discussing plot details and inconsistencies is always my least favorite aspect of writing about a show, but a few minor gripes here. For one thing—though we all suspected it anyway—the show has not played fair with the Christina/William revelation. (When perfectly clean and attired Christina rounds a corner in "A History of Violence" and reappears moments later as a perfectly clean and attired William, where, exactly, was all that blood and sloughed-off flesh?) I am also exceedingly unclear on why they needed Ruby at all to run what turned out to be a very simple errand literally anyone could have done.
  • Speaking of Christina/William: Christina tells Ruby that Captain Lancaster shot William in the back and left him for dead. That suggests that there was a real William, just as there was a real Dell (the model for Hillary), whom Leti clubbed and left for dead in "Whitey's on the Moon." So are these magical potions somehow made from real people? Is that who is in the basement that Christina keeps locked up?
  • Watching Ruby/Hillary enjoy her day of white privilege—getting free ice cream, etc.—I can't be the only person who thought of Eddie Murphy's classic Saturday Night Live sketch about passing, "White Like Me." ("Slowly I began to realize that when white people are alone, they give things to each other for free." It's totally true. Don't tell anyone.)
  • "White folks are even more fucked up than you think they are," Ruby tells Tamara. (This, alas, is also true. Again, don't tell anyone.)
  • Apologies, as always, for the extreme lateness of this post. (All I can say is that it was time well spent, because I ended up with a very different read of "Strange Case" than the rather revolted one I began with a week ago. If I'd taken another week, I suspect I'd have yet another take. I didn't reach the end of this post so much as finally abandon it.) The next episode, "Meet Me in Daegu," already aired two days ago as I write this: I'm looking forward to watching it now, and I'll try to catch up here somewhere so I'm not a full week behind for the rest of the season.

Notes

  1. Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (AmazonClassics Edition). Amazon Classics. Kindle Edition, Location 829.
  2. Ibid, Location 807.
  3. Ibid, Location 794.
  4. Ibid, Location 856.

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3 thoughts on “IT'S A "STRANGE CASE" OF JEKYLL IN HYDE PARK ON A CHALLENGING <I>LOVECRAFT COUNTRY</I>”

  1. "(When perfectly clean and attired Christina rounds a corner in "A History of Violence" and reappears moments later as a perfectly clean and attired William, where, exactly, was all that blood and sloughed-off flesh?)"

    Maybe the transformation into the other person goes smoothly, but it's changing back into yourself that gets gory.

    It might be worth consulting The Unenthusiastic Critic for the disturbing questions the episode raises, including whether Ruby's revenge against the employer who sexually abused his token black employee is justified.

  2. Dying to know what you thought of last week's penultimate episode that recreates the Tulsa Massacre far more extensively than did "Watchmen."

    1. You may not have seen my announcement on Twitter, Sam, but I've suspended these reviews. Unfortunately, not enough people have been reading them (or sharing them) to justify the amount of time they take. (I also lost a little patience with the series itself: I think there are a lot of individual pieces that work, but I think the whole is slightly less than its parts.) I might still circle back and write one more post about the back half of the season: We'll see how tonight's finale goes.

      Sorry. Thanks for reading and commenting, though, as always…

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