Gross-Out Body Horror in Sensational 'Lovecraft Country' Episode 5 (RECAP)
[Spoiler Alert: This recap contains spoilers from Lovecraft Country Season 1 Episode 5, "Strange Case."]
This week's Lovecraft Country is, without a doubt, one of the wildest, grossest, most disgustingly brilliant things I've seen on TV in some time. It's a glorious gore-fest that will especially appeal to fans of body horror, a melee of mutations and mutilations that vary from the extreme to the ridiculous. Is it a little too much at times? Possibly, particularly for those with a weak stomach. But I appreciated the boldness on display, even if I had to watch certain scenes through my fingers.
"Strange Case," based on the story "Jekyll in Hyde Park" from the original novel, centers around Ruby (Wunmi Mosaku) and her newfound relationship with the mysterious William (Jordan Patrick Smith). Following their drunken one-night stand, Ruby wakes up to find herself not with a hangover and a sense of regret, but with a whole new body. Specifically, she has the face and body of Dell (Jamie Neumann), the racist white woman from earlier in the series the group encountered when they visited Ardham. What follows is a Twilight Zone-style story that tackles racial discrimination, white privilege and sexual harassment, all while delivering classic horror scares and putting Mosaku in the spotlight.
The Freaky Friday situation is the doing of William, who offers Ruby unrestricted access to this wicked metamorphosis potion. Initially, Ruby doesn't want anything to do with it, especially after going through the skin-curdling, bone-cracking ritual that comes along with it. Yet, she is allured by its power. Almost instantly, Ruby recognizes a difference in how she is treated. "Like a human being?" says William. She runs through Chicago's Southside, scared and confused, jostling with passersby. Police arrive on the scene and, without cause or provocation, begin beating on a young Black man who was only trying to help. Meanwhile, White Ruby is treated as a damsel in distress, and it's only at her insistence that the cops stop their attack.
And so, Ruby can't resist making a deal with the devil. "The world keeps interrupting, and I'm sick of being interrupted," she tells William, noting how she is held back due to her skin color, no matter her work ethic or qualifications. So she takes the potion and spends the day as a white woman, adopting the name Hillary, and exploring parts of Chicago with the freedom she would never be afforded as an African American. Her activities range from simple pleasures such as buying a treat from a trendy ice-cream parlor, to reading on a park bench uptown, to securing an assistant manager job at a fancy department store. Suddenly, a whole new world of opportunity and possibility opens up merely due to her skin color.
Of course, there is a price to pay for this potion. William asks her for a favor in return — to act as a server at a secret society get-together hosted by Christina Braithwhite (Abbey Lee). Ruby isn't there just to hand out hors d'oeuvres, though. Christina tasks Ruby with planting what I can only presume is a magical rock in the office of bigoted police captain Seamus Lancaster (Mac Brandt). It turns out Lancaster is angling for a Lodge leader position meant for William — he even shot William and left him for dead. Ruby reluctantly hides the cursed rock in a drawer but not without a close run-in and a gnarly encounter with a bloodied and battered dude chained up in Lancaster's closet.
Putting aside the revenge-magic and wider mythology, what's so fascinating about this story is how Ruby is pushed and pulled between who she really is and who she wants to be. As Hillary, she's treated with respect, welcomed at the department store with open arms by her ignorant colleagues and sleazy boss Paul (David Stanbra). She has a kinship with Tamara (Sibongile Mlambo), the only Black girl who works in the store, but she also sits idly by when the other girls mock and insult Tamara behind her back. While Ruby is obviously hurt and angered by their words, she also enjoys the attention and power her whiteness brings. She indulges in the frivolous gossip and stock room catwalks while snapping at Tamara to do a better job.
Ruby's treatment of Tamara isn't meant to be a personal attack. This is Ruby speaking from a place of experience as a Black woman, and now, also, a white woman. "You need to be better than mediocre," she tells Tamara. "Because white folk are more f***ed up than you think. They've got s**t you couldn't imagine." In many ways, this is Ruby talking to herself. She knows that as a Black woman, she has to work twice as hard to earn half the respect, and people are just waiting for her to make a mistake. So, as Tamara is the store's only Black employee, it falls on her to set the example. It's ridiculous, of course, that any one person should have to represent their entire race, but in this environment, it's just the sad fact of the matter.
So what about all the gross body-horror stuff? This comes after Hillary convinces Tamara to take the staff for a night out in the Southside. The girls are fascinated by the music and dancing, but it's as if they see Black people as a novelty — entertainment to gawk at and force into providing them pleasure. Ruby realizes this and grows tired of living as Hillary. She exits the club, and as the potion begins to wear off, she tears at her skin, the white, bloody flesh dripping from her body like melted candle wax. It's some rather grisly imagery, and at this point, I thought this would be the most gruesome scene of the episode. I was wrong. Very wrong.
While in the alley outside the club, Ruby spies her boss, Paul, sexually assaulting Tamara. "You N-word bitch," Paul shouts as Tamara manages to fight him off and run away. Ruby is sickened by what she sees and feels completely dejected and helpless. She wants nothing more to do with this potion; she has nothing in common with those white folk no matter how much she might look like them. "You can't relate to who I am," Ruby later tells Christina. "The only thing you white women are disillusioned with are yourselves." However, Christina tells Ruby that William wasn't merely offering her a chance to be white; it was "an invitation to do whatever the f**k you want... That's the power of magic. Unmitigated freedom."
And so, for one last time, Ruby sups the potion and dons the Hillary skin. She visits her boss and tells him she has to quit due to her insatiable attraction to him. What follows is one of the most shocking and unexpected scenes in recent TV history. Under the guise of a kinky sex game, Hillary ties Paul up, straps a belt around his neck, shoves her panties in his mouth and kicks him to the floor. She then removes her shoes and — apologies for the graphic nature — proceeds to ram her high heel up his rear end until he bleeds. All this while the white skin peels from her body and Cardi B's "Bodak Yellow" blasts in the background. "I wanted you to know an N-word bitch did this to you," Ruby states. Wow!
If the above is too much, then at least the horrific violence of Ruby's story is offset by the beauty of Montrose's (Michael K. Williams) side plot. After suffering a vicious beating from Tic (Jonathan Majors), who lashes out upon finding that his dad killed Yahima, Montrose seeks comfort from a secret lover. This lover just so happens to be a man, Sammy (Jon Hudson Odom), who performs as a drag artist at a local club. There is clearly a deep, complicated history between the pair. While Montrose is happy to have sex with Sammy, he is not ready to announce their relationship to the world — he refuses to even kiss Sammy on the lips, something the fellow drag queens poke fun at.
While this development for Montrose's character comes somewhat out of nowhere, it does lead to a dazzling scene at the drag bar. Montrose stands at the corner of the club, watching Sammy and the other glammed-up drag queens perform. At first, Montrose is sullen and unsure, but eventually, he gives way to a smile and gets caught up in the dance. He then rushes over and embraces Sammy, kissing him on the lips. Just like Ruby in the white skin, Montrose has found a place where he feels free, even if he isn't accepted for who he truly is elsewhere. Perhaps the kiss would have been more powerful with a couple of episodes of build-up, but as a stand-alone sequence, it's hard to fault and acts as a nice palette cleanser to some of the episode's more gruesome scenes.
As for Tic and Leti (Jurnee Smollett), they're mostly off to the sidelines this week. Leti worries about Tic's violent streak and how the Korean War affected him. There are also questions regarding his commitment to their relationship. Leti is looking for something real, something "special," having witnessed her mother fall in and out of love hundreds of times. Tic confesses that he is no longer confused and realizes that what he and Leti have is special. Romance aside, Tic also spends the episode transcribing the missing pages from the Book of Names (that Leti thankfully took photos of) and comes to some sort of revelation that I'm sure we'll learn more about next week. I'm still going to be thinking of Ruby and the high heel, though.
- I should mention that it's revealed that William was actually Christina all along, also using a metamorphosis potion. As if Ruby didn't already have enough to get her head around!
- I'm not quite sure who the guy locked up in Lancaster's closet is supposed to be. Someone related to the Lodge drama? Or just a perp Lancaster is torturing into confessing?
Lovecraft Country, Sundays, 9/8c, HBO