My wife and I watched the 5th episode of Lovecraft Country with horror. And that horror was intentional. The horror continued as I read the reviews from World Wide Interwebs Talking Heads that treated this as merely a schlock gore horror filler episode. The “Strange Case” title is an homage to Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” It is an episode about all of the horrific and sometimes beneficial transformations that can occur.
“If I am the chief of sinners, I am the chief of sufferers also.”
The episode’s primary focus is Ruby’s transformation into white Hillary Davenport via a magic potion given to her by William. I’m going to add three quick asides.
- Where have we seen the actress Julie Neumann who plays Hillary Davenport before and what happened to her? If you read the book, you know.
- In the book, Ruby chooses Hillary Everest to suggest a strong, adventurous, conquering Gentlewoman Adventurer.
- If you grew up in Wisconsin, you know that a Davenport is a big sofa, something people sit and sleep on. So already Ruby’s choice of a name suggests an imposition and not an adventure. She is furniture that is meant to be sat upon.
“If he be Mr. Hyde” he had thought, “I shall be Mr. Seek.”
Ruby’s first deliberate transformation was an homage to an Eddie Murphy SNL skit “White Like Me,” where he uses makeup to change his race and experiences all of the benefits as a white man. She gets a free ice cream cone, vanilla. What might be lost on white audiences the vanilla will not served to Black people in the south except on special occasions.
But even though Ruby’s transformation to a white woman appears to be successful, her reversals are bloody and gory, and her anger becomes more pointed as the episode continues.
“All human beings, as we meet them, are commingled out of good and evil: and Edward Hyde, alone, in the ranks of mankind, was pure evil.”
Ruby uses her newly found white womanhood to apply for a counter girl position as Marshall Fields Department Store.
With her long list of academic accomplishments, Ruby is infuriated by her prior inability to be hired for a job she was overqualified for, so now was her big chance. She was hired immediately as the assistant manager.
As Hillary, she learns that the Black person who was hired instead of her, Tamara, was a 7th-grade dropout. Tamara was a “slender hire.”
As Hillary, Ruby then proceeds to bully and advise and impose on Tamara just like a white woman might, but I’m sure Ruby viewed it as “mentoring.”
Ruby is angry and, like Mr. Hyde, indulges in rage. She misses a huge opportunity, because she is still seeing the world through the lens of reaction. She uses the magic potion that turns her white to get a 9-5 job. This differs from the book where Ruby uses that potion to explore an adventure in the white world.
“She had an evil face, smoothed by hypocrisy; but her manners were excellent.”
When Ruby arrives home from her first day at work, Christina states that the potion “was an invitation to do whatever the fuck you want.”
A mere job is not doing whatever the fuck you want, even if you’re the manager. Ruby moves her rage from pettiness towards Tamara to a vicious Hyde-ian style retribution on her sexually harassing male director, Paul Hughes, who was the most mediocre of mediocre white men.
Paul’s position was partially a result of his gender and race, and at one point, he jokes during Hillary’s interview that she could be his boss based on her accomplishments.
Hillary enacts Paul’s punishment, the mediocre white man, by appealing to his grotesque lusty disrespect. The tool she uses are her stilettos. After the act, she transforms back into Ruby. She wanted Paul to know that a Black woman was the person who gave him his punishment.
“O my poor old Harry Jekyll, if ever I read Satan’s signature upon a face, it is on that of your new friend.”
Montrose’s sexuality is finally confirmed in this episode both to the audience and the character. I assumed that the hints and comments about Montrose’s sexuality were common slurs and a red herring in the series because this was not part of the book.
In the prior episode, Montrose kills the Two-Spirit Yahima supposedly to protect Atticus and prevent him from obtaining magical knowledge.
“It is one thing to mortify curiosity, another to conquer it. ”
But that murder seems to suggest that he is attempting to destroy his sexual identity in himself. Is Montrose a serial killer in the spirit of John Wayne Gacy? Maybe, it is possible that he had killed gay and transgender people earlier, but that is not the transformation we are going to discuss. Montrose and Sammy’s friendship is revealed in this episode to be far more intimate. Sammy is a drag queen. Montrose appears to accept his sexual identity during Sammy’s Drag Review. First publicly dancing with him, then embracing and publicly kissing him. As he swoons in ecstasy and apparent relief, the review holds him aloft to be baptized with glitter.
“You start a question, and it’s like starting a stone. You sit quietly on the top of a hill; and away the stone goes, starting others…”
The Drag Review itself is transformation. Some Drag Queens who are also Transgender people (not all drag queens are transgender, not even most, but during that time period LGBTQI had even more limited places to go, and for Black people it was even fewer) use the symbol of a butterfly transforming from a caterpillar as a motif.
Also, the consequences were even greater. In the 1950s it was illegal in many places for a person who was assigned the gender of male to wear only women’s clothes. If you presented as a man in the daytime, you had to have at least one item of men’s clothing on. Most had to wear men’s clothing during the day only to transform at accepting clubs.
As an aside I’m probably missing much in this description. A member of the transgender community would better be able to point out all of the transformations in this character arc that I missed.
“His affections, like ivy, were the growth of time, they implied no aptness in the object.”
Atticus and Leti also have transformations. Atticus can go from a nerdy, amiable man into a dangerous, violent individual. Remember, Dr. Henry Jekyll was an accomplished scientist (nerd) and an amiable member of society. Edward Hyde stomped children and people, and Atticus beat his father almost to death. His attack was so vicious that Leti brought a baseball bat to their next conversation. She states her fear of him, but it is tinged with respect. The relationship between Atticus and Leti also transforms, becoming more intimate. It’s not just sex.
“This is Special. And I’m not at all confused about that anymore,” Atticus.
“To cast in it with Hyde was to die a thousand interests and aspirations.”
Finally, I think Atticus transforms in this episode from a reactive individual who only wants magic to protect himself and his family and friends, to a student learning the language of Adam to write his own magic.
But it’s time for the really big reveal. I noticed that by the second episode that William the Butler and Christina, two tall, slender, blonde individuals were never in the same room together. Reminding me of the running jokes in the movie Mystery Men.
The Shoveller: Don’t start that AGAIN! Lance Hunt wears glasses. Captain Amazing DOESN’T wear glasses.
Mr. Furious: He takes them off when he transforms.
The Shoveller: That doesn’t make any sense, he wouldn’t be able to see.
At the end of the episode, William transforms into Christina in front of Ruby. This transformation was foreshadowed by a pillow talk between Ruby and William, where William/Christina’s Blue tropical Butterfly collection comes to life flying around them at 8:58 into the episode. As I mentioned earlier, a Butterfly is often used as a motif in the transgender community, and the blue butterfly symbolizes a transition to a more masculine identity.
As a finale the Strange Case is an episode filled with transformative moments, transitions of form, personality, relationships, social interactions, and identity.
”In which the mystery was now to be explained.”
The tragedy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was that in attempting to separate his good and evil identities, he became trapped in only one.
The reviews of this and prior episodes by many of the World Wide Interweb Talking Heads is frustrating. Many reviewers attempt to force the plot of Dracula onto the series as if there was no other horror in existence. “Is Leti a Vampire? Atticus might be a Vampire! Sparkly Vampires, are they a thing, is Montrose one?”
We’ve been coming out of an almost 45 year run of Vampires from Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire (1976) & Vampire Lestat (1985) to The Hunger (1983) to Vampire: The Masqurade RPG 1991 to Brom Stoker’s Dracula (1992 Film) to Buffy the Vampire Slayer film (1992) and series (1997 – 2003) to 2005 – 2008 Twilight Saga and its Film Adaptations.
I think Zombies are now in because the vampires drained all the blood out of the genre. Howard Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany, Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth’s innovations to the field of horror were in violating the constraints and expanding the scale of horror.
“There comes an end to all things; the most capacious measure is filled at last; and this brief condescension to my evil finally destroyed the balance of my soul.”
The series attempts to make this plain by having Hippolyta tear out the pages of a cheap paperback copy of Dracula. She was literally ripping up Vampires. In this episode, Lovecraft Country revisits a classic horror “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” which has fallen out of the public consciousness to be remembered only by well read fan of horror. It’s not about Vampires, So Stop it. The great innovation in this episode is the linking of the transformations not to Vampires or Zombies or one evil genius, but to the greater society. It’s Lovecraftian in that the horror is immense.
P. S. And don’t get me started about the reviewers that attempted to paste Frankenstein onto Episode three when The Case of Charles Dexter Ward was an almost perfect fit.
P.P.S. Hashtag JusticeforYahima
Jack O’Kent is a freelance writer in Milwaukee.