Loving yourself and being in love with yourself isn’t the same thing. When you’re told that who you are, and what you look like is shameful and unworthy of being seen as human, that nothing you do will be good enough, can make a person feel that being someone else entirely would be preferable. And for Ruby Baptiste, becoming someone else in “Strange Case” might be the only way the world sees her for the first time.
Waking up in the body of a white woman she’s never seen is the last thing Ruby ever thought would happen. Stumbling through the streets of downtown, wearing a robe that’s not hers, hair a mess, and people staring at her is also new. She’s approached by a young Black boy who asks if she’s okay, but before she can respond, a police car with two white officers pull up, one jumps out and immediately attacks the boy, accusing him of trying to hurt her. He pushes the boy to the ground, with his baton raised to strike. The only thing that stops him is this white woman, Ruby, telling him to stop.
Immediately, we see how the power dynamics work. The power Ruby has as a white woman against Black people. But in a few minutes, she also learns how little power her words as a woman hold, when she tries to persuade the officers that the man claiming to be her husband did something to her. And yes, that “husband” is, of course, William, who Ruby spent the night with after they met in the bar in the previous episode.
He takes her up to the bedroom with a large sheet of plastic placed on the floor (how very American Psycho of him). As she thrashes around in pain, her body convulsing, William dispassionately tells her that it’s all part of the process, as he plunges a large knife into her torso.
While this is horrific and disconcerting event is taking place, Tic punches Montrose for what he did to Yahima, but his ire quickly goes from being about that to angst as he begins looking for pictures of the pages found in the ship’s cabin. Montrose killed an innocent person, and all Tic cares about are the cursed pages. How shameful. Yahima’s humanity and life didn’t even matter to him beyond what they could do for him, and to me, that doesn’t make him the good guy he believes himself to be. I hope this particular storyline is dealt with further in the remainder of the season because it’s a disservice to Yahima and viewers who felt represented by them.
Back at William’s, Ruby lays in bed, naked and still, trying to process what happened. Again he very dispassionately shares a little story about how he met Hiram Epstein, saying that Hiram’s experiments were him trying to learn about the universe by creating doorways – the tunnels Leti and the others traveled through – through magic.
Ruby finally able to speak, asks if she died, he says no. What she experienced was a metamorphosis, like a butterfly. Ruby dazedly recounts how she observed that the people on the street weren’t afraid of her, but for her, this strange white woman wandering around in a disheveled state. They saw her as human, as William says. He leaves her a vial of a dark potion, besides which is a giant wad of cash. She takes the potion, and with a voice-over of “For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf” the Choreopoem written by Ntozake Shange, this new version of Ruby leisurely strolls through crowds of other white people. A smile on her face as she blends in. Something she’s never been able to do before in their world.
As Ruby enjoys of her first day of pure bliss (and freedom), Tic thanks Leti for stopping him from taking things further with Montrose. In what’s probably the first truly honest and open moment we’ve seen from him thus far, Tic reveals that as a young man he had thoughts of killing his father after being beaten, but the violence he showed was placed in him during the war. It’s a moment that serves as a reminder that Tic is a man newly returned home from war. He hasn’t had time to process everything that happened in South Korea and compounded with everything he’s been through since returning, there will more than likely be moments when things are taken too far. I fear that we’ve yet to see how violent he can actually become.
Ruby is basking in a bubble bath at William’s. He comes and tells her he needs her to do a favor for him with a female friend. Because, of course, nothing like this comes for free. He offers Ruby the freedom to be who she wants to be in whatever skin she wants to be. For Ruby the chance to be white gives her the freedom to stop being “interrupted” by the world as she puts it.
With this golden opportunity placed before her, she goes to the one place she’s always dreamed of being: Marshall Fields. As Hillary Davenport (Jamie Neumann), she’s finally allowed the chance for an interview with Mr. Hughes the manager, where she gives an altered version of her reality. Just based on her credentials she’s offered the position of Assistant Manager.
On her first day, Hillary is the queen of her new domain. Spotting Tamara (Sibongile Mlambo), the young Black woman who Ruby had previously met, Hillary approaches her and asks why she’s not standing at her counter. Fearing a reprimand or even dismissal, Tamara hastily begins to explain the various tasks she had been completing. In the break room, the other ladies gossip and make catty remarks about each other. Of course, the fun must come to an end as the eventual racist remark is made about Tamara being unqualified because she’s Black and the xenophobia about the South Side being dangerous.
With her day as Hillary at her dream job ended, Ruby is once again abruptly reminded of who and what she really is. Calling in his favor, William gifts her a maid’s uniform so she can blend into another crowd. This time one made up of white men at the local Sons of Adam lodge where she’s to meet Christina. When these two finally come face to face, a minute doesn’t even pass before Christina puts her hand on Ruby, grabbing her arm, acting as though she has a right to. Using what affection Ruby might have for William, Christina spins a tale about the captain trying to kill William to prevent him from inheriting the leadership of the lodge. Ruby, having no idea who Christina really is, silently takes an artifact Christina hands to her, to place in the office.
In Leti’s basement, she and Tic are discussing the symbols used in the language of Adam. Tic, being the nerd that he is, has managed to decipher 11 of the 27 symbols that seem to make up the alphabet, using the symbols representing his initials engraved on his family ring. Fun note, his middle name is Sampson, and based on the Biblical Sampson, I’m wondering if Christina is Tic’s Delilah and if they’ll have the same fate. Time will tell.
When Leti says she’s relieved that Montrose let Yahima go, even though their help would’ve made things easier, Tic reluctantly reveals that Montrose killed Yahima, and Leti is immediately appalled. She calls the language evil, seeing how many people, including Montrose, have done horrible things because of it. Tic tries to calm her down, telling her the language itself can’t be all bad because it’s what will help protect them.
But, no, killing an innocent person is never justifiable, no matter how he tries to spin it, and Leti agrees with me. I wouldn’t be surprised if the language itself really is evil, a curse on anyone who speaks it, especially if their morals and ethics aren’t exactly steadfast and true, which is where I think Tic and Ruby might be similar.
As Hillary, Ruby has the position, salary, access, and visibility she’s always wanted. As Hillary, she has the authority to tell other white women what to do. She can stand up to them, and she also has the ability to do the same to Tamara, her Black subordinate. But, every dream must eventually end, and it does when Ruby realizes that being Hillary exposes how much White people hate Black people, even when there aren’t any around. How people like her female coworkers see spaces where Black people are free to be themselves as places to be explored like an amusement park or zoo, where Black people are strange creatures to be looked upon with curiosity and thinly veiled disdain. The women think themselves to be hip and risqué for being brave enough to venture into Black domain, though in truth, they are the ones who pose more of a danger to Black people. For who knows what lies they’ll tell to protect themselves should something happen.
Maybe finally ready to interrogate just what she’s been doing, and why, Ruby allows herself to shed the skin she’s been living in. As a butterfly sheds its cocoon in order to take its final form, so does Ruby. The same can be said for Montrose, who, as it was revealed earlier, is gay and has a lover, Sammy (Jon Hudson Odom). In the dressing room of one of Chicago’s clubs, where the drag ballroom culture is alive and thriving, drag queens are free to be themselves. One of these drag queens is Sassy Sarah Vaugh — Sammy’s drag persona. Sarah dramatically declares she’ll be putting on a performance featuring a dance titled “Locusta Migratoria”. Making a reference to how widespread and well known the ballroom culture will (and has) become in the future.
Covered in the blood and broken skin of Hillary, Ruby spies Mr. Hughes sexually accosting Tamara in the back alley of the club Ruby – as Hillary – made Tamara take them to. Thankfully she manages to get away from him. As she watches, Ruby sees him change from the smiling genial man into a vile attacker who hurls racial slurs at Tamara. He is wearing a mask, and his façade changes depending on who he’s around.
In the ballroom, Montrose, after being celebrated and literally uplifted by the crowd, embraces Sarah in front of all their peers. It’s the first time Montrose publicly acknowledges their relationship. While this is a positive moment of queer representation, I can’t forget what he did to Yahima. To me, having this moment of celebration come right after the violence he perpetrated was a misstep writing-wise, because his previous actions mar what could’ve been a great moment of representation for Black men in the LGBTQ community.
Back at William’s, Ruby sits naked shivering on the sofa while Christina lets herself into the house. Christina tries to once again to draw a comparison between her experiences as a white woman barred from that stupid club and Ruby’s, but Ruby tells her to shut up. She tells Ruby that she misunderstood what William had said, he didn’t just give her the power to be white, he gave her the power to do whatever she wanted. Taking this as permission to do just that, Ruby, as Hillary, goes to Mr. Hughes’s office to quit. But before she makes her dramatic exit, Hillary begins to seduce him. With “Money” by Cardi B. as her soundtrack, she takes his belt, puts it around his neck, and proceeds to brutally assault him with the heel of her shoe as piece by bloody piece of Hillary’s skin falls away, possibly for the last time.
As Ruby had her “Come to Jesus moment” earlier, Leti seems to be doing the same. Sitting in a bathtub she reads the Bible when Tic enters. Without prompting, she tells him she’s looking for answers to questions she doesn’t even know. They both share that in the midst of the upheaval they’re looking for something meaningful and special, and for him, this is especially important because the relationship he had while in South Korea, ended under strange circumstances. Later we see Tic finally have a breakthrough with the translation, and whatever he sees shakes him up, because he rushes to call his ex in South Korea. She tells him he should’ve never left. In his notebook, he’s written D.I.E. She knows things, and I know the why and how she does is gonna be one heck of a reveal.
At the townhouse, Ruby challenges William to show her what’s in his basement, but before he can say anything, he drops to his knees, writhing in pain, his skin shedding. Out of the muck emerges Christiana because OF COURSE!
With the dramatic reveal of Christina having been William all along so much of what’s happened up until this point makes sense, but what’s really important is how it changes the context of everything that happened with Ruby and William. From the beginning, we’ve known Christina to be a manipulative, deceitful but what she did to Ruby goes beyond that. It was evil and violent.
She approached Ruby while she was in a vulnerable state and used her emotions to seduce her as William. This was the first horrible act, the second was giving Ruby the potion without her consent and turning her into a white woman – the doppelganger of Christina’s racist estate overseer – just because Ruby made a few comments while drunk. Christina drugged her and physically abused her. Next, as William, Christina misleads Ruby about what his real intentions were, and like a drug dealer, solicits her out to the club as a maid to spy for him using her struggles with acceptance as leverage.
Christina is more horrible than she thinks (and at times, I wonder if the writers even know just how horrible she is) because she believes that the problems she faces as a woman, somehow place her on the same level as Ruby, Tic, and Leti. But that’s just not the case. Not only does she have privilege over them by virtue of being a white woman, but she also has power which she freely wields to control them as we’ve seen time and again. I have a huge problem in particular with how it’s been used against Ruby in this episode.
As a dark-skinned larger Black woman, Ruby is marginalized by both white and Black communities. She’s struggled her whole life with wanting to fit in where ever she is. In the Black community, she’s compared to light-skinned Black women who meet the arbitrary measurements of acceptable beauty standards created by white slave owners, one of whom was Christina’s ancestor. In white spaces, she faces the same judgments and criticisms with the added hatred that comes from her just being Black.
While I understand that this episode is to show the violence that white feminism holds, and how Black women have to find ways to assimilate into white society, Being a dark-skinned Black woman, I don’t fully appreciate that it was done at Ruby’s expense. Throughout the episode the only times we see Ruby as herself (save for the last scene where she confronts William), she’s either naked covered in blood and viscera, physically weak and mentally traumatized by the metamorphosis, or wearing the maid’s uniform serving racist white men who barely acknowledge her presence, as a “favor” to repay William. I don’t like how Ruby was made into a violent assaulter herself in some skewed attempt at getting revenge for Tamara. There is a subtle implication that the most physically violent woman in this show is Ruby because even Christina hasn’t done something like this. The only physically violent act she’s enacted was using the knife to cut Hillary’s skin off the first time and beat some of the members of the club, but those acts were done as William and could be explained away because of the circumstances.
It is my genuine wish that Ruby isn’t swayed by Christina’s faux feminism and fake concern for her. There was the scene where Ruby very briefly let it slip to Tamara to not be fooled by white people because they’re crazy that shows she doesn’t buy into what Christina was selling, but I fear the strained relationship between her and Leti could be a contributing factor to her decision once she finds out Leti knows who Christina is. I know all the characters can’t be perfect, and I don’t expect them to be, but as Black people like to say whiteness is one hell of a drug. I hope Ruby doesn’t become addicted to it.
With all my critiques of “Strange Case”, I have to give it praise for how great it is technically. Director Cheryl Dunye did a fantastic job, and the performances by Wunmi Mosaku‘s and Jamie Neumann’s were stellar, making it my favorite overall for the season so far. I would like an Emmy nomination for Wunmi Mosaku, please.