“I enjoyed my entire day using the only currency I needed, whiteness”
If I had to assign an overarching theme to this episode, it would be 'privilege personified'. There is an overt storyline that is riddled with favour and opportunity as seen in Ruby's or should I say Ms. Hilary Davenport’s escapades. Ruby's literal metamorphosis that temporarily changes her into a white woman lets her character and viewers alike explore the disparity between the black and white experience- from the explicit to the nuanced. Although her journey may be the secondary plot within the episode, the wackiness and intrigue of the concept took centre stage. Yes, a black woman breaking out of white skin covered in blood would catch the attention of many watching, but the parallels between Montrose's and Ruby's arcs also need to be drawn.
Tic's father also experiences both privilege and transformation, just not as literally or as physically as Ruby. Instead of masking race behind a facade, Montrose shields his sexuality away. In a completely unrelated event that leads to Tic beating his father senseless in a fit of rage, Montrose's appearance is forcibly altered with bruises, bumps and a black eye- removing the smug and stern exterior we are used to and replacing it with something far more vulnerable. In that state of defencelessness, we are introduced to his 'love interest' and an arguably different side of the character we are familiar with, Frank Ocean's Bad Religion complements a scene plagued with Montrose's self-condemnation and rejection.
As those that sit on the fringes of 1950s white America, not only as black people but with the intersection of gender and sexuality,
“I don’t know what is more difficult. Being black or being a woman”.
Even though Ruby has discovered how to be black without the discrimination that goes with it, she is still within the male gaze constantly, and witnesses sexual assault. Ironically her benefactor (William/Christina) does the opposite, with Christina only posing as William to escape the limitations of being a woman that threaten her progression in the Sons of Adam, her race is not a barrier.
Ruby and Montrose both see their situations as curses before coming to terms with their identities, which is why the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly on the TV was the perfect voiceover for Ruby's first 'shedding'. Ruby’s assumed whiteness is juxtaposed at first to show that she’s not comfortable with the privilege. Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf plays over her white body walking down the street, tying into the idea of identity but also in a peculiar way which shows that her joy as a black woman is unregulated in that of a white body due to the problems racism posed in that era.
The role of both Montrose’s lover and Ruby's benefactor play a huge role in their overall change. They were both reassured and affirmed by interested parties. What differs is the reason that they were interested, which ultimately forks their paths towards acceptance. For example, Ruby uses privilege to inflict her twisted sense of justice, whereas Montrose finds a form of relief and freedom in who he truly is. Although Ruby's ending can be seen as oddly satisfying given her background in trying to get a job in a department store despite being overqualified, her story is also a commentary on the corruption of power through privilege. Instead of uplifting the black sales woman that works under her, Hilary/Ruby ends up belittling her due to the sales woman's own type of privilege: pretty. When Ruby realises that the other woman didn't have to take courses or work as hard as her to secure the job she dreamt about, her tune changes for the remainder of the episode. Maybe as Ruby, she would not have projected how she felt, but within her white body the limitations on her conscience were little to none.
Montrose is arguably the most complicated character in the show. He is layered with emotion, trauma and guilt that stop his true persona from rising to the surface. On top of that it isn't hard to see that he feels deeply misunderstood on both a micro and macro level through individuals like his son, Tic and his 'boyfriend' Sammy; but also, when it comes to his queerness in wider society. Though I described him in the same bracket as Ruby by embodying privilege, in his case as a straight man, the latter scenes of him dancing in the club without a care suggest that the privilege was more of a cocoon that he needed to break free from in order to complete his transformation.
The symbolism that ran throughout this episode is crucial for black viewers that have ever had that "what if?" moment, in relation to Ruby’s transformation but Montrose's tale is also one that cannot be overlooked. Apart from adding dimension to a personality first thought to be stubborn and dogmatic, it also gave those watching a window into how hypermasculinity and queerness still cause friction on an individual community level, especially for black people.