Warning: This post contains spoilers for Tuesday’s episode of “Pose.”
Since its premiere last June, “Pose” — the groundbreaking FX drama about New York City’s vibrant house/ball scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s — has balanced its inherent joy with the dark shadow of the AIDS crisis. On Tuesday, the show confronted a different, and ongoing, epidemic: violence against black transgender women.
The resulting Season 2 episode was a grim but necessary turn for a series that has been praised for celebrating the black and Latino pioneers of ballroom culture, and for placing writers, producers and actors who reflect the identities of its heroes at the show’s helm. Producer Janet Mock, who made history last season as the first transgender woman of color to write and direct a TV episode, co-wrote the episode with “Pose” co-creator Ryan Murphy, who also served as director.
In a phone interview, Mock said the show’s staffers “felt a responsibility” to tackle the often-fatal violence that disproportionately affects trans women of color; according to the Human Rights Campaign, at least 11 black transgender women have been killed so far this year. But in doing so, the show would have to say goodbye to one of its own.
The heartbreaking loss was vaguely foreshadowed in the episode’s trailer as Angel (Indya Moore) tells Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) and Lulu (Hailie Sahar) that “she hasn’t come home yet.”
Tuesday’s episode revealed that Angel was referring to Candy Ferocity (Angelica Ross), their friend and fellow former House Abundance member. She had gone missing after turning to survival sex work to support the house she and Lulu had established.
Lulu and Blanca went to a motel Candy was known to frequent, in search of their sister. The manager of the motel was dismissive and rude, but Blanca insisted he take her number. She later received a heartbreaking phone call: Candy, who had been attacked by one of her johns, was found dead in the closet of a motel room. Viewers took in the horrifying discovery as the camera stayed focused on Candy’s battered body for several agonizing seconds.
Candy is a significant character on “Pose” — the first to have lines in the show’s pilot episode — and her death provoked anger and sadness from her community, which came together to celebrate her in a passionate funeral that put viewers through a roller coaster of emotions. A comedic moment preceded the service as Elektra (Dominque Jackson), Blanca and Angel lovingly redid Candy’s makeup, which had been botched by the white funeral home director.
“Miss Candy, she was hard like a jawbreaker,” Pray Tell (Billy Porter) later told his fellow mourners. “She’d crack your skull if you ever tried to cross her.” Her close friend and House Ferocity co-mother, Lulu, was so distraught, she had resigned not to attend the memorial. But she changed her mind and, midway through the memorial service, walked solemnly up to Candy’s casket. Lulu’s tears turned to anger as she realized Candy was wearing some of her jewelry, which she proceeded to remove.
“We were very careful to balance the upsetting moments with the powerful moments,” Murphy explained. He said the funeral scenes, which featured around 100 extras, would often be filled with bursts of applause.
During the funeral, Candy had several surreal, posthumous conversations with those close to her, including Lulu and Pray Tell, who confessed that their relationship had been strained only because he saw so much of himself in her. “You are unapologetic, loud, black, femme, all the things I try to hide about myself when I go out into the real world,” Pray Tell tells Candy. “I was jealous of that bravery.”
Murphy’s favorite scene is the emotional confrontation Candy has with her estranged parents, who attempt to explain their struggle to accept their transgender daughter. Candy embraces them. “Why did it take me so long to see you?” her mother says tearfully.
Their imagined reconciliation “was a very painful thing,” Murphy said. “And yet I think for so many people in the LGBTQ world, it will mean a lot because it’s a scene about finally being seen for who you really who you are.”
Mock is personally fond of Candy and Lulu’s conversation. “We get to celebrate sisterhood. We get to celebrate showing up for one another in such a beautiful way,” she said.
Candy’s story ends on a triumphant note as the funeral parlor fades and Candy and her loved ones enter a glorious ballroom filled with glamour and revelry. It’s a stark contrast to the harsh reality.
“In real life, we don’t get to see that person that we lost again. You don’t get to hear their voice,” Mock said. “You don’t get to see her receive her flowers, or in our case her trophy, and to be applauded while she’s alive.”
To that end, “Pose” offers a subversive antidote to the “bury your gays” trope that has undercut many LGBTQ stories on television. It has been so commonplace for shows to kill off LGBTQ characters — often during the happiest moments of their lives — that Murphy and co-creators, Steven Canals and Brad Falchuk, promised viewers early on that one of the show’s central relationships, between Angel and Stan (Evan Peters), would not end with Angel’s death.
But “to not talk about this epidemic would be irresponsible,” Murphy said. He said he hopes the episode inspires people to take action. “At its best, ‘Pose’ really is a conversation launcher, particularly for young people, who are very great about picking up and shining spotlights in dark corners."
“It was a very moving episode to be a part of and a tough one, but a very necessary one,” he added. “I don’t think enough conversations are being had about this epidemic.”
Mock said the episode “is a memorial to those who we’ve lost and those who’ve been left behind because of such losses.”
She and Murphy also praised Ross’s performance, which lit up social media Tuesday night. Candy’s final triumphant moment features the actress dancing and lip-syncing to Stephanie Mills’s “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” which lends the episode its title.
On “Pose,” Candy’s death has already profoundly affected those around her. It’s the driving force behind Pray Tell’s decision to finally take charge of his HIV diagnosis. He resolves to begin taking his medication.
“Candy’s death reminded me that life is so precious,” he says. “And I don’t want to waste mine. I don’t want to waste it.”