It was only a matter of time before death came for one of the main ensemble on Pose, and last night’s stirring and strange episode, “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” said goodbye to one of the original members of the House of Abundance.
Showcasing the danger and discrimination these women face requires the show to up its stakes. For a show about trans women of color (regardless of decade), it just wouldn’t feel honest if the threat of death and violence wasn’t ever present. As the characters at the center of Pose navigate a hostile world (not to mention a plague), no one is ever really safe.
Unfortunately, the episode’s execution was all over the place. It long felt like between American Horror Story, American Crime Story, Feud and various other projects, Ryan Murphy was kept just busy enough to save Pose from his messier instincts. Last night’s episode was co-written (along with Janet Mock) and directed by Murphy, and, boy, does it show.
That’s not to say it wasn’t still an incredibly impactful and emotional episode of television. But it was strange, sometimes a little ham-fisted and crammed about twice the emotional character beats than it earned into its overlong running time.
We begin with another ball, and another opportunity for Pray Tell (the masterful Billy Porter, making the most of every extra moment of screentime) to come hard for Candy. It’s a dance category, and, despite her Madonna-inspired outfit, Candy ain’t no dancer.
We’ve seen Candy get shut out of categories before, so this tension has been building. When the emcees from the various balls convene at a diner to discuss adding a new category, Candy crashes the convention to suggest a lip syncing category that appeals to the increased audience whose interests have been piqued by Madonna’s hit single. They dismiss the idea as inauthentic, prompting to Candy to threaten Pray Tell with a butter knife and throws things at their table in a huff. She promises it’s not the last they’ve seen of her.
She’s sort of right. Sort of.
Later, Lulu shows up at the House of Evangelista distraught. Candy’s been taking johns to seedy motels, and she hasn’t come home in a few days. Blanca and Lulu rush to her usual spot, but the manager of a motel that rents by the hour isn’t exactly keen on helping ID murder victims on his property. They leave Candy’s picture and Blanca’s phone number. It’s not long before he calls with the news: Candy was murdered.
It’s a brutal revelation, and for too long I had hoped it was some kind of trick, maybe a comment on this scuzzy motel manager thinking all trans women are the same or something. Maybe they would realize it’s not really her. Not the case. She’s really gone.
The group is devastated. Nurse Judy helps them claim the body, thanks to the gay guy who works at the morgue. The rest of the episode is spent at Candy’s funeral, and that’s where things start to go a bit off the rails.
First, there’s a very sweet scene wherein Angel, Elektra and Blanca fix Candy’s hair and makeup. These are sisters, and despite all the feuding and rivalry. They love each other deeply, like any family.
As the mourners fill the funeral parlor, we go from character to character as they have one-on-one moments with “Candy.” These mini moments offer closure to each character, though some are almost a little too tidy. She gives Angel a sort of Jacob Marley-esque warning to never go back to sex work. She sits and sweetly hums beside Blanca, holding hands. She and Lulu bicker like sisters, but warmly remember the struggles they’ve shared. It’s all very sweet, but it’s a lot of telling, not showing, and the audience is basically getting hit over the head with these themes.
Such is the case with Pray Tell as well, who admits to the ghost of Candy that he was hard on her because she was loud, dark and feminine — the things he hates about himself. It’s almost too self-aware, and the dialogue reads less like a revelation and more like an essay exploring the dynamics between the two characters. Thankfully, Billy Porter is such a powerhouse actor that he can still wring honest emotion out of every word. In fact, the entire cast helps these moments transcend the overwrought writing to still land the emotional punches.
Most disorienting is the arrival of Candy’s parents. Angel had been tasked with notifying Candy’s parents — characters we’ve never seen, and I don’t believe we’ve ever even referenced — but they did not seem like they would attend. Of course, they show up. First Blanca gracefully handles them misgendering Candy, before leading them inside. That’s where they meet with Candy’s spirit for one of those Ryan Murphy scenes that just relentlessly clobbers viewers with pathos.
It’s a tough scene to digest. On the outside, every word spoken hits you in the gut. It’s a scene so many queer people can relate to, and the devastation that their peace could only be found after Candy’s death doesn’t just pull the heartstrings, it rips them out, fashions them into a cat of nine tails and flagellates viewers. There are no doubt plenty of tears on screen and off, but at the same time, who are these people? Even Candy could be considered a secondary character to Elektra, Angel and Blanca, so to hang such a massive moment on her parents makes this huge scene feel hollow.
Pray announces a new category coming to the balls: the Candy’s Sweet Refrain Lip Sync contest. From there, the parlor walls open, Candy climbs out of the casket and we’re treated to a fabulous, fantastical lip sync. She really is a star. The show has flirted with fantasy before, so this wasn’t nearly as jarring as it could’ve been in less capable hands. However, coming off the previous extended apparition scenes, it was a lot to process.
The episode ends with Pray Tell deciding to begin treatment with AZT, cheersing to life alongside Blanca.
So much of this episode rang so true. The stakes for these women are incredibly high, and bravo to Pose for making the bold choice of killing off a main character. The fact there was so much more to learn about Candy makes the viewers feel the loss as well. This was a character — and a person — that had so much more to give. That’s partially why these rushed little moments of closure cheapened the experience. Candy’s parents in particular felt tossed in, despite the emotional heft of their interaction. (Also, why make time for them and not a moment with Elektra, Candy’s former house mother?)
I’m looking forward to seeing the continued fallout from Candy’s death. I hope this gives Lulu some opportunities for growth, and I’m eager to get back on track with the narrative arcs of Blanca’s business, Angel’s modeling career/relationship with Papi and Elektra’s tell-tale suitcase.
However, I cannot state enough how fantastic all the performances were last night. Angelica Ross finally got the spotlight she deserved, and she really made the most with the opportunity. Indya Moore was stunning as always. Mj Rodriguez grounded every scene with her warmth and energy. Even Hailie Sahar as Lulu got some good moments. And, again, Billy Porter is giving us some of the best acting anywhere on television. Even when Pose is shaky, it’s still sublime, thanks to this cast.
What did you think of the episode?