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Television

‘This can’t happen on “Pose”’: How TV’s queerest show made its most emotional episode yet

POSE -- “Never Knew Love Like This Before” -- Season 2, Episode 4 (Airs Tues, July 9, 10:00 p.m. e/p
Angelica Ross as Candy in Season 2 of “Pose,” set in the queer ball scene of early 1990s New York City.
(Macall Polay / FX)

This post contains spoilers for Tuesday’s episode of “Pose,” “Never Knew Love Like This Before.”

Ryan Murphy and Janet Mock knew the tune of Candy Ferocity’s closing number all along.

“There was never any other choice,” Murphy said of the song, “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” which Candy — murdered by a john in Tuesday’s emotional episode of “Pose” — performs in the fantastical sequence that caps off the hour, climbing out of her casket to the cheers of the crowd.

The same might be said of the decision to address the epidemic of violence against transgender women of color in the U.S. The question wasn’t whether “Pose” should tackle the subject, but when. To do so before developing the audience’s connection to the characters risked turning the death of a queer person on television into what it so often is: a trope.

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“We didn’t want it to feel gratuitous,” Murphy, the series’ co-creator and the episode’s co-writer and director, said in a telephone interview. “We wanted it to feel earned.”

Instead, after “laying the foundation” over the course of 11 episodes, viewers are more likely to experience the stages of grief in their own right, added Mock, Murphy’s co-writer on the episode and herself a trans woman of color. “That’s the goal, at least, is that they go through the denial — ‘No, this can’t happen on “Pose.” This can’t happen to Candy. This can’t be real’ — and then for them to have to deal with it in the same way that [Candy’s friends] have to deal … with it.”

Set inside New York City’s queer ball scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s, memorably depicted in Jennie Livingston’s film “Paris Is Burning,” “Pose” follows a group of performers — including Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), Angel (Indya Moore), Elektra (Dominique Jackson) and Candy (Angelica Ross) — and their razor-tongued emcee, Pray Tell (Billy Porter), as they navigate the many dangers LGBTQ+ people of color faced, and still face, in American society.

Though the FX series distinguished itself in Season 1 by depicting the joyousness of the ballroom community, Mock said, its fans were so attuned to violence against trans women that they had to be disabused of the notion that Angel’s former love interest, a corporate raider named Stan (Evan Peters), would eventually kill her. As such, “Pose” had “a responsibility” to handle the upsetting events of Tuesday’s episode with respect.

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RELATED: ‘Pose': FX drama about 1980s underground ball scene is a big step for trans community, producer says »

POSE -- “Never Knew Love Like This Before” -- Season 2, Episode 4 (Airs Tues, July 9, 10:00 p.m. e/p
Billy Porter as Pray Tell in Tuesday's episode of "Pose."
(Macall Polay / FX)

For one thing, Mock explained, Candy’s murder, though shocking, doesn’t come out of left field: The prior episode includes a sequence in which a man brutalizes the trans woman of color he’s engaged in sex work. For another, Candy’s fate is revealed at a slight remove. Rather than depicting the murder directly — “We never had a version of the script that had us in the hotel room with Candy in it and the man that did this to her,” Mock said — Blanca narrates the tragic story to her friends as the camera captures the discovery of Candy’s corpse by a motel housekeeper.

“We’ve primed the audience to imagine for themselves when they see Candy’s body for the first time, bloody and beaten and gone … what happened to Candy in that hotel room,” Mock said. “We don’t have to spell it out completely. And also, even though we center Candy in this way, it’s about the women’s discovery and what that says to them. What fears it instills in them. How it launches them for the rest of the season, and for the rest of their lives.”

Respect doesn’t necessitate complete restraint, though — the episode also finds moments of levity in death, as Candy’s friends scramble to remove the fusty makeup the mortician’s applied or, later, reclaim jewelry and apparel Candy had “borrowed” over the years.

“[T]he ballroom community in itself is very theatrical,” Murphy says of the episode’s unorthodox structure, noting the influence of Bob Fosse’s semi-autobiographical meta-musical, “All That Jazz.” “We wanted to pay tribute to that theatricality and that sense of phantasm. … You’re watching it and you’re asking yourself, ‘Is this real? Is this subconscious? Is this subtext? What is it?’ ”

Near the episode’s midway point, after he’s delivered the eulogy at her memorial service, Candy appears to the rueful Pray Tell — who’s recently given her a very public dressing down — to offer forgiveness. “You are unapologetic, loud, black, femme,” Pray Tell admits, explaining his cruelty. “All the things I try to hide about myself when I go out into the real world.” The rest of the episode is comprised of Candy’s visitations: reassuring Angel, praising her friend Lulu (Hailie Sahar) for her honesty, receiving long-awaited acknowledgment from her parents. It’s a cathartic setup for the final sequence, in which Candy is finally “seen,” Murphy says — essential given the neglect of trans women of color by the culture at large.

“So many of the women that are being killed are footnotes,” he adds. “They’re not seen in life and they’re not seen in death, and they’re not appreciated, and their murders and their deaths go un-investigated, and they’re a blip in the newspaper one day, or online, and they’re gone the next.”

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Perhaps most striking, then, in both “Never Knew Love Like This Before” and “Pose” more broadly, is the contrast between the mass political movement inspired by the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the silence that often meets the epidemic of violence against trans women: As Mock put it, “There aren’t millions of people gathering in the street to march for these lives.” This is why she and Murphy remained undaunted despite the episode’s challenging material.

“You use that word, ‘triggering,’ ” Murphy said when asked if he was concerned about the potential for negative reactions on social media. “I understand that word, but I think when you’re writing something like this, when you’re making it, you do have to be responsible, but you also have to tell the truth.”

‘Pose’

Where: FX

When: 10 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)


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