This interview includes spoilers for the fourth episode of Season 2 of “Pose.”
“You ain’t seen the last of me,” Candy (Angelica Ross) promises in Tuesday’s episode of “Pose,” while brandishing a butter knife at Pray Tell (Billy Porter).
Candy is the scrappy underdog of FX’s hit drama, which is set in New York City’s ball scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and she has finally had enough of Pray’s put-downs and jibes.
The moment is typical Candy: embodying the name of her house, Ferocity, and fighting furiously to be respected even among those in her tight-knit black and brown L.G.B.T.Q. community. It also turns out to be a moment of poignant foreshadowing. By the episode’s midpoint, Candy, who is transgender, has been found dead in the closet of a motel room she was using to meet with johns for sex.
Candy was never nurturing like Blanca, the visionary daughter-turned-den-mother. She couldn’t pass as cisgender the way the up-and-coming model Angel can. She wasn’t a decorated legend at the balls, like Elektra. And yet, at her funeral, to which the rest of the episode is devoted, we see a powerful outpouring of grief from the people who knew her, including her parents.
“I’m almost numb from all the AIDS death,” Pray Tell explains, sitting in a pew. “But this is different. To die at the hands of another, that’s just a death that ain’t sitting right.”
Season 2 is set in 1990, but airs at a time when violent attacks on the trans community, especially women of color, are on the rise, and 11 trans women have been killed so far this year, according to advocacy groups. i
During a recent conversation at Silvercup Studios in the Bronx where “Pose” is filmed, Ross and the episode’s writers Janet Mock and Ryan Murphy discussed the significance of having Candy’s parents show up at her funeral, and the weight they felt in depicting her death.
“It was sitting on my chest for a long time,” Ross said of the episode, which was filmed in mid-May. “It still is.”
These are edited and condensed excerpts from that conversation.
What was the atmosphere like on set shooting the funeral scene?
ANGELICA ROSS As we were acting, I felt like everyone crying in the pews, and everyone that was just crying along, was crying because every single word felt like words you’ve heard before. And that everything Candy was saying to her parents was everything you wish you had the opportunity to say.
And so I was riding this wave of shared experience. I could feel it in the room. There were so many times where I had to excuse myself because I was trying to keep myself in ready mode.
When the parents came in [to the funeral home], I almost started crying, seeing them looking around the space. Because I just thought about my parents not knowing anything about the L.G.B.T.Q. community, nothing, especially back in the early ’90s. So all of this context was flying at me on set and it was just there to use. I didn’t rehearse any of those scenes.
JANET MOCK And it’s also full circle for our series too: We’re introduced to this world and the pilot through a black gay boy who’s kicked out of his home for standing in his truth. And that’s almost every single character’s story. So it’s a great healing for all of us and also for the series too, to have these two parents show up.
ROSS As a black trans woman, you don’t often get to hear folks express their love to you when you’re living. And so there were moments when I was laying in the casket and makeup had to come and touch me up because I was just crying, I was having this vicarious experience of laying in this casket, and hearing people saying these things.
Ryan and Janet, at what point did you know that the first death of a major character on the show would be the result of a violent act and not AIDS?
RYAN MURPHY We knew at the end of Season 1 that it was time. We talked a lot about it in the room.
We’ve been hearing, “Well, Candy’s just getting started and there’s so much left to do with her.” But you know, all of the women who are murdered are in the prime of their lives. And so in that way, I think we’re very true.
When we made the decision, we had the call with Angelica [to tell her] and she said, “Yes I will do this.” If she would have said no, we wouldn’t have done it, we would have figured out a different way or a different approach, or maybe we would have waited.
MOCK Angelica’s like, “I wish I would have known that.” [Laughs]
MURPHY But the truth is from our very first conversation you said “I think it’s time that we talk about this.”
ROSS Oh, absolutely.
MURPHY The show has a responsibility. You can’t do a show like this and not talk about it. It started in the ’80s, and we know it [will eventually] end in 1996, and we know along the way there will be many, many, many tragic deaths. I think the show, at its best, is a living record of that time and those women and those men, who for the most part suffered in silence and were unrecognized.
If you see them on television and you love a character, that character becomes your friend, and that character becomes your gateway toward empathy. And I think for many in our audience, maybe they don’t know a trans person. But after this episode they will, and think how many minds and hearts will be opened from that.
ROSS Nobody seems to understand why Candy’s so impulsive. But the struggle is that when you don’t have a perspective of longevity on life, life is impulsive. For Candy, it’s the fact that no one’s seeing her and they’re overlooking her. So the chip on her shoulder, people think she’s just crazy and no one seems to understand until it’s too late.
What do you hope the viewers who see themselves in the show will take away from this episode?
MOCK I want them to go through the stages of grief as our characters do. I want them to be outraged, but I want them to leave with a greater sense of responsibility, as these characters do, to show up for one another.
I hope that this episode is a vital intervention that forces people to start taking action. That we realize that the stakes are high and that what happened to Candy in May of 1990 is still happening to this day.
ROSS I think about [the influential trans activists] Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera and about how nonprofits and folks today use the images of our trans sisters as ways to pretend that they are woke, when the reality is that Johnson and Rivera were sex workers. So if you were all that concerned, what are we doing to help sex workers today?
It’s also this call of action to say to people: “O.K., you’re going to be mourning Candy. Put that energy toward a black trans woman out there, because I bet you there are plenty in your city right now that need your concern.”
How much of the show is in conversation with this current administration’s restrictions on trans rights?
MURPHY I think it’s really in conversation.
MOCK That sense of urgency and resilience and sacrifice are very present to this day in the spirit of this community, of how they show up for one another despite all kinds of administrations that have never shown up for them. You know, some gains that have happened specifically for trans communities and L.G.B.T.Q. communities of color have been long fought, but just recently won and are now being rolled back.
Season 2 is grappling with what happens when queer culture begins to gain social capital, in the form of Madonna’s “Vogue.” How do you reconcile the tension between “Pose”’s mainstream success and telling the stories of a community that still experiences marginalization?
MOCK With these characters, they’re fighting multiple systems. It’s not just their genders and their sexualities, right? It’s also the fact that they’re poor people. The fact that they come from communities of color with a lack of resources. And so we’re very conscious of that as we’re telling these stories.
This whole process has always been about how we properly empower and collaborate with this community so that the storytelling is better because of that.
We are conscious of the responsibility that we now have as the only mainstream representation for these communities and these people. And so for us, we’re never going to get too popular that we forget the realness and the rawness and the grimness, but then also the glamour, and the hope, and the love and the celebration that’s a part of this world.