‘Pose’: Why Candy’s Life Matters

Macall Polay / FX

Tuesday night’s Pose, “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” was a hard episode to watch. As someone who loves all of the characters on this show, learning of Candy’s (Angelica Ross) death was a hard fact to take in.

But while this will definitely not be an episode I can watch again for a long time, this episode affected me positively in two different ways.

The first thing I loved was that it has finally shown audiences how a show can treat a character’s death with respect. As a viewer, it was clear to me that killing Candy was a hard thing for the writers to do. But they did it for a reason, as I’ll get to later in this post. And because they had a specific purpose for Candy’s death, they in turn honored her life by showing she mattered to the people around her, even if they weren’t kind to her in life. Unfortunately, she didn’t know this while she was alive, but in death, Candy was shown to be a force in her community and a mirror to some like Pray Tell (Billy Porter), who didn’t want to face their own internalized issues with powerful femininity.

All of this was shown during Candy’s funeral, when everyone got to pay their last respects to her. In a beautiful move, Candy’s spirit shows up to have her last words with her loved ones, too. She forgives Pray Tell for always being rude to her and finally gets closure for why he always picked on her specifically. She consoles Angel who sings with Blanca, two people who seemed to show her the most kindness in her life. She has her last sister talk with Lulu (Hailie Sahar), the person she was the closest to in life. And she even got to have the conversations she wished she had with her estranged mother and more accepting father. When it was all said and done, Candy’s spirit got to live out her dreams as the winner of the new lip synch category in the ballroom, a category dedicated to her memory. Surrounded by the love of all of her peers, Candy, as well as the actress Angelica Ross, gets a fantastic, bittersweet send-off. We are sad to see Candy go, but at least we have some sense of closure for her spirit.

What made this entire funereal scene so powerful was that it was the majority of the episode. Candy wasn’t killed at the end of the episode and then carted off as if none of the audience cared about her. Her death was purposefully gruesome, but as a character, she was given dignity and respect in death. That makes me feel a teensy bit better as a viewer, even though I’m still grieving over the fact that we won’t see Candy shake it up anymore this season.

The respect for characterization is all that I’m asking for when it comes to writers’ rooms tackling on-screen deaths. I’ve written a lot about on-screen deaths when it comes to Black women characters. The easiest examples I can bring up are Abbie from Sleepy Hollow and Veil from Into the Badlands, two characters who were built up expertly, only to be torn down in their final scenes with little reasoning or sense.

Granted, in Sleepy Hollow’s case, Nicole Beharie was reportedly beginning to dislike her time on set, and it makes sense since her character was being thrown through the characterization ringer for no discernable reason. But in both characters’ cases, they were killed as sacrifices, even though their burdens were supposed to be shared by their male counterparts. Their purposes in the storyline were unfairly reduced, and while the writers might have tried to be as respectful as possible with their deaths, their death scenes felt like a stab in the hearts of the viewers, particularly the Black female ones who have seen Black women, and Black people in general, serving as the sacrificial lamb far too many times in film and television.

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In Pose’s case, you can tell there was a specific plan regarding Candy’s death, and that plan helped the writers’ room pay proper homage to Candy and Ross.

Writer/producer Our Lady J wrote a little about the reason for Candy’s death online:

And Janet Mock, one of the writers and producers of Pose, talked to the Los Angeles Times with co-creator/producer Ryan Murphy about how they dealt with the death, saying that they give the audience the heads-up on how rampant violence against trans women is by having a trans sex worker (played by RuPaul’s Drag Race alum Peppermint) getting assaulted by her john. The next thing the writers did is simply reveal Candy’s body instead of showing the brutality of her murder.

“We never had a version of the script that had us in the hotel room with Candy in it and the man did this to her,” said Mock. “…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. 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 [Blanca, Lulu, Dominique Jackson’s Elektra and Indya Moore’s Angel] 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.”

Murphy gets into the point of Candy’s death: a highlight on the epidemic of trans women of color being killed at a disproportionate rate. According to the Human Rights Campaign, 11 Black women—Dana Martin, Jazzaline Ware, Ashanti Carmon, Claire Legato, Muhlaysia Booker, Michelle ‘Tamika’ Washington, Paris Cameron, Chynal Lindsey, Chanel Scurlock, Zoe Spears and Brooklyn Lindsey—have already been killed from being shot or by other means. Recently, two Latina trans women have been killed by suspicious means—Johana ‘Joa’ Medina died at an El Paso, Texas hospital hours after being released from ICE custody. Layleen Polanco was found dead in a Riker’s Island cell; the exact cause of death is still unknown. Even worse, their deaths are barely highlighted by the news, showing how trans lives are still disrespected and unfairly kept to the margins.

“So many of the women that are being killed are footnotes,” he said. “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.”

Therefore, it’s poignant that Candy finally gets her moment in the sun when her spirit finally takes the trophy for lip synching, surrounded by loving friends. As Murphy said in the interview, Candy finally gets “seen” by her peers, which further highlights how often trans women of color are pushed out of the mainstream conversation.

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Murphy told The New York Timesalongside Ross and Mock that the episode had to tell its viewers the truth.

“The show has a responsibility,” he said. “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,” he continued, “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.”

Mock added, “I want [viewers] 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 also talked about the episode being a “Call to action.” “[It says] 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.”

One quote Mock told Deadline hits it home for me when it comes to Candy’s death. Her death highlights how so many trans women aren’t being allowed to live their lives to their fullest potential. Instead, their stories are cut short in the midst of their prime, all because of senseless violence.

“…It’s like, you still don’t know enough about Candy,” she said. “I feel like we’re still kind of meeting her.  Who are these parents? Where did she come from? Did she grow up in New Jersey? You want to know so much more. But that’s what happens. It’s like these women are stripped away and you don’t get to know all of that. At the same time, we are putting the responsibility in the kindest, gentlest way to the audience, to think about how we lose our people—and this is what’s happening every single day, from back then to today.”

That is what chokes me up the most about Candy’s death. We were so connected to her because we were intrigued by her. She was energetic, she was full of life. She wanted so much for herself and had the drive to get it done. Even when others kept putting her down, she kept getting back up, stronger than ever. It’s frustrating that the systems in place and the fears that exist put her in a position where her life was in danger in the first place. It’s those systems and fears that led to her untimely death.

The same things that killed Candy are sadly still in place today. The 13 women mentioned above didn’t have to die. But, as I’ve always believed, entertainment can provide viewers ways to empathize with others from different backgrounds. And Candy’s death will certainly be a catalyst for many viewers to think about how they relate to trans women in their lives or in society. Hopefully, many viewers come away from this episode and research the 13 women who died this year and equate their stories to Candy’s stories. These women also had a lot of life to live that was tragically cut short. Hopefully, Candy’s death will inspire viewers to action, making sure that future trans women won’t have to be at risk simply for being themselves.