Directed by Janet Mock, who made history last summer as the first trans woman of color to write and direct any television episode, “Butterfly/Cocoon” proves to be an appropriate title for episode three of Pose.
The episode opens with Angel’s audition tape to be the Ford Models Fresh Face of 1990. “When was the last time you saw somebody who looked like me as a part of a campaign?” she asks Eileen Ford, before explaining that she’s doing this whole modeling thing for visibility, and to be an example for anyone who was ever told they wouldn’t amount to anything, or for anyone who looks like her. In other words, Angel sees herself as not just a supermodel, but a role model for other trans women. You see, Angel is the “Butterfly” of the equation. The “Cocoon” comes in the form of, well, technically an actual cocoon, but we’ll get to that later.
Shortly after her audition tape, Angel is understandably disappointed when she finds out she won’t be receiving the coveted title, and instead the “Fresh Face” award goes to an unnamed blonde. Lil Papi tries to console her and they kiss, which is weird because this whole time they have thought of each other as siblings. They do live under the same roof and share a house mother, but they’re not actually related by blood and this isn’t Game of Thrones.
Eventually, Angel gets another call from Eileen Ford and discovers that she will be the face of a Wet ‘n’ Wild campaign, and ends up nailing the shoot before dancing the night away at the Palladium with Isaac Mizrahi, who tells her she is the “face of the nineties.” The only downside of her journey to stardom is that she flakes on a date with her brother-slash-boyfriend. Eventually, Blanca says what we’re all thinking about the soap opera that is Angel and Lil Papi by asking Damon, “Who needs The Young and the Restless when you got this?”
The real meat of this episode, however, concerns Elektra, who is back at work as a dominatrix in a sex dungeon. Paul, her client from last week with a penchant for poppers, brings along a gas mask and asks to be left alone for 20 minutes while the drugs kick in. Despite Elektra’s protests against drug use (“I cannot condone the use of drugs in my presence. I don’t even take Tylenol,” she snaps at him), Paul pays the mistress a hefty sum, and she obliges against her better judgment. Time passes and Elektra realizes she hasn’t heard a peep from Paul, and when she goes to check on him, he has choked on his vomit and died.
Elektra hurries to Blanca, who insists she call the police. Then they seek out Candy, now revealed to be working as a stripper, who brings them to a friend of hers who once got herself in a little mix up with an abusive john who, while beating her nearly to death, was able to convince the police to arrest her instead, and send her to prison on Rikers Island, where she was abused by a prison guard. The conversation the four women have about what to do with Paul’s body is just a small taste of the harsh realities trans women face when up against the state. Paul is a white business executive who could be found dead at any moment in a sex dungeon operated by transgender women. Candy and her friend bring up a good point: how could the police possibly believe anything Elektra says, even when she did not kill Paul and his death should be ruled as accidental? “For girls like us, the system is never on our side,” they conclude, before Candy comes up with another idea.
Remember last season, when Candy and Angel went to a sketchy “doctor” who offers silicon implants and injections, and Candy almost died from hers? Well, it turns out that shady lady runs another operation: covering up murders. After some prodding, she agrees to help, but only if Candy and Elektra can answer her questions regarding Paul’s size. “I just need to know how big of a suitcase I need to bring,” she deadpans.
After collecting the body, they go back to Elektra’s house and concoct a plan to cover up the murder. Elektra asks to say a prayer, but Candy, who recognizes Paul as a “pig” of a customer who was banned from her place of work for roughing up girls backstage, says he got what he deserved. “He’s a human being. Some mother’s son,” Elektra tells her. They hold hands against Candy’s wishes and say a prayer as a very on the nose choice of song (“Shame” by Evelyn Champagne King) soundtracks the scene. Then, the real cover up begins: they sprinkle lye over Paul’s body and wrap it in cloth and pleather like a mummy so that when the body starts decomposing there is no smell or evidence left behind. There’s that “Cocoon” we mentioned earlier.
Looking back at the first season of Pose, who would have thought that the show would ever wade into murky murder territory like Elektra wrapping up a dead body and burying him in her closet? Well, if you look at history, there’s an answer for that.
So far this season, Pose has done a fantastic job of naturally weaving real historical events and people into the narrative of each episode. The first episode featured a reenactment of the 1989 ACT UP die-in protest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and episode two introduced Patti LuPone as Frederica Norman, a racist real estate tycoon loosely based on Leona Helmsley. In episode three, the impact Paris Is Burning has had on the development of the series is stronger than ever.
The story of Dorian Corey, who is featured prominently in Pose‘s primary source material, Paris Is Burning, is likely the basis for the story of Elektra’s mummification moment.
Corey, a legend in the ballroom community and the reason anyone these days has even an inkling of an idea of how to master the art of shade, died in 1993 after a struggle with AIDS. A close friend of hers named Lois Taylor entered Corey’s Harlem apartment after her death with the intention of going through her old clothes. When she opened up the closet, she realized Corey left more than she had bargained for: a mummified dead man with a gunshot wound to the head stuffed inside of a trunk. The man was eventually identified as Robert “Bobby” Worley, who had been convicted for rape and assault and went missing in 1968. Authorities were able to deduce that he had been mummified for nearly two decades. New York magazine covered the story shortly after Corey’s death, but it remains an unsolved mystery to this day.
Back in Pose-land, Blanca reminds Elektra that she did what she had to do to protect herself, and even though the story of a missing business executive was picked up by the New York Post, everyone will forget about it in a month. All of the various house mothers may not always see eye to eye, but “when the outside world tries to tear us down, this army closes ranks,” Elektra says. Yes, Pose is a historical drama, but it won’t let you forget that it’s a family drama, too.
The episode ends with a quote from the late Corey: “Everybody wants to make an impression, some mark upon the world. Then you think you’ve made a mark on the world if you just get through it, and a few people remember your name. Then you’ve left a mark.”
Angel, the “butterfly” with her face on Wet ‘n’ Wild’s spring products, has inched towards making a mark of her own. Elektra, humbled by her actions of stuffing Paul into a “cocoon,” has certainly left an indelible mark, too—one that she’ll probably spend the rest of her life regretting.