Four episodes into the second season of Pose, and, still, Madonna-mania persists. This shouldn't come as a surprise—Ryan Murphy revealed over a year ago that the singer's presence would loom large. But if you're already exhausted by the multiple mentions of the Material Girl in every episode thus far, prepare yourself: the community will keep on grappling with what she represents for the rest of the season. And even within the fictional realm of Pose, not every character is keen on hearing her name repeated over and over again.
Just as the rest of the world has caught on to voguing, the ballroom community decides to turn things up a notch with a new spin on the now-mainstream dance. Pray Tell asks the banjee boys to get on the floor, and instead of voguing, they start lofting (which is kind of like breakdancing). Leave it to the members of a marginalized subculture to already be on to the next big thing.
The ballroom has become a battlefield, and in this episode, it's all about the struggle between Candy Ferocity and Pray Tell, who comes down exceptionally hard on her when she pays homage to Madonna with a poor attempt at voguing and some paper cone bras.
After the ball, Blanca brings Pray Tell to the hospital to discuss the planning of another AIDS cabaret. Last season, the two connected with one another and the hospital patients in an emotional performance of Stephanie Mills' "Home." This season, we have yet to receive a musical performance from Mj Rodriguez and Billy Porter, but something tells us we'll get there eventually.
"Sometimes I feel like God is playing a joke on us. We've been trying to break into the mainstream for years, and now she lets it happen in the middle of a plague?" Blanca says, in another reference to the popularization of voguing at the hands of Madonna. After inviting Nurse Judy to the balls and unpacking the dangers of "watching too much MTV," Blanca and Judy reveal the real reason they invited Pray Tell to the hospital this afternoon: he's been refusing to take AZT, and instead chooses to eat a pound of butter a day to raise his T cells. Despite their protests that this will not protect him from the AIDS virus, Pray Tell yells about wanting to take a "holistic" approach to healing, and puts a moratorium on the conversation. For now.
Later, we see Pray Tell and three other ballroom emcees sitting around a diner table to organize the logistics of scheduling the balls. There's talk of minimizing the time for "moments of silence" because with each passing day, more and more people are dying from AIDS related complications, and the ballroom emcee council finds that there just is not enough time to commemorate all of them. But "on a lighter note" Pray Tell reminds the crew that they need to discuss Madonna. She's put more eyes on the ballroom scene than they ever anticipated, and his fellow emcees want to refresh some of those old '70s categories with new ones. Pray Tell agrees, but not without a warning. "We gotta be careful. Protective. Remember who this is for: us. Our community. We are not a tourist attraction. Our greatest asset is our authenticity."
In rolls Candy with a proposal: how about a lip synch category? If more people, like Junior Vasquez ("the biggest DJ in New York," according to Candy) are attending the balls now, then the chances of competitors getting noticed should also increase, right? "The eyes of the world are upon us, and I need to catch their gaze," she tells the emcees. Sure, Candy wants to be a star, but does she really have what it takes?
Candy believes lip synching is the future. We know, from a 2019 vantage point, that she's kind of right (just look at the success of RuPaul's Drag Race if you're in doubt). But Pray Tell remains staunchly against this new category, telling her, "That is not how you do a ball, that's how you do ventriloquism." Eventually, Candy's rough and tumble ways get the best of her, and she pulls a knife on Pray Tell in the restaurant. He brushes her off and calls her crazy.
Then, there is a harsh pivot. In the middle of a ball that night, Lulu realizes that Candy is missing. She tells Blanca and Angel that Candy was last seen at a motel, a place she's been frequenting as a sex worker. Blanca sends the family search party across the city to look for her, but eventually, the call comes through: Candy's body was found on the floor of a motel room by cleaning staff.
The previous episode was a close call for Elektra, who nearly had a run-in with the cops regarding the accidental death of one of her clients at the BDSM dungeon. It was Candy who helped her cover things up. "The NYPD doesn't care about a murdered transsexual," she says. "They've never been treated with respect or dignity. Candy's death isn't any different."
That defeatist attitude doesn't sit right with Angel, who reminds her family that eleven trans women had been murdered in New York City by the month of May 1990. It is in these moments when Pose is at its peak; the writers are deft at weaving historical events into the plot. In 1988, Venus Xtravaganza, a prominently featured interview subject in Paris Is Burning, was strangled to death and found after four days under a New York City hotel bed. Candy's death serves as a reminder that in 1990, the LGBTQ community was dealing simultaneously with AIDS and the threat of being murdered simply for being themselves. The episode ends with the statistic that more than 2,900 trans and gender nonconforming people have been murdered globally since 2008.
With the help of Nurse Judy, Angel, Elektra, and Blanca are able to bypass the law and get Candy's body delivered from the morgue to the funeral home. Angel, Elektra, and Blanca take issue with the embalming makeup and the "church lady wig" placed on Candy so they band together to give her a makeover before the service, lest she haunt them for years.
Judy has an update for her funeral count of the year: Candy's is her 463rd. "You know, I'm almost numb to all the AIDS deaths," Pray Tell says. "To die at the hands of another, that's just a death that ain't sittin' right."
In his eulogy, Pray Tell reminds the congregation that "funerals are a waste because only the living get to partake" and "unfinished business is the burden of the living" before asking for a moment of silence.
And then, something sort of miraculous happens: everyone gets their moment with Candy, an imaginary specter. First Pray Tell, then Angel, followed by Lulu, Blanca, and eventually Candy's parents. She has a lesson for them all.
Pray Tell's lesson is one of forgiveness. Candy asks him why he was so hard on her while she was alive, and he gives an honest response: "You are unapologetic, loud, black, femme—all the things I try to hide about myself when I go into the real world. You are all of them 24/7. I can't deal with the looks and the slurs, the beatings. We already have so many strikes against us. I guess in a way I was just trying to protect you." He has to look within, and learn to forgive himself.
Angel learns that she can't keep the piers in her back pocket in case modeling doesn't work out. Candy tells her to stop doubting herself because even though she may be one of the first trans girls to model in the industry, she is setting an example. "You gonna crack that door wide open for girls like us. That is your duty."
Lulu, who almost skips the funeral until Angel convinces her that she'll regret not paying her respects, learns to stay honest.
Blanca gets a moment with Candy in which she holds her hand, like the loving House Mother Candy never really had.
And finally, it's time for Candy's parents to learn their lessons. Her father is tolerant but her mother misgenders her. Eventually, they forgive one another for their wrongdoings and let go.
After that very long "moment" of silence, Pray Tell finishes the eulogy by announcing that in honor of Candy, there will now be a lip synching category at every ball called "Candy's Sweet Refrain."
And whether it's real or imaginary, Candy gets her moment, colorfully lip synching to "Never Knew Love Like This Before" by Stephanie Mills (a nice call back to last season's rendition of "Home" by Mills). She finally gets those coveted 10s, across the board.
For Pray Tell, Candy's death is a wakeup call about the preciousness of life. He and Blanca toast to life with crisp glasses of water as they take their AZT. As death looms closer, Pray Tell and Blanca concede that life should be a celebration. But this wouldn't be a family dinner without Elektra dragging Lemar's "inspired Josephine Baker" waves.