The date is Tuesday, May 1st of 1990, and Angel is being taped by Eileen Ford and her team in the last round of their nationwide model search. She swivels around in an office chair, thinly veiling her nervousness as one of the five finalists out of, as Eileen mentions, hundreds. “Why,” Ford asks, “do you deserve to be the fresh face of 1990?” “‘Cause I’m a natural beauty,” Angel responds, dulcetly. (And why wouldn’t she be, after all she’s experienced on the way up here?) Ford genially-yet-quickly wraps up the interview, but not before Angel reminds her that she was never asked why she *wants* the job. “When was the last time you seen somebody that looked like me be the face of a campaign?,” she rightfully jabs. “I wanna be an example to e-,” she catches on her own words, pointing outside the windows of the skyscraper they’re all sitting in, intermittently jutting her eyes back and forth from the watchful camcorder’s eye. “To everybody that’s told that they’re worthless. That they can make something of themselves.” Indya Moore is such an acutely nuanced, deeply talented performer, and it’s moments like this (episode-opening ones, no less!) that remind me and everyone else out there (especially the Emmy voters) why they deserve to be fiercely lauded and subsequently nominated for their work as Angel. It’s a piercing, stunning sequence—and hey! We’ve only just begun! “Help me prove them wrong,” Angel implores. “Pick me.”
Suddenly, it’s nighttime and Angel’s just arrived to the ballroom, right on schedule for (what else?) the Femme Queen Runway category, decorated in a decadently casual late ‘80s get-up, complete with high-waisted jeans and hand-beaded crop. The crowd goes wild, and it’s 10s, 10s, 10s across the board. She’s riding on a high, twirling in slow motion as glitter falls from the ceiling, excitedly telling her Evangelista family she thinks she got the modeling contract. This, of course, for my terrified ass, spells nothing but future disaster for our girl, whose arc this season is quickly falling right in step with the real life herstory of once-closeted trans model Tracey Norman (the first to ever secure a national beauty campaign; at least that we know of).
Much quicker than I expected, back home while Papi lovingly (the chemistry between them is about to boil over, I genuinely can’t take it![!!!]) snaps more polaroids of her to add to their collection, Angel gets a call from Ms. Ford. She didn’t get the job. “I’ma give her a piece of my mind,” Blanca growls, prompting an agonizingly incisive reaction from Angel: “You always putting shit in our minds to make us think we deserve more! Why don’t you just focus on yourself?” Blanca is shaken, but also knows that this is her job as mother of the house, to remain steadfastly optimistic about the dreams of her children, even when they’re so often unable to do it themselves. Later, Angel and Papi are walking along the water in River Park, her lamenting that she’s never wanted anything as much as snatching the title, being “a real Ford model.” “My face was gonna be everywhere,” she continues. “I still see all that for you,” Papi says in response. “That corny ass competition’s not gon’ stop you, ‘cause it’s your destiny.” Right then and there, I knew it was gonna happen: the kiss. The kiss that I’ve been waiting for for what feels like decades, the coming together of Angel & Papi, and I nearly fainted upon its actual occurrence. It’s the dream fantasy version of finally having that moment with someone you already adore and trust and want, *have* wanted, backed by sweet synth chords and the soft babbling of a city-trapped mini waterfall. They loved it, we loved it, and I can’t fucking wait to see where their relationship goes (I swear if anything happens to either of them, I’ll riot). “I knew you was the one ever since I first seen you,” Papi says, melting the hearts of millions worldwide with one line.
To the cue of Janet Jackson’s “Black Cat” (!!), we’re taken down once more into the den of Mistress Elektra, whose “little bitch,” Paul, is back and beyond ready for more. (Dominique Jackson clearly has so much fun with these leather-bound sequences, they’re big, fat, juicy cherries on top of her ever-present deliciousness.) Paul presents her with a gas mask that’ll release a steady supply of poppers to him while they play, but—as he’s already aware—she’s not one for drugs. “I don’t even take Tylenol,” she drolly (and incredibly) notes. At that, he tells her to name her price, and they’re on. Just as he’s getting too comfortable complaining about his in-office woes, Mistress Elektra cracks the whip literally and metaphorically, promising to take good care of him. Locked and loaded into a sling with the mask in place, he requests that she come back in twenty minutes when everything’s kicked in, so he can “fully enjoy” his beating. “Certainly. I’m on your time,” she says, sauntering off to the dressing room, where she makes a cup of tea and files her nails in the mirror. When time’s up, she’s back and Paul’s…dead. Elektra sobs in terror as she rips off the mask and vomit spills from his mouth. The first thing she does (naturally) is run to Blanca for advice, but when she’s told to call the cops, she hysterically notes that she should’ve just gone to Candy instead. Blanca follows Elektra out of the apartment and to a strip joint where Candy’s on the pole (as Vanity 6’s “Nasty Girl” plays—the music’s so on point this episode, it’s unreal). Backstage, Candy plays devil on Elektra’s shoulder and reminds her that A) the police will never believe “a bunch of transsexuals” and B) she’d never survive Riker’s. Blanca, ever the angel on the opposite shoulder, implores her, again, to call the cops—Paul had drugs in his system; they can’t deny that. “Somebody I want you to talk to you before you turn yourself in, ‘kay?” Candy says, taking them to find Euphoria (played by Drag Race alum and newly minted Broadway star Peppermint), a fellow trans girl hooking on the street to survive.
At Blanca’s apartment, the group volleys back and forth between “doing the right thing” and realizing that, for them, in this situation, they’re not allowed to. “Ms. Elektra crossed the one line our kind ain’t allowed to cross. We’re the ones supposed to be beat up and die, not them!” Euphoria recounts the story of a former John who, unsatisfied with her execution, savagely began to beat her and then lied to the cops once they arrived at the scene, resulting in her being thrown in prison and eventually pimped out by one of the guards. “For girls like us, the system is never on our side.” It’s a sharply bleak reminder of the reality both back then and (despite the infinitesimal steps forward taken) now for trans* people, especially women of color in the community. Elektra, still losing her mind over what to do or not do, begs for a concrete answer; Candy, conveniently, knows someone else she can talk to who deals with these situations. Elektra quickly falls back into motherhood mode, asking Blanca to go to her room while she, Candy, and Euphoria conspire together. “You’re my daughter, and not responsible for my sins,” she says, calmly—a rare, beautifully clear moment of intimacy between the two.
In the sub-basement of Ms. Orlando (Cecilia Gentili, instant camp legend), infamously known in the girls’ circles as a surgical butcher and all-around cleaner of messes, Elektra knows that Paul didn’t deserve whatever treatment his money is about to buy him this time, but that they have to do it. When Ms. Orlando inquires as to whether he was tall or fat, Elektra’s both offended and confused, breathlessly asking why that matters. “I just need to know how big of a suitcase I need to bring,” she coos, outrageously. Once the three return to Mistress Elektra’s abode, Candy recognizes Paul as a former patron of the club who was eventually banned for taking girls in the back and smacking them around. “I say we take him outside and leave him dressed up just like he is,” she spits, but naturally Ms. Orlando has other plans. Paul freshly folded into her bag, the girls take him “somewhere safe.”
At the House of Evangelista, Blanca is making Sloppy Joes and, consequently, a mess of the kitchen floor. Angel goes to help her, asking for her forgiveness in the process. “I long forgave you for your outburst,” Blanca tells her. Angel can see something’s plaguing Blanca, but her mother wants to hear what’s going on in her life first, as she noticed “Papi has been pouting all day.” When he arrives back home, Blanca tells her to handle it, and brings the sandwiches to Damon in the dining room. Angel, afraid to ruin what she has with Papi, chastises him for thinking he isn’t enough or doesn’t *have* enough for her. “I’m just scared,” she confesses. “You’re family, you mean so much to me.” He, nonplussed, wants to mean more to her, or at least have a shot at it (GIVE IT TO HIM, GIRL!!). Blanca, spying on the two from just beyond the door frame, sees them kiss and spins around to Damon, whisper-screaming, “Who needs The Young and the Restless when you got this?” (both the line of the episode *and* all too real for everyone at home, too). Before heading to eat, Angel finally agrees to a date, Papi saying he’ll take her whenever she wants. (To see their love on television is so impossibly beautiful, so impossibly exciting, so impossibly refreshing, my poor, battered heart can’t take it!)
At Elektra’s apartment, the girls have everything they need for a party—lye (“for the smell”) and pleather (“easy to work with,” “doesn’t leak”)—a mummification party, that is (Ms. Orlando prefers the term “beautiful little cocoon,” but apples/oranges!). Elektra is now Pose’s very own Dorian Corey, of Paris is Burning fame, whose similarly marginalized and vilified existence drove her to similar skeletons in the closet. Out of genuine humility, Elektra leads the girls in prayer over Paul’s body: “Lord, the world can be a cruel place—especially for women like us,” she mourns calmly, eyes closed. “We do not like what we have to do to this man’s body, but we have no choice. If we did, we would do right by him…at least no one will know how he died, which I’m sure he would appreciate.” The episode’s scribe, the legendary Our Lady J, makes such a brilliant choice here: the scene is presented with equal parts sincerity and hilarity, a truly empathetic “behind-the-scenes” take on what drove girls like Corey to “do such a thing.” They get to work, folding Paul up “like a baby,” per Ms. Orlando’s instructions, as the disco bass of Evelyn “Champagne” King’s “Shame” scores the sequence (the song’s hook of “wrapped in your arms is where I wanna be,” eerily/hysterically sounding like “wrapped in your walls”). “You didn’t kill him,” Candy reminds Elektra, trying in her own way to soothe her anxieties. The whole thing is such a miraculous presentation, continuously reminding us that behind every gag, it was—honestly—their only option.
At Casa Evangelista, Angel frets over what to wear on her date with Papi, though Damon is confused as to why she’s stressing. They’re both proud of how far he’s come (he quit dealing, got his G.E.D., and secured a job at The Carlyle—plus, his “intentions are pure,” Damon notes). The thing that she’s forgetting, though, is that she “is a girl who can get anything.” With that, like magic, the phone rings and Angel’s back in Eileen Ford’s office. “You’re delightful, and as much as your sass tickles me, it cost you the title,” Eileen informs Angel. She has something for her, though: a cosmetics shoot with “something missing.” Her. She’s going to be the face of Wet n Wild’s new spring colors collection, “in the makeup aisle of Duane Reade,” where “all the girls” can see it (yet again: an untouchably perfect moment from Moore). “When do they want me?” Angel inquires. “You’re already late,” Eileen says with a smile, handing her the address to the shoot. There, freshly done up and dressed in a star spangled one-piece, things aren’t going too well until Angel takes a box from the side of the set and slaps her right leg up on it, extending her pose and driving the photographer mad with newly-invigorated creative energy. “You are a star, Angel, you’re a star,” he feverishly compliments, her aura a perfect match for her outfit. As her looks change and the shoot progresses, hour after hour, she realizes she’s going to be late for her date with Papi, but the photographer questions whether she wants to be “a social butterfly or a superstar.” “‘Superstar’ it is,” he muses once she stays, while poor Papi is left waiting outside Barbetta alone in his adorably oversized suit, a bouquet of roses in hand.
Back home, Angel is over the moon, telling Blanca and Damon all about being behind the velvet rope at Palladium (RIP), sitting with the other Ford models at their own private table—“all you can drink and sniff” (Angel, of course, kept her “nose outta that junk,” making mama B proud). “Models are the new rockstars,” she beams, noting that the best part was that her favorite designer (Isaac Mizrahi, a scream!) singled her out as “the face of the ‘90s.” Papi, painfully dejected, comes home and sits at the table, which prompts Blanca (and Damon, quickly after) to head into the kitchen to fix him a plate, i.e. give them space. Once she explains the situation, he’s thrilled for her, but also genuinely hurt. “I told myself, ‘You must’ve done something right to get her to say ‘Yes,’” he says, slowly. “And I was alone, like I always been.” Once Angel begins to clarify the situation further, that she had a dress picked out and everything, Papi assures her (and us! *sobs*) just how good a man he is: “I’m not gon’ let you apologize for doing what you had to do,” he tells her, going on to say that she’s the only thing he’s ever wanted. *His* dream, something she can’t see while her eyes are on other prizes, “the photoshoots, the magazine covers, the famous people.” “But Angel, I am a prize too,” he cries. “And I need you to know that.” Angel Bismark Curiel nails the scene, cutting out the melodrama and getting straight to the heart of the matter. He’s been a sort of secret MVP all along, and I cannot wait to see where he gets to go next—hopefully with Angel by his side (please God).
Two weeks since the situation with Paul, Elektra is late for an impromptu, face-to-face meeting scheduled by Blanca (“the sun rises when it’s ready,” feigning serenity). Blanca tells Elektra that Candy’s been (innocuously…?) spreading the story of what they did to the other girls, and half don’t believe her; the other half, simply, understands why they did it. It’s “what any of us would’ve done trying to survive,” Blanca says, knowing that despite Elektra “being a bitch,” she also has to be hurting. Elektra explains that she too is having nightmares, seeing Paul when she sleeps: “He’s mine now. He will be with me for the rest of my life.” The two tenderly come together, Elektra noting, as she hangs her head, “We may cut each other up like a pack of alley cats, but when the outside world tries to tear us down? This army closes ranks.”
The next morning, the House of Evangelista is in Duane Reade, searching for the Wet n Wild stand, newly-minted with Angel’s image, and the camera swoops with them through the aisles until they do. There she is, looking just like the star we and they all know her to be. Their joy is exquisitely palpable, Angel yelping, “You did this!” to Blanca as they embrace. The episode closes on my personal favorite quote from (!) Ms. Dorian Corey, who once said that leaving a mark on the world is just getting through it, and having “a few people remember your name.” Those few end up, if you’re lucky, being your family, chosen or otherwise—certainly in Corey’s case, in Angel’s case, in all of these characters’, it’s the former. In the span of just over forty minutes, the audience has been introduced to a seemingly boundless romance for two (that casually happens to be, in my humble estimation, the greatest on-screen relationship between a trans woman and a cis male to date), a traumatic crime cover-up for one (technically two, because we all know Blanca’s going to let the mere knowledge of what Elektra is forced to undergo haunt her as well, for the rest of time), and—as per always—so much more love between these family members. I can’t say I’m surprised, but: Pose is batting an unimpeachable 3/3 so far in season two. Janet Mock’s direction and Our Lady J’s script came together here in exquisite harmony, their experiences as trans women lighting the way so that others may follow in such grace and understanding.