We open this week on “fierce and flexible queens” taking the ballroom floor by storm, swirling and twirling and dipping like their lives depend on it. “We done changed the culture, y’all,” Pray yells, in reference (of course) to Madonna’s “Vogue.” They wanna “put a little twist on it,” so category is: lofting (or, for the uninitiated, “banjee boys and tops serving trade,” combining break dance and voguing). After the boys kill it, Pray opens the floor up for anyone “bold enough to try” to best them. Ms. Candy Ferocity chooses then to step out in full Blonde Ambition Tour, Gaultier cone bra cosplay. She’s looking stunning, but also completely disregarding the category at hand. Pray cuts the music to deliver a particularly biting read to add to his arsenal of attacks directed solely at her: “Breakdancing might burst that silicone, and you don’t wanna go back to that flat ass you used to have!” (Even Blanca thought it was a fucked up thing to say.) Candy fiercely questions, “Why you always reading me the riot act, Pray Tell? You go out of your way to put me down.” He calmly responds, “I don’t have to put you down when you’re always in the bottom.” The crowd pulses over the drama, but Candy soldiers forth, noting her “heart and talent make her a star “just like Madonna,” however, her scores are 5-5-0-6-5, and–as Pray notes–“the cards don’t lie.” “I’m a star, I know who I am. I am somebody,” Candy claps back, everyone around her decidedly, understandably uncomfortable; perhaps Pray’s taken it too far this time. “Take a hike and don’t ever come back,” he chortles.
At the hospital, Pray and Blanca try to convince Judy to attend a ball so she can see everybody on their A-game. Once Judy suggests that they get down to business, considering she only has a twenty minute lunch break, Pray starts talking about his plan for the second iteration of their AIDS cabaret, which he’s sure will draw an even bigger crowd after Lorna Luft’s surprise visit to the last one. Judy tells him, however, that they’re not there to talk about that. “This isn’t another intervention, is it? I’ve been doing real good with my drinking!” With Blanca’s permission, Judy hands over her charts and tells him that after a few weeks, they’re already seeing her t-cells climb; Pray wants none of that “toxic shit.” Judy responds by asking him, essentially, to shove it, citing the fact that Blanca told her all about the “voodoo” he’d been playing with (i.e. eating a pound of butter [with some mineral oil added] a day to supposedly lower his viral load by “flushing the gut”) and then immediately defaming it as nonsense. He wants to take a “holistic approach,” they want him to survive. His numbers are dropping, and they love him too much to see the disease take him too. “We want more moments with you,” Blanca pleads, somberly. “That’s all.” They’re doing it (in his mind, talking down to him), because they love him. “Find another way to love me,” Pray scolds. “Please find another way.”
The next day, Pray calls the first bi-monthly Masters of Ceremony council to order at a diner. The group discusses the need for dues to be paid (the trophies don’t buy themselves, after all); the fact that there isn’t enough time, at this point, to individually name all of their brothers and sisters who’ve been lost at the top of each ball (a horrifying sidenote); and, of course, Madge. They need to nail down new modern categories thanks to all the attention she’s bringing them, but not fuss so much that things start to feel like a tourist attraction. “Our greatest asset is our authenticity,” Pray says. Some of the children have been suggesting a lip sync category, but Pray isn’t amused over the thought. “That is not how you do a ball, that’s how you do ventriloquism.” Candy, sitting idly at a nearby table, turns around and implores them to reconsider (her line that “everybody knows that this is where you bottoms brunch” is *chef’s kiss* iconic). Confused, they note that she wins trophies every time she walks the “face” category, but–for her–it’s not about winning. It’s about showing what a great performer she is (plus, she mentions, “girls are making serious coin” doing it downtown). After Pray asks Candy if they should put a pole on the floor so she can show off her hidden talents, he gets serious: “I suggest you take this energy somewhere else, because I will never bring this category up for a vote.” And just like that, the motion (along with her hopes) is denied. Candy, furious, grabs a knife from the table and gets right up in Pray’s face, asking why he can’t take her seriously (the unexpected POV shots here are incredible), but–he asks–what is she going to do? “Stab [him] in broad daylight.” She tosses the knife, and leaves, saying it won’t be the last of her he’ll see. (I got nervous *right* here.)
On the floor, it category is higher than heaven–avant garde, innovate, experimental fashion. While the girls are turning it on the floor, Angel frantically takes Blanca backstage to where Lulu is sobbing as she lights a cigarette; Candy missed her last two shifts at the club, and she hasn’t come home yet. Lulu reminds Blanca that being a mother is expensive, so Candy’s been taking tricks down at the motel on Grand–and she never fails to check in with her afterwards. Blanca and Candy head to the establishment (looking, terrifyingly, like a forgotten set from AHS: Hotel), where matters are seeming worse by the second. “People are coming in and out of here like Grand Central,” the manager (Peter Plano) tells them, so how could he possibly know whether or not she’s there, been there, will be there? Lulu notices the key from Room 44 is missing, which is where she believes Candy is or was (it was the one she supposedly always requested), but he won’t budge, forbidding them from even knocking on the door. Blanca leaves her home phone number alongside one of Lulu’s polaroids of Candy, and begs him to call if he sees anything. They leave, silently, dejected.
At home, Friday night dinner is cancelled (to Lil Papi’s disapproval) so all hands can be on deck, looking for Candy. Damon’s searching the west side piers, Blanca & Pray are going to Harlem, Angel to stake out the strip club, and Papi’s on phone duty. No one sleeps ‘til they find her. “She might not’ve been in our house,” Blanca says. “But she’s our sister.” Then, like clockwork, the phone rings for Blanca. She calls Lulu to the house immediately after hanging up, and we cut to her at the door, being lead inside by Blanca. Unsure of how to tell her, she says what we’ve all been dreading: Candy is dead. “She was just making plans for the future,” Lulu cries, agonizingly, as she embraces Blanca.
A little while later, Elektra has arrived at the apartment, and Lulu is begging Blanca to tell her what happened. She explains that the manager said he sent the maid to Room 44 after his curiosity was piqued, and she found Candy dead in the closet. Blanca assures her that the police are looking for the murderer, but Elektra then notes that girls like them have never been treated with the respect that they deserve, especially by the NYPD–that Candy’s death is no different. Angel stands up, furious. She was their sister, so they’ll *make* it different. “What is it, May? And eleven girls have been killed this year?” she questions in anguished protest. They decide to throw a celebration of her life in memory, but getting her back from the morgue (Blanca and Elektra’s job) and notifying her parents (Angel’s job) takes first priority. At the hospital, Judy says she’ll take the fall for whatever happens, but that they need the man in charge of discharging bodies to help them. As someone “dancing under the same rainbow,” how could he not understand? Thankfully, he does, and Candy will be sent to whatever funeral home they’d choose.
There, Lulu doesn’t show, assumedly blaming herself for “getting Candy that job.” The funeral director (Rand Guerrero) notes that he embalmed Candy free of charge, that she had been to nearly every service for the past few months, always taking the time to greet him by his name. The girls, upon seeing her, are immediately distressed over the dowdy makeup and (church lady) wig Candy’s dressed in (“Even I wouldn’t wear that,” Blanca says, sardonically). “I can’t let her go in the ground lookin’ like my Aunt Carol. She will come back and haunt us ‘til the end of our days,” says Angel, so they take the two hours left have until guests arrive and get to work, emptying their purses to salvage their sister–a deeply painful moment of gentility.
Later, once the crowd has arrived, Angel is despondent on Papi’s shoulder, lamenting the fact that Candy’s parents wouldn’t even acknowledge her being their daughter. “I had one final obligation for Candy and I couldn’t even do that,” she emptily moans, but Blanca and Elektra assure her that *they* are her family, that everyone who showed up for her is who really matters. Pray stands to speak, and gives an impassioned, soulful eulogy, noting that while Candy was a pain in his ass, she was still his sister ‘til the end. Now? They’ll never get to thank her for what she gave them or give her “the grandest, shiniest motherfucking trophy” for her contributions to their community. “Unfinished business is the burden of the living,” he states, and that they’ll fight for their sisters against the weak men who punish them, unable to deal with their own desires. During the ensuing moment of silence, Mock & Murphy brilliantly begin a new framing device, as Candy materializes to speak to Pray. She says (after putting out her cigarette on her own coffin; incredible) that she forgives him, but also needs to know why he never gave her the credit she deserved in life, why plenty of others got breaks when they didn’t deserve them–but not her. “Maybe I didn’t want to look at you,” he admits. “You are unapologetic, loud, black, femme, all the things I try to hide about myself when I go out into the real world. You are all of them.” The sequence is exquisite in its use of fantasy to give Candy what she so truly deserved: a moment of humility with the man who consistently made her look like she had none. “Maybe you just doin’ what got to do to stay alive,” she responds. “It’s gon’ be a sad, lonely life at those balls without me.” It’s an absolutely perfect moment, and she’s absolutely right.
Once Pray opens the floor to other mourners, Angel kneels by the casket, weeping, and Candy visits her too. As Angel is wracked with sobs, she comforts her, telling her never to return to the piers, to never doubt herself or her modeling career–that she’s doing so much, opening so many doors for their sisters, even if the public doesn’t know it. “Don’t waste your timing missing me,” Candy says, soothingly. “Spend that energy on a Candy girl out there. Beautify her in my image,” She thanks Angel for trying with her parents, assuring her that she did everything she could. (And, yes, to those tracking, I’ve now been crying for the past fifteen minutes.) Angel, overcome, gets up and runs for the door, only to find Lulu, shattered and sitting just aside from the entryway. They’ve, as Angel notes, shared thousands of memories together, but for Lulu, it’s the bad ones that have been playing in her mind most frequently. She wants to say goodbye, but she’s so locked there, terrified.
In the pews, Judy & Blanca discuss Pray, how he’s clearly lost weight and has been drinking coffee nonstop to keep his energy up. They know they need to get him on AZT, and the question of “how?” is what’s on their minds now. Angel, then, walks Lulu into the room, but–at the casket–things…don’t go as planned. She, after a slight period of mourning, takes a quick detour into evil stepsister-mode, attempting to snatch all the pieces Candy apparently stole from her–her brooch, her gloves, even her hair. Outside, Lulu lights a cigarette, and invokes another appearance from our departed girl (I’d like to think it was the lighting of the cigarette itself). “They gon’ be talkin’ about this funeral for years now,” Candy says with a wink. (Divine!) Half the shit Candy took off of her wasn’t even hers to take, but–as Lulu retorts–it’d be a waste to bury it. None of the people crying their crocodile tears could give her one kind word when she was alive, but Candy knew Lulu was always honest, that she needs to hold onto that quality. Lulu explains that she always felt like Candy’s accessory, that she knows she hated her for being “light-skinned and thick,” but Candy reminds her of all the wonderful times they shared aside from the drama. They weren’t all good, but they weren’t all bad either. “With some years gone, something crazy or terrible or hilarious is gonna happen,” she warns, tenderly. “And you’re gonna look at that space next to you, where I should be, and I’m not gon’ be there to talk about it, and you’re gonna miss me, girl.” Time will heal them, she assures her, “in a way it never could if [she] was still alive.”
Back inside, Blanca is humming a hymn alongside Candy’s spirit until Elektra snaps her back into reality. “There’s an old couple out there looking like George and Weezy partaking in our refreshments,” she notes with her typical flare, and sends Blanca to shoo them away. Once in their presence, Blanca questions how they knew Candy, and it’s her parents (Danny Johnson & Patrice Johnson Chevannes). “Candy? What kind of damn name is Candy?,” her mother spits. “It’s the one she chose,” Blanca says, calmly. Despite Candy’s mother misgendering her as her son, Blanca keeps her composure, offering condolences for their loss and vocalizing that she was loved, that “she was one of a kind.” She then leads the way back into the parlor, for what is, definitively, the most devastatingly beautiful sequence of the season to date–if not the entire series at large. At the altar, Candy appears one last time, first to her mother and then her father, talking them through their grief and confusion to a place of open love, respect, and acceptance and for her. Her mother was “her gateway to the feminine” (same with me for mine, like so many trans girls out there), so her initial rejection completely broke her. “The outside is different,” her mother says through streaming tears, “but beneath it, all I see is my baby.” She and her father recall when he bought her a dollhouse for Christmas one year, how she watched him sneak in and set it up while he thought she was sleeping. “Having my daddy see me, it gave me all the courage I needed to be who I am,” Candy declares. I couldn’t stop crying the entire time (and still am now, as I type this; every time I rewatch the scene, especially once her father’s delivery of “I can’t let you go, we’re just getting started” hits, I lose it all over again), thinking of all the familial bonds destroyed because a parent didn’t like the way the child *they* brought into this world was born. It’s a true fantasy come to life, internalized hatred and cruelty being transformed into warmth and kindness within an instant, and Ross (give her the Emmy NOW!), Chevannes & Johnson deliver the scene with such tender truthfulness, it knocks the wind right out of you. She says goodbye to them, to us; it’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen on television.
Pray leads them to the frontmost pew, thanking them for coming out today, and bringing the rest of the MCs up to announce that there’ll be a new category at every single ball: “Candy’s Sweet Refrain,” a lip sync challenge eternally named in her honor and memory. Everyone lifts their lighters up in her name as the pallbearers come to bring her home. As the doors behind the coffin open, Candy is wheeled onto the ballroom floor, coming to life for one last number, Stephanie Mills’ classic “Never Knew Love Like This Before” (also the title of the episode). She kills it effortlessly, garnering the 10s and the trophy she always knew she’d garner if she got the chance to really do it. (I didn’t think it was physically possible for me to cry anymore, but then!)
Just like that, we’re back in stark reality at Blanca’s, with everyone sitting around the dining room table in silence. “She finally got what she always wanted,” Lulu remark, “for you chatty Cathys to shut the fuck up.” Amidst a final toast from Pray, we can see something has switched inside of him, and as he helps Blanca clean up while the children are off at the club, we already know what’s (thankfully) coming: he’s starting AZT. After the funeral, Candy’s death reminded him of the preciousness of life, and he knew he had to change, immediately going to see Judy for his first month’s dose of pills. “I don’t wanna waste it,” he sobs, full of regret. He knows now that he has a true obligation to fight for his survival, and Blanca takes off her cleaning gloves, for a toast: to life.
The late trans icon Octavia St. Laurent’s words lead us out of the episode (“How many of us have to die before the community recognizes that we are not expendable?”) alongside the crushing note that “More than 1,000 trans and gender non-conforming people have been murdered globally since 2016.” To date, in 2019, there have been thirteen reported deaths of trans women of color in the United States alone, and the episode is an overwhelmingly stunning reminder to us all (especially those cis allies watching) to show up, to stand with, and to protect trans*, non-binary, and GNC people at all costs from the mercilessness so many seem determined to throw our way.