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Angel and Lil Papi's love story shines in an uneven but important Pose

Image: Pose (FX)
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While Pose is doing so many things well in its second season, it also occasionally suffers from its tonal dissonance. Take, for example, one of the central storylines in “Butterfly/Cocoon”: Elektra accidentally kills one of her clients at the Hellfire Club by leaving him tied up, unsupervised, and on drugs. It isn’t, by any means, her fault, but she has a serious problem and she needs to fix it quickly. Here, Pose can’t quite decide if it wants to do a dark exploration of the guilt and trauma Elektra feels about having a dead guy decompose in her closet or if it wants to do some madcap story about three women disposing of a bad man’s body. It opts for both.

Janet Mock is, at least, deft at directing both versions of this story—the comedic and the dramatic. And there’s some compelling material on the darker side of things, like the residual effects of Elektra’s trauma after finding this man dead and dealing with his mangled body. She’s panicked, and she’s horrified. Even killing by accident, even killing someone bad, can take a psychological toll. Big Little Lies is exploring that brilliantly in its current season, but Pose only manages to scrape the surface here, instead losing focus by trying to make the body disposal a slapstick spectacle. And Dominique Jackson isn’t quite up to the task of carrying this part of the storyline either.

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Instead, the more effective storytelling here is how Pose uses this storyline as a way to dig deeper into how law enforcement not only fails but also actively punishes trans women of color and sex workers. Elektra won’t be given the benefit of the doubt for myriad reasons, and even Blanca whose initial instinct is to call the police has this realization. The flashbacks to Elektra’s friend’s experience elucidate the state-sanctioned violence that sex workers faced then (and continue to face today). The storyline also paints a beautiful picture of sisterhood in how these women snap into action to help Elektra, putting aside all drama and feuds.

In some ways, I respect what Pose is doing by trying to inject some comedy into this storyline with its Rough Night-esque antics and quippy characters working together to hide a body. This show often avoids dragging its characters through the darkness too much. It’s smart and careful about the way it portrays violence, abuse, and trauma. And that keeps the show from veering into exploitive, gratuitously violent territory. It tries to be real about the hardships its characters face while also allowing for levity and fun. But the way those things intermix with this particular storyline are disorienting.

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That said, the episode’s finest moments come in Angel and Lil Papi’s burgeoning romance. I didn’t think I’d be into this particular pairing as a romantic thing, but oh wow, I was so wrong. Sure, I love them as house siblings, but the fact that they both want more is very well written and acted and ends up being a very convincing romantic storyline. Angel deserves someone who loves her as fiercely and devotedly as Lil Papi does after the shit she went through with Stan last season. She doesn’t have to go through the emotional process of coming out to Lil Papi; he knows her so well.

On another show, Angel choosing to do her photoshoot over going on a date with Lil Papi would have been a bigger conflict. It would have been an all-out fight, a central tension for the two lovebirds. Instead, Lil Papi makes it known that while his feelings were certainly hurt, he understands and in no way wants an apology from Angel. He wants her to reach for the stars and go after her dreams, and he’s willing to wait for her in the meantime. Angel’s rise to modeling stardom and the way Lil Papi supports her so fully is yet another example of Pose celebrating its characters for who they are and not painting their identities as a burden.

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Angel Bismark Curiel is really stepping it up this season and might even be the MVP of the episode. Leading up to this episode, even when they aren’t the main focus of the scene, the chemistry between Lil Papi and Angel has been palpable, and Papi seemingly worships her. It’s sweet, and it’s nothing short of revolutionary to see a trans woman get a beautiful, fully fleshed out love story on a major television show. Mock directs these big romantic scenes superbly, too. Their first kiss is as dramatic and captivating as it should be.

The fact that we get a sweeping love story and an exciting (which, yes, despite some of the tonal whiplash, it really is exciting!) crime coverup story in one episode speaks to Pose’s ambitious storytelling. It doesn’t all work, but the things that land in this episode are truly impressive. And as Mock explains herself on Twitter, these stories are inspired by the lived experiences of Tracey Africa Norman and Dorian Corey. This episode has its roots in trans and ball culture history. The authenticity and commitment to telling real trans stories of Pose is palpable in the way its stories unfold.

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Stray observations

  • We spend very little time in the ballroom in this episode, which is tragic!
  • House Evangelista’s pride over Angel’s advertising campaign is just so cute. Her smile in that photo really does say it all—a magical, delightful moment!
  • I know I highlight it throughout, but wow, Janet Mock’s direction really deserves so much praise!
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