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On ‘Pose’, the Past Is the Present


Death stalks just about every nook, crevice, and corridor of Pose’s fourth episode. Only, it’s not the scowl of HIV/AIDS that is the threat this time. Many characters on the current season of the FX hit—its second; and a fantastic one so far—still struggle with the life-threatening virus, but that’s not where this week’s episode trains its focus. The real glow is found in its unavoidably disturbing parallels: It reaches back and echoes into a future-present where black trans women are afforded little to no value in society. When death finally arrives, we learn that the character Candy Ferocity (Angelica Ross in sensational farewell performance) has been murdered, her body left discarded in a cheap motel closet by an unknown John. Like so many other trans women of color, Candy’s is one marked by sexual violence and communal grief. It remains a story without an end.

The brainchild of Ryan Murphy and Steven Canals, Pose is a rare miracle of a series that has pointed its sights on black and Lantix trans women enclosed by circumstance: These are people who tussle daily against the stink of intolerance, poverty, disease, and social ignorance. The New York City ballroom scene they inhabit is also a community in which elegy is routine, and mourning itself has become like prayer. The world, we learn, was not so different in 1990 than it is today, where just this year there have been 13 reported deaths of trans women of color. For black trans women, the crisis is especially unforgiving.

My love of the show, like most Murphy endeavors, is its intemperate spirit, its taste for amphitheater emotion. It’s all very over-the-top, and admittedly a little too bombastic in spots, but never so much that the heart of the message can’t be appreciated. The overall tone of the fourth episode, written by Murphy and producer Janet Mock, is muted and, cinematically speaking, colorless; the majority of scenes seem to be injected with a sepia-tint. It’s a surprise given Murphy’s typical directorial instincts to pack shots with all manner of chromatic excitement. Maybe it’s that the topic of death demands a change in mood. But then I realized it was also a bit of a trick: in the closing 10 minutes Murphy drops viewers into a radiant dreamlike scene for Candy’s final goodbye, a lip-sync performance of Stephanie Mills’ 1980 classic “Never Knew a Love Like This,” from which the episode also draws its title.

We watch as Candy is ushered from the church, where family and friends grieve, into ballroom in a pearl-white casket. She’s arrived into a heaven of her immaculate design. Wearing an apple-red dress reminiscent of disco divas Donna Summer and Chaka Khan, she emerges like an angel of the ballroom, wreathed in champagne lighting and the adoration of assembled family, a sea of pure euphoria. Without question, it’s easily one of the series’ finest sequences.

I’ve replayed the scene four or five times, and with each watch I wonder: Aren’t all ballrooms a kind of dreamland? With the gloss of self-invention. The electricity of voguing. The triumph of kinship and shared respect. Don’t we all deserve spaces that welcome us, that greet us with the love we know we’re worthy of? That’s the magic of Eric Liebowitz’s photo from the set—and of a show like Pose: it shimmers and presents us with a narrative that is emotionally dense. It gives us a reason to look, to acknowledge struggle, to see that for these women, the beauty of survival comes with the wrench of death. There’s always a casket waiting to close on a woman like Candy.

Wednesday morning on Twitter, Indya Moore, who plays Angel, another trans performer on the show, offered more backstage insight into the scene’s recording. “It was the day we filmed it we found that [Muhlaysia Booker] was murdered,” Moore wrote of the black trans woman from Dallas who was killed in May. “Seeing Angelica in the casket, crying was too close to home. Her tears mirrored our black trans ancestors before they were murdered.” The fire of the image, then, is not an aesthetic one, but contextual. It lends to our larger narrative of human understanding. The image compounds reality and dream: death tugs at trans life, which only seeks ascension, sanctuary, love. I can only hope that in the end, the latter wins out.

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