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In Praise of Angelica Ross in American Horror Story: 1984

It's tens across the board for the camp nurse with a secret.
  • Angelica Ross as Nurse Rita in American Horror Story: 1984 (Photo: FX)
    Angelica Ross as Nurse Rita in American Horror Story: 1984 (Photo: FX)

    Warning: Spoilers ahead for the current season of American Horror Story and Season 2 of Pose.

    In 2019, Angelica Ross made television history as the first trans performer to be cast as a series regular in two shows. As one Ryan Murphy door closed for Ross on Pose, another opened on American Horror Story. As a sleepaway camp nurse with dark secrets, Ross fits right in with Murphy's playful homage to ‘80s slasher movies, delivering a performance that showcases confidence, charm, and the ability to work a room. She's one of the best reasons to catch up to American Horror Story: 1984 while the blood is still fresh.

    "The Return of the Artistic Company" announced The New York Times last year, detailing the rise in collaborations between directors and actors. For anyone paying attention to Murphy’s impressive output over the last twenty years, this return to a theatrical sensibility occurred long before the newspaper of record spotted the trend. The current season of AHS is its first without longtime regulars Sarah Paulson and Evan Peters (Paulson is supposed to show up in a guest capacity), however, plenty of familiar faces including Leslie Grossman, Cody Fern, Billie Lourd, and Emma Roberts are back.

    With 1984, Murphy has taken well known scary movie guidelines and thus far opted for a Russian-nesting-doll approach to these particular tropes. Nothing at Camp Redwood is quite as it seems as every character is harboring a deep, dark secret, whether it is the wannabe actor who has appeared in porn or the party girl who is actually dating a serial killer. As Nurse Rita, Ross plays a no-nonsense member of staff at the infamous summer camp that was host to a massacre 14 years previously. Rita shares this bloody tale with the unsuspecting counselors on their first night, delivering this story with a level of glee that suggests she has an interest in true crime. However, she doesn't betray the true depths of her expertise in the macabre.

    In the third episode, "Slashdance," it was revealed that Rita is not a nurse and her name isn't even Rita. Hidden identities are a slasher cornerstone, and so far AHS: 1984 is full of final-act revelations. Instead of having a nursing qualification, Donna Chambers claims she is a psychology Ph.D. student specializing in serial killers. A flashback to the week before the main timeline reveals that Donna is the architect of Benjamin Richter's (aka Mr. Jingles) escape from the institution he has been held at since he was found guilty of the Camp Redwood murders.

    Donna Chambers (Ross) reveals her true identity in American Horror Story: 1984 (Photo: FX)

    One of the themes this season is that darkness resides in everyone, whether it's Ray (DeRon Horton) running away from a crime he committed at college, Madison's (Billie Lourd) relationship with Richard Ramirez (Zach Villa), or Brooke's (Emma Roberts) very red wedding. They might be playing scary-movie archetypes, but they're more than just a facsimile of those familiar characters. This holds true for Donna as well.

    Donna's adaptability and self-belief is something she shares with Ross' character on Pose. Candy dared to dream big, and the fantasy sequence in her final episode — lip-syncing to "I Never Knew Love Like This Before" — illustrates strength, vulnerability, and star power. Her life was cut short, but she got a send-off that weaved together all the different aspects of her character that made Candy (and Ross) standout. (Ideally, she'll be an early contender for a guest-star Emmy nomination.) Candy sparred with Pray Tell (Billy Porter), she could read a rival without taking a breath, but she was not immune to criticisms. In Season 1, she risked her health undergoing discount plastic surgery that had immediate negative side-effects. In this competitive world predicated on looks and style, Candy was always quick with a quip but had insecurities. An impulsive character, she often lived as if there was no tomorrow and grabbed every opportunity with both hands. Her fearlessness was an asset that allowed her to survive, but it also put her in danger.

    Angelica Ross as Candy Ferocity in Pose. (Photo: FX)

    In Ross, the Ryan Murphy universe has also gained a clear and motivated voice for real-life social activism. Candy’s on-screen fate highlighted the threat trans women of color continue to face more than 20 years later — violent attacks against the trans community are on the rise and this administration continually tries to roll back rights. Ross has spoken at length about this storyline and her Pose exit, including how she hopes it will impact viewers, "It’s also this call of action to say to people: "Okay, you're going to be mourning Candy," she told The New York Times. "Put that energy toward a black trans woman out there, because I bet you there are plenty in your city right now that need your concern." Ross recently made history as the first trans person to host an American presidential forum. She also joined Pose co-star Indya Moore in calling out Chris Cuomo for his ignorant joke about gender pronouns at the most recent LGBTQ+ town hall event.

    Starring in Pose and AHS: 1984 has given Ross opportunities and a wider audience to speak to. Just like her on-screen characters, she is taking this chance with both hands. As Candy and Rita/Donna, Ross brings a level of confidence that isn’t without vulnerability. One role is rooted in reality, the other is playing with horror genre conventions and character expectations. She shines in both, making it very easy to see why she's the latest star player in Ryan Murphy's traveling show.

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    Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina

    TOPICS: American Horror Story: 1984, FX, Pose, Angelica Ross, Ryan Murphy