Category is: Grand Finale Extravaganza.
Pose arrives back on FX this Sunday May 2nd with a deeply emotional, hugely entertaining, and thoroughly satisfying seven-episode third and final season.
Trailblazer Janet Mock, who directed the season 2 finale of the groundbreaking Peabody award-winning series, returns to direct the season three opener (along with a further two other episodes in the director’s chair this season), co-writing the first with series co-creator Steven Canals (who also directs three episodes, including the extended finale).
The year is 1994, and as we catch up with Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) and Elektra (Dominique Jackson) they bemoan the changes that that they’ve witnessed in the ballroom scene—epitomised by Lemar (Jason Rodriguez), father of the ruthless House of Khan—that’s now less about family and community, and more about winning big cash prizes. The date is June 17th, and over in California the LAPD are pursuing a murder suspect named O. J. Simpson (whose trial was of course portrayed in Pose co-creator Ryan Murphy’s acclaimed American Crime Story miniseries). As Blanca throws a watch party at her apartment, glued to the news coverage of the car chase, conversations swirl about racism and policing in America that reverberate all too clearly today. There are also echoes to present-day America with references to the newly inaugurated mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is closing down the city’s sex venues including the Hellfire club where Elektra has been working as a dominatrix.
Meanwhile the AIDS crisis continues to devastate the city’s LGBTQ population, and Pray Tell (Billy Porter) struggles to cope as he attends yet another funeral for a lost member of the ball community. As the season continues, spanning over the next four years, it takes in the medical advances, racial inequities in access to experimental potentially life-saving drugs, and the diversification of AIDS activism. Some poignant moments also come from Pray’s involvement in the New York City Gay Men’s Chorus, whose membership has been decimated by the epidemic. The sequences of protests are powerful and visceral, with scenes that immerse us in the midst of the action, juxtaposed with moments that use effective visual effects to suggest archive video footage, reminding us that this is a part of our history. Scenes of police brutality, violently striking rightfully enraged but peaceful protestors, look eerily similar to images that have filled our screens from Black Lives Matter marches from across the country over the past year.
Still living with his partner of several years, Ricky (Dyllón Burnside), who is enjoying success as a backup dancer for the likes of pop legend Ms Janet Jackson, Pray has descended into heavy drinking and depression, as his own health is deteriorating. As the season opens he’s become increasingly disillusioned with how the ballroom scene has changed, with what he sees as too much of a focus on lip-syncing, and he makes the decision to quit MCing. Meanwhile, inspired to take action in the face of the changing scene and fearful that her children are getting lost in their lives, Blanca decides that it’s time to reunite her family and take to the floor as the House of Evangelista once again, leading to some spectacular, atmospheric ball scenes. Each of the first three episodes contains some legendary ball action, including a wonderful flashback sequence, while the finale features an unforgettable ballroom showstopper. With myriad categories and styles represented over the season, the evolution of ballroom is chronicled, while the soundtrack is aflame with early and mid-nineties dance hits and ballads.
After all that Blanca has been through herself and done for everyone else, it’s heartwarming to see her in love with a good man who treats her well, the handsome and charming Christopher (Hollywood’s Jeremy Pope), a doctor at the hospital where she works as a nurse’s aide to Judy (Sandra Bernhard) on the AIDS ward (a character that, along with Blanca, honours the women health workers who were at the forefront of the crisis caring for dying gay men). As ever though, Blanca is far from being defined as a character by her romantic life alone, and once her relationship is established in the early episodes—and tested when Christopher suggests that Blanca meets his judgmental mother—it becomes less of a focus as Blanca pursues the possibility of training to become a nurse, while she’s determined to help Pray get sober, and see to it that all of her children are happy.
Adorable as ever, Lil Papi (an emotional and compelling Angel Bismark Curiel) continues to be a successful modeling agent, but his fiancée Angel (Indya Moore) feels like she’s missing out on some major campaigns as new models enter the scene. As plans for their wedding begin to take shape, someone from Papi’s past emerges and tests the strength of their relationship, while Angel spends time with Lulu (Hailie Sahar) who has become dependent on drugs as she continues to mourn the death of her house sister Candy.
All the lead roles are enriched by this season’s character-driven narratives, and with appearances from some members of their birth families our understanding of what they’ve been through in their lives is expanded. There’s a full episode, one of the finest of the season, directed by Janet Mock, which sees Pray Tell return home to Pittsburgh to reconnect with his family, and the church that rejected him, after more than two decades away, featuring some wonderful guest star performances including the iconic Emmy-winner Jackée Harry (227, Sister Sister), as one of Pray’s aunts. While another episode, directed by Tina Mabry, focuses on Elektra’s early life with some moving extended flashback scenes—again some of the best moments of the season—as the literal skeleton in her closet comes back to haunt her. As we get to know the characters we’ve come to love even more deeply there’s greater nuance in the performances, with the entire ensemble delivering beautiful and moving work.
While every cast member has their moment to shine, right at the heart of this season is the foundational relationship of the series, between chosen siblings Pray and Blanca, as well as the dynamic and engaging bond between four trans women; Blanca, Elektra, Angel, and Lulu.
Just as the joyous penultimate episode of season two saw the four friends take a trip to the Hamptons, so does this season deliver fun scenes involving these four characters that on the surface might seem unremarkable; shopping for designer wedding dresses, having a spa day, even meeting up for lunch in a fancy Manhattan restaurant, with a crane shot capturing them walking side by side in the centre of the street. These are moments that we’ve seen countless times in rom coms, or shows like Sex and the City (which is explicitly referenced by the characters themselves for its lack of diversity). Focused on the the friendship of women of colour who are also women of trans experience played by trans actors though, these scenes feel fresh, hopeful, invigorating, and important. While these moments entertain, they create some powerful positive trans representation to counter the years of hackneyed stereotypes we’d seen on television when it came to trans characters before Pose. Occasionally veering into some heightened, wish fulfillment territory given the extreme wealth of one character, which although delightfully enjoyable, sometimes feels like fantasy, ultimately the series never forgets its origins and core values of celebrating self-acceptance, and the unconditional love of chosen family. Although the women are all enjoying success and fulfillment in their lives to varying degrees, prejudice and rejection still surfaces, a reminder of how significant and life-saving the sisterhood between them is.
The first two seasons of the series aired with an administration in the White House intent on attacking and erasing trans lives, and as this season premieres—thankfully with a new President, and even a history-making Senate confirmed trans woman holding federal office, Dr. Rachel Levine—there is currently a terrifying assault on trans youth happening on a state level across the country. While just last week 24-year-old Tiara Banks was killed in Chicago, marking the sixteenth known violent death of a trans or gender non-conforming person in 2021 alone. In this climate, the power of seeing the love and sisterhood between four trans women being celebrated at the centre of this series can’t be underestimated. With the Golden Globe and Emmy nominated series having made such an impact on popular culture with its first two seasons, celebrating a long list of firsts both on and off screen, it’s easy to forget just how groundbreaking it continues to be in creating storylines like the love between two HIV positive Black gay men or the touching and romantic relationships between cis men and trans women on mainstream television.
Ultimately the series ends on a touching high, with perhaps even some scope for a spinoff featuring a new generation of ballroom stars. Thrillingly though, Pose has bestowed on the world an incredible pool of acting, writing, and directing talent and I can’t wait to see what they do next and watch their work for many years to come.
By James Kleinmann
Pose season 3 premieres Sunday May 2nd at 10pm ET/PT on FX with its first two episodes. Subsequent episodes air Sunday nights on Fx until the series finale during Pride month, on June 6th 2021. Episodes will stream the following day on FX on Hulu.
Read James Kleinmann’s season 2 finale review.