The Final Season of ‘Pose’ Enters 1994 With Exhilarating Hope and Despair
“Pose” always worked as the best kind of fantasy, one where not everything was perfect, but was always wrapped in the haze of some exhilarating dream. Maverick producer Ryan Murphy’s crowning achievement on FX is now coming to a close with a third and final season that opens in the ‘90s, with many of its heroes now battered and wiser. But the spirit of the show is still as intoxicating as any daydream, this time balancing even more skillfully grit and visual lushness. While the show has broken ground for LGBTQ representation on a major cable network, Murphy’s take on New York’s underground ballroom culture has the broad power of telling stories relatable to all who struggle, dream or get cornered by life. This doesn’t take away from the show’s significance in terms of representation, but this last season in particular has a special way of touching on how great moments can be interrupted by cruel realities.
The year is 1994 and the ballroom world has been impacted by both a rise in exposure and the ongoing AIDS epidemic. No longer based on competing for pride, the ballroom events now offer cash rewards. The House of Evangelista has been uncompetitive, and its household scattered. Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) has a new boyfriend, Christopher (Jeremy Pope), a doctor. In other corners of New York Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel) has found some success as a talent agent, but Angel (Indya Moore) has hit a slump and hasn’t worked a modeling gig in months. Rudolph Giuliani is now mayor and has imposed a crackdown on much of the city’s sex industry, which means the spot where Elektra (Dominique Jackson) does some S&M work gets raided. Meanwhile in the ballroom world the House of Khan, led by Elektra’s former protégé Lemar (Jason A. Rodriguez) has been sweeping aside the old order with a vicious attitude that threatens the original intentions of the event itself. But as the AIDS crisis continues to claim lives, charismatic ballroom MC Pray Tell (Billy Porter), has been grappling with the sorrow of it all by descending into alcoholism. Both he and Blanca are HIV-positive, but while Blanca keeps going forward, Pray Tell may be falling into a deadly abyss.
As is the norm at FX, “Pose” opens its final season by combining two early episodes into one, two-hour premiere. But it’s more than fitting for a show with such a big heart and grand ambitions. Murphy is an artist obsessed with the past and how we are miniature players in history. Everyone at House of Evangelista gets hooked on the O.J. Simpson case and when the famous white bronco chase ensues on live TV, they sit around and debate race, police brutality and how to process an adored celebrity who might have committed murder. This is of course a great wink as well to Murphy’s 2016 smash hit, “The People v. O.J. Simpson.” But on more intimate level this is one of the most emotive seasons of “Pose” so far. The exhilarating ballroom moments are still there, but there is a sense of time passing. Not everything stays the same. Blanca still cares deeply for her “children,” who have lived under her roof all this time, but now with Christopher there’s also a chance to settle down in a different way. There is a biting, hilarious scene where she meets Christopher’s bourgeoisie parents, who are the kind who say it must have been “colorful” to grow up in the projects. But their prejudice shines even brighter when Blanca comes out as trans, which as far as the mother is concerned can be treated like a psychological illness.
Yet everyone is also attempting to preserve some semblance of the communal living that, in many cases, saved them. Blanca uses the O.J. bronco chase as a good excuse to bring everyone together for dinner, using the occasion to also announce that House of Evangelista should return to the ballroom to challenge Lemar. Papi struggles to convince Angel her career isn’t over and that everyone has a slowdown once in a while when it comes to the entertainment business. The dread of the AIDS epidemic is all around. It hits home directly when Cubby (Jeremy McClain) succumbs to the disease in a wrenching series of moments that culminate with his mother visiting his bedside. But this is “Pose,” where life’s struggles blend with a fantastical exuberance. Once the House of Evangelista is reconstituted they do compete and defeat Lemar’s crew. Blanca even makes the choice of donating the winnings in honor of Cubby. A key message of this show has always been a need for community as something that makes us more human.
It is in the second hour where starker changes happen. Blanca decides she wants to go study nursing, which is both a personal accomplishment and a way to prove she can be on par with a boyfriend who is a doctor. The dominant storyline becomes Pray Tell’s alcoholism and how it begins to impact everyone around him. While AIDS is a running theme in this season, the narrative never uses the disease itself as some kind of cheap plot device. Instead Murphy’s focus is on how the crisis affected individuals on an emotional and psychological level. Pray Tell can’t handle the death around him or the knowledge that he carries the HIV virus, so he self-medicates with alcohol. Some moments have subtle humor, as when Pray Tell swigs a drink while enduring his job at a local shopping mall. Pray Tell is not the only addict, however, and it soon becomes clear that Papi and Angel’s relationship also stem from her getting hooked on crack.
“Pose” promises to end its run the way it began, with magnificent performances, strong writing and an absorbing aesthetic. But even more unique is how Ryan Murphy has always kept the show on its toes. It never repeats itself. The last two seasons each felt like a new decade, the way some people look to us when we catch up with them after a few years. Now in 1994, the characters of “Pose” have been through much, and will have more defining experiences. But we have seen them grow, which is something hard to pull off with television writing, at least on this level. Blanca is the central focus, and now she comes across as someone even sharper and more attuned to the dangers and opportunities around her. Everyone in “Pose” is wondrously flawed or dreamy eyed. Like all of us they hope, want, lose and get up again.
“Pose” the final season premieres May 2 and airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.