I’m back this week with the third essay of my 2019 Emmy Impact Series. This is the third entry in this series. You can find previous entries here.
(This article contains spoilers for season one of ‘Pose.’)
Selected Nominations: Outstanding Drama Series; Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series; Outstanding Casting for a Drama Series
Social Issues Addressed: Gay and Transgender rights/visibility, HIV/AIDS
Created by Steven Canals, the first season of FX’s ‘Pose’ follows a ensemble of gay and transgender people of color in the New York ballroom scene in the late 1980s as they navigate life, love, and loss. For a portion of its audience — including myself — it’s also an introduction to a world that’s seldom represented on the screen. Positive representation in media can make a world of difference for people who share the identities of characters on-screen and the creators who help share their stories. Seeing heroes who look like you and can inspire others to understand and embrace you is powerful. So it’s significant that ‘Pose’ chooses to depict queer relationships and queer identities with people of color on screen with actors who share those identities offscreen.
There’s plenty that ‘Pose’ tackles in its first season, from the lack of socioeconomic opportunities for trans women in the ’80s to gender passing to the devastation of the HIV/AIDS crisis. But what is remarkable is that the series is steeped in joy rather than sorrow. Yes, there is inherent drama when dealing with such heavy topics, but each episode really feels like a celebration. That’s mainly due to the bold and vibrant atmosphere of the ballroom scene itself.
Upon cursory review of the series, it may seem that the ballroom world is all about artifice — participants showing off their best in different categories, donning flowing gowns or other spectacular attire while they’re judged by a panel and handed out trophies — but the ballroom scene is quite the opposite. It’s a chance for its participants to live in their truth — and be celebrated for it. There’s no room for category fraud here, as emcee Pray Tell (Billy Porter) asks the judges and puts other participants in their place for trying to be something they are not. Pray Tell asking “Is she real?” should tell you enough that it’s truth in living that is of importance here — not the facade. But for all the category walking, the real feature of the ballroom is in its highlight of House culture and the importance of community, which is, perhaps the show’s most potent motif.
The main conflict of the series surrounds the members of two competing houses: the House of Evangelista and the House of Abundance. Houses, we learn in the nascency of the season, are created in the queer community to provide a support system for gay and trans individuals who may have nowhere else to go due to homelessness, being victims of family abandonment, or other circumstances. The reigning house of the ballroom is the House of Abundance, led by a fabulous, but hard-edged Mother in Elektra. The competing House of Evangelista is led by the series’ heroine, Blanca Evangelista (Mj Rodriguez), a defector from the House of Abundance. Blanca, who has recently been diagnosed with HIV, is determined to make an impact on lives around her and be a better Mother than Elektra was to her.
The first season’s strongest episodes are those where the family and community themes are loudest. Episode five, “Mother’s Day,” tackles the the theme of parenting and parent-child relationships through two concurrent stories. First is Blanca’s efforts to find peace with her estranged biological mother’s death. We learn that Blanca’s mother did not approve of her being transgender, and Blanca’s regret that she never had a chance to reconcile with her mother before her death. This coincides with the episode’s second mother-daughter relationship exploration: Blanca and Elektra. The episode begins with revealing how Elektra took a fledgling Blanca under her wing during Blanca’s early days in the ballroom scene. We see a softer Elektra here, one who is compassionate — and we wonder what has happened to her over time to make her so closed off in the present day storyline. Present-day Elektra, who is currently in recovery from sexual reassignment surgery, is unvisited by any of her current House children. It’s heart-wrenching that in a life-changing moment, she has no one to support her. It’s not unlike the lonely sorrow that Blanca feels with the death of her mother — she’s in need of support and love. And it’s in this moment that they both are healed by finding peace with one another. Blanca and Elektra, despite their disagreements, are able to reconcile. Blanca seeks not to make the mistake of avoiding confrontation with her biological mother by extending kindness and understanding and honesty to Elektra. And Elektra is brought to peace and is able to extend peace to the members of her current House by acknowledging that she still cares for Blanca.
Parenting and what parents pass on to their children is a running theme throughout the season. ‘Pose’ asks this repeatedly through the structure of the Houses and the Mothers who lead them, like Blanca and Elektra. But it’s important to look at the impact of another guiding figure in the series, Pray Tell, who is a respected figure in the ballroom community and who becomes a surrogate parent, of sorts, to the young people in Blanca’s charge. Mortality and impact are closely intertwined in the series, and we see this most clearly as Pray Tell watches the decline of his boyfriend’s health to AIDS while dealing with his own diagnosis.
Pray Tell is deeply concerned about the HIV/AIDS virus and what it means for the loss of community. He’s worried about what will remain in the future. He’s even, at times, bitterly pessimistic in his discussions of the virus — but not without reason — he’s convinced that the world does not intend for people like himself to survive. He’s seen how the nurses treat his boyfriend, Costas, in the hospital. They leave his food outside door because they don’t want to deliver it to him personally. They provide no sympathy, no comfort in times of physical pain. So in episode three, when Pray Tell takes Blanca’s boys to all get tested for the virus and learns of his own HIV-positive diagnosis, it’s not hard to see why he’s so quick to deny it. He’s afraid of meeting the fate that he despises the most. And despite his attempts to cover it up, his anxiety eats away at him. We see it bubbling up when he plays the same song ad nauseam in the ballroom because it’s a reminder of a more carefree past with Costas. He’s drinking more than normal. In episode six, “Love is the Message,” this all comes to a head as Costas approaches his final days. Blanca, reminding her house members that Pray is family, decides to confront him about his spiraling behavior. Pray Tell breaks down after so long of trying to hold it together:
"My boyfriend is dying. I wish I could ... rewind and go back to a simpler time when my life wasn't consumed with drugs and disease. I've buried more friends in the last year than any of you can count. And when it's all over, who knows how many of us will be left?"
Pray is soon inspired to make a change for the patients in the AIDS ward by creating a cabaret to spread joy. Soon after, Costas succumbs to the virus, but not before leaving Pray with one final message:
"When I move on, I want you to cry your ass off and scream to the Lord on high. But only for one day. And then I want you to move on with your life. I don't want you stuck thinking about this place, this smell, or this death. I want you to find love again. Who knows how much time you have left? ... And you have this hunger to grab life by the balls and to live it as fast and as loud as you possibly can. That feeling is what I need you to hold on to."
It’s only in the face of death that Pray finds some solace — because of the love and grace Costas extends to him. Pray is eventually able to play a different song. He’s eventually able to open his heart and honor Costas’s wish. Again, love comes to the rescue and allows the characters to find peace in the midst of present and future anxieties. In the end, it’s all we can do — finding a way in the present moment to spread love and joy. It’s the truest form of living true – love is, indeed, the message.
‘Pose’ is about characters living triumphantly in a world that refuses to acknowledge the honesty of their existence. It’s about family, community, and love. It’s a beautiful show that reminds everyone to spread love, celebrate life, and live in truth in spite of how the world may try to bring you down or deny you — and that’s a powerful image to see on television.
Seasons 1 and 2 of ‘Pose’ are available on FX.