The final episode of Pose’s first season ends with the major characters fending off a challenge from a rival house, then gathering in a Chinese restaurant and affirming their status as a family. The silent images of the characters laughing and embracing — including rival house mothers Elektra (Dominique Jackson) and Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) — drives home how subversive this show truly is, and in what wa.
Co-created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals, Pose is radical in concept but brazenly square in execution, affirming universal feelings, values, and aspirations that are common to film genres that inspired it, including the musical and the melodrama of the poor- to working-class striver (modes that overlap in movies like Saturday Night Fever, Sparkle, Fame and Magic Mike). The specificity and newness of the show’s setting — late 1980s New York, emphasizing the transgender ballroom scene and adjacent street life, the widening, Reagan-era gap between haves and have-nots, and the looming specter of AIDS — gave it an instant media hook. Much of the advance buzz focused on matters of representation: It is the first American series where much of the core cast is not only transgender, but played by trans actors. The behind-the-scenes staff includes writer-director-producer Janet Mock and Transparent alumna Our Lady J (also an accomplished classical pianist who can be seen performing onscreen in the heart-ripping sixth episode, “Love Is the Message,” which Mock wrote and directed), and Murphy made a point of turning over much of the show’s vision to Mock, J, Canals, and co-executive producer Silas Howard, among others, which probably helped cement the series’ tone. The result is unlike anything Murphy has put his name on, and strikingly different from his other 2018 FX series, The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story.
Pose can be scathingly funny, particularly when competitors on the ballroom floor (or in the corporate boardroom or suburban bedroom) are scourging each other with witty torrents of invective. But the deeper this show delved into its first season, the more obvious it became that its true nature was warm, reassuring, at times as proudly corny as Murphy and Falchuk’s Glee but a lot more disciplined. As Murphy told the New York Times, “What I’m hoping is that young people see this show and say: ‘There isn’t anything wrong with me, I’m entitled to love and a family. And if I’m not getting it here, I better go out and find it.’” That kind of summary is easy to wave off — what TV producer hasn’t claimed that their show is ultimately about love and family? — but as it turns out, Murphy really means it. This is a powerful series about family as ideal, reality, and metaphor: blood families and chosen families; the extended families of New York City, the United States, and humankind; family values as practiced in functioning households and “family values” used as a cudgel by reactionaries. It’s also about the ways in which custom-made families can replicate the dysfunction of whatever their architects hoped to escape from, and how difficult (but not impossible) it is to overcome your conditioning and past trauma to become the opposite of the people who hurt you when you were young.
In the finale, the truce between Elektra (Dominique Jackson) and Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), a mother-daughter dyad founded on competition and a shared craving for respect, rhymes with Blanca’s posthumous partial reconciliation with her mom, as well as with the tension between her and her cisgender sister and brother, who refused to accept Blanca as a woman and even tried to prevent her from attending their mother’s memorial. (Blanca was the prodigal daughter who returned home only to be rejected instead of embraced, although the mystical communion she achieved with her mother through food hints at a more hopeful future for the Rodriguez family.) The final two episodes of season one find the post-operative Elektra rejected by her sugar daddy, Dick Ford (Chris Meloni), who coldly demanded that she keep the “something extra” that he craves. She lost Ford’s subsidy for her life as well as the House of Abundance’s expenses, and was forced to return to peep show dancing. This puts Elektra in an analogous position to Blanca after the latter first left her childhood home: destitute, desperate, and alone.
“I’m not ruined, I’m reborn,” Elektra defiantly insisted, only to discover that the person she most needed to accept that proposition couldn’t do it. If there was ever a moment when Blanca could have crushed Elektra badly enough to neutralize her as a creative threat, it was in this stretch of the story. Instead, Blanca did what her own family wouldn’t do, and in the process, demonstrated that is possible to turn past agony into something positive, and be better to your created family than your blood family was to you. “You taught me what a real mother is,” Elektra tells Blanca, a nearly prehistoric tearjerker cliché that can still trigger a Niagara Falls of weeping when it’s delivered as deftly as it is here.
It’s hard to recall another modern series built around a heroine this consistently kind and ethical — one who’s quite simply a better person than everyone else around her, not because of an accident of birth or upbringing, but because she worked her ass off. In just one season, Blanca has already earned a spot on any informed list of role-model TV moms. She’s a glammed-out human version of the titular being in Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, a book that’s hard for parents to read without crying. It’s this vision of self-created motherly excellence that forms the core of this wonderful series. Pose transcends the particulars of time and place even as it constantly highlights them, showing us a deeply American story of self-creation. It’s different from the rest, yet instantly relatable to all, because it’s so optimistic about people’s ability to manage deep trauma, become functioning human beings, and pass on what they’ve learned to the next generation without ego, much less hope of recompense. Blanca remains aware that she’s a work in progress, and rarely lords her accomplishment over her children as Elektra so often did. She knows when to make brutally tough choices to protect her self-generated family unit, as when she kicks Lil Papi (Angel Bismarck Curiel) out of the apartment for drug dealing, but also when to rescind such decisions: When Lil Papi makes his own prodigal return and swears never to repeat past mistakes, Blanca welcomes him again without hesitation.
The deeper the season dug into its story, the more it paradoxically evoked TV ancestors that never would have presented us with characters like Elektra, Blanca, and company. In particular, it channeled The Waltons and Little House on the Prairie, a pair of proudly sentimental period pieces about families that stuck together to survive hard times. Like Pose, those shows built many of their emotional peaks around scenes of loved ones gathered together at mealtime, affirming the shared experience that bonded them regardless of differences that sometimes turned them into rivals or pushed them apart. I looked forward to each new episode not just because of the freshness of its setting, but also the splendid bursts of sweetness and affirmation the show handed out at regular intervals. In a singularly shitty year of American political history oriented around flamboyant and purposeful displays of public cruelty, here is a series that says that people should strive to see and recognize the hidden pain of others and be as nice to them as possible.
This holds true whether Pose is showing us ballroom emcee Pray Tell (Billy Porter) and dance instructor Helena St. Rogers (Charlayne Woodard) independently visiting an AIDS ward; the real estate hustler Stan Bowes (Evan Peters), who’s trapped in a straight marriage and a ruthlessly acquisitive job with the Trump organization, finding true bliss during his trysts with Angel (Indya Moore); or Stan’s spouse Patty (Kate Mara), who’s locked in her own societal roleplay and unexpectedly discovers points of connection with Angel after uncovering her affair with Stan.
The ballroom scenes are action scenes as well as musical numbers: exercises in metaphoric play, set in arenas where the major characters fight to communicate a very specific idea of who they are and what they represent. Pray Tell reads out a category, which the contestants then “win” by tweaking and revising or lose by failing to conform to the judges’ expectations. There’s an Olympian randomness to the judges’ whims. Sometimes they seem inclined to punish contestants for daring to go against expectation or tradition, but other times they reward them with generous scores or a unanimous decision. Sometimes originality and professionalism is the deciding factor, other times it’s naïve gumption, and other times it’s hard to tell why things broke as they did. Sometimes the judges or Pray Tell excoriate the losers (particularly for the sins of overconfidence, hubris, or entitlement), and other times the numbers constitute their only feedback. But there’s always another contest, another chance to dust yourself off and try on a new façade or character.
Episode after episode catalogs the myriad ways in which people (some of them marginalized, and keenly aware of their marginalization) reflexively demand that others conform to a particular vision of what should be, instead of letting them be whatever it is they are inclined to be. There’s no exact, one-to-one correlation between the dialogue’s constant chatter about butch vs. femme and the necessity of body transformation (be it surgery, silicone injections, heavy makeup, or the annihilation of body hair) and the scenes that outline the predicaments of straight (or straight-presenting) characters like Patty, Stan, and Stan’s immediate supervisor and nemesis Matt Bromley (James van Der Beek). Although Pose is obsessed with storytelling neatness in other ways, it’s wisely content to keep this juxtaposition more open-ended. But the gist is still unmistakable: Human beings from all walks of life are constantly mistaking conditioning and social expectations for destiny, then trying to fight their way out of that emotional quicksand over the course of years or decades, if in fact they recognize the danger at all, which many of them don’t.
The most death-haunted great series since The Leftovers, Pose unfolds in the shadow of the AIDS epidemic, which then-President Reagan rarely acknowledged until his final years in office. To love is to die or kill, possibly. All these characters are whistling through the graveyard whether they realize it or not. As Pray Tell sings, for all we know, we may never meet again. And then what? What do we do with the years, however many they are? What do we make of what we’ve been given, however much or little that is? Who will we die having become?