Pose is a joyous series about giving love and staying fabulous no matter what life throws at you, and while the inhabitants of the House of Evangelista are a hardy bunch, the era still tests their resolve. The series’s second season is set two years after the end of season one, which covered 1987–88, and the elapsed time has made the marginalized characters’ world even more dangerous.
Chief among the threats is HIV/AIDS. At the point on the timeline when the story began, there were about 5,000 yearly deaths attributable to the disease. By 1990, the number had jumped to over 14,000, and although former president Ronald Reagan would apologize that year for failing to take the epidemic more seriously during his two terms as president, the death toll continued to climb, and members of affected communities were even more keenly aware that the dominant society didn’t care about their pain unless the disease took someone close to them.
Pose’s season-two premiere includes both a handsomely funded funeral and a visit to Hart Island, where the bodies of unclaimed and/or indigent people were buried in mass graves, their corpses dumped in cheap wooden coffins, their presences noted by heart-shaped stones taken to the island by loved ones. Pray Tell — played by Billy Porter, who, like so many of Pose’s cast and crew, survived the early years of the plague — seems like he’s on the verge of crumbling under the accumulated weight of all the memorials he’s been to. House Evangelista mother Blanca Rodriguez (Mj Rodriguez) frets over her T-cell count while consulting with Roosevelt Hospital AIDS ward nurse Judy Kubrak (actress, cabaret singer, and AIDS activist Sandra Bernhard, another ’80s and ’90s fixture in that world). We learn about the unaffordability of HIV-slowing medication for poor people like Blanca, plus a “solution” that’s ultimately another indictment of a profit-driven health-care system in a brutal capitalist country: rich, white gay men who perish from AIDS-related causes might bequeath their unused drugs to the surviving poor. We see the medicine bottles being collected from the bedside of a newly deceased man — an angelic act of scavenging. Judy and Pray Tell compare the number of funerals they’ve been to — 452 for her, 210 for him — and Judy quips, “First one to get to 1,000 wins a free toaster.”
Under the circumstances, any response to the madness seems rational, but some are more productive and proactive than others. Through Judy, several major characters are drawn into the AIDS-awareness and activism group ACT UP. The show takes the opportunity to stage a “die-in” at a Catholic Church where abstinence is being preached as an alternative to condoms. (As Blanca proclaims, the very idea is a rejection of sexuality itself.) On the opposite end of the spectrum is Elektra (Dominique Jackson), who seems to be retreating from the existential threat, creating extra drama for House Evangelista (where she’s temporarily taken up residence), acting as if she’s above everyone else, and generally carrying on like the second coming of Marie Antoinette (a reference made explicit in one of the show’s best ballroom scenes to date).
The show sets up a strong ideological conflict between Blanca, who quickly becomes radicalized and all but orders everyone in her house to participate in ACT UP, and Elektra, who is only living in the house in the first place because she’s temporarily down on her luck. Elektra often seems to identify more strongly with the dominant culture that offers her dregs of attention and money than with the thriving scene that she moves through with such imagination and confidence. “Fuck you, I’ve got mine” could be her mantra more often than not. And where AIDS and attendant homophobia are concerned, her blithe belief in her own indestructibility comes across as her version of whistling through the graveyard.
Pose’s gallows humor and barbed-wire personality links it to a wider body of audiovisual works dealing with the political and apersonal impact of AIDS, as well as homophobia and class and race divisions within the LGBTQ community that were laid bare by the epidemic. A partial list includes Parting Glances, Longtime Companion, The Living End (by writer-director Gregg Araki, currently running Now Apocalypse on Starz), Tongues Untied, Angels in America, Paris Is Burning (a documentary that Pose co-creator Ryan Murphy had previously tried to adapt), and The Normal Heart, an autobiographical play written by Larry Kramer, co-founder of ACT UP, and powerfully adapted by Murphy for HBO.
In staging this lively historical fiction, Murphy and co-creators Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals (who co-wrote the first episode of season two) sometimes privilege the historical over the fiction. One credible knock that could be made against Pose is that it sometimes strains too hard to be accepted as a modern Ur-text of the ’80s and ’90s New York ballroom scene, assimilating all that came before, calibrating its big moments for people too young to have experienced the time firsthand, and packing scenes with wall-to-wall, retroactive historical exposition that’s more easily read than said. I vastly prefer it as comedy-drama than as a primer; the show’s marvelous cast shines most brightly when their characters are relating to each other rather than to an abstract notion of the past.
The season-two premiere, in particular, too often settles for the reductive CliffsNotes-for-an-era dialogue that period pieces like I’ll Fly Away, Mad Men, and The Americans were sometimes accused of delivering, although even during their worst weeks, those shows never came on like a teacher reading aloud from notes. “My black ass does not need to join your group of preppy white queens in ill-fitting Gap chinos who have never had to fight for a goddamn thing in their lives!” Pray Tell hollers as Judy physically drags him to an ACT UP meeting. “Listen, there are dykes, too, running these meetings, of all shades,” Judy counters, the dialogue equivalent of a footnote on Medium.
Pose also dips into issues of appropriation, but unsteadily, mainly through the prominent foregrounding of Madonna’s hit single “Vogue.” The song drew on New York City ballroom culture but was accused even at that time of monetizing a liberating underground culture, and erasing queer people of color under the guise of celebrating them. “There is a real issue of our community finding its value in its consumption by other, more privileged communities,” wrote Benji Hart in a piece tied to the 25th anniversary of the debut of Paris Is Burning, adding, “The truth is that when the powerful cross borders, the flow tends to be unilateral.” Blanca initially buys into the mentality that to be acknowledged by a straight, white, famous artist is a sign that one has arrived, even been accepted, and holds up the hit single’s existence as a sign of real progress. Events in the next three episodes complicate this reaction, though not as much or as quickly as the viewer might have wished.
When the show moves away from didactic mode (as in the second episode, written by co-executive producer Janet Mock, a trans woman of color), it’s on firmer dramatic ground. It’s probably no accident that the series feels more lived-in and comfortable with itself when it’s telling the story of trans people, people of color, or both — demographics from the plague-years narrative who are still underrepresented in TV and film. Subplots in the first few episodes deal with the practical impact of AIDS on the sex trade (more hand jobs, fewer blow jobs), the desire of trans women models to be accepted in the fashion scene, homophobic violence, and the sexual harassment and exploitation of trans people trying to “pass.” None of this has the feeling of a report from “inside” to “outside,” much less a rhetorical frame being constructed and then placed around American history. Rather, it feels like what people in a house might discuss and deal with while living day to day in that time and place.
The most striking thing about the show — and ultimately its strongest and most graceful argument against society’s tendency to other these sorts of characters — is the way it portrays an assortment of people coming together while insisting on their own identities and boundaries, finding common cause by making up their own rules because the ones handed down by the dominant culture seem meant to silence or destroy them. (“Silence = Death” states a black-on-white title at the end of the premiere — the ACT UP slogan typically accompanied by a pink triangle.) Blanca, Pray Tell, Elektra, Angel (Indya Moore), Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel), Judy, and the rest were partly or completely rejected by both their blood families and their societies, then went on to find (or found) their own families, and inhabit a customized subculture with its own rules and traditions. It’s the American immigrant story reconceived for people who were mostly born in this country.
Instead of a melting pot, the organizing metaphor is probably closer to a quilt. That object becomes genuinely intersectional when you consider it as an emblem of motherhood (best exemplified by Blanca), multiculturalism (Jesse Jackson cited quilt imagery throughout both his presidential campaigns), and the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which originated in 1987. To quote quilting grandmothers since time immemorial, a family stitched together with love seldom unravels.