If you didn’t follow industry news reports that FX’s Pose had already been renewed for a third season, you might’ve mourned its cancellation after watching last night’s season-two finale. Jumping ahead eight and a half months after the conclusion of episode nine, “In My Heels” plays like a season-ender that was consciously written to double as a series-ender in the event of cancellation, to give grieving fans a semblance of closure. But if this concluding hour was a calculated false exit, the preceding nine episodes blunted any suspense that it might’ve otherwise generated.
As much as I adore Pose — it was on my top ten series and episodes lists last year — there were moments in season two that made me wonder if there was any gas left in this tank. Overall, Pose season two was an endearing mess compared to season one, meandering, stopping and starting, getting stuck in narrative cul-de-sacs, planting seeds for subplots that never flowered, and too often relying on its cast’s charm and good humor to rescue material that wasn’t playing. Viewers might be forgiven for wondering if the minor miracle of season one was both a self-contained statement that required no further elaboration, and a fluke of timing and logistics resulting from the right bunch of people being brought together at the right cultural moment.
Like the second season as a whole, “In My Heels” feels fragmented, and somehow simultaneously sluggish and rushed through, tying up loose ends in a perfunctory or arbitrary manner. Written by series creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals, and directed by co-executive producer Janet Mock, the episode opens with a scene resolving the rift between Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) and Pray Tell (Billy Porter) with an embrace, followed by a scene establishing that Blanca is now running her salon out of the apartment while in apparently declining health. What follows is an extended death tease — as if a hit show about constructed families was going to kill off its most selfless mother figure — that ends by cycling many of its major characters off of the main stage, which inevitably raises the question of whether the producers are planning on writing some of them out or spending the first few episodes of season three trying to un-ring a lot of bells. Blanca’s story in particular builds toward what feels like a “life goes on” conclusion, with her arriving late to the ballroom in a wheelchair, boldly stepping out of it to perform a killer lip-sync routine (lip-syncing being the subject of some controversy in season two), then mothering a couple of homeless teens on the street with Pray Tell, echoing an earlier comment by Blanca’s own mother, Elektra (Dominique Jackson), that “there are always more children to raise.”
The scene in which that line is spoken — which occurs deep into the eighth and best episode of the season, “Revelations,” written and directed by Canals — also felt like part of a series-ender, building to a wrenching image of Blanca sobbing alone in her now-emptied nest. A preceding conversation about motherhood with Elektra at her workspace (the dungeon) set it up, offering just the right mix of sentiment, idealism, tough love, and mordant humor: “Listen, I don’t care if you’re a Connecticut white girl, a Chinatown immigrant, or one of us,” Elektra told Blanca, “if you choose to be a mother, you choose to shape the world. Your children will truly appreciate you …. when you’re dead. Until then, you want gratitude, get a puppy.” Then she stood up, doffed her wrap to reveal her splendid leather bustier, embraced Blanca (the low angle emphasizing their extreme height difference in a comical and endearing way), then took a whip from the wall, exited the room, and ordered a client, “Jim … heel.”
What makes “Revelations” so superior to the season’s other episodes, including the finale, is the faith it places in the simplest conversations and interactions between characters. There are no big and brazen showpiece moments, but it doesn’t need any. Instead, it features a substantive conversation between Pray Tell and his fellow judges at the coffee shop, several low-key but intense confrontations and confessions, and an explosive family dinner complete with trash talk, accusations, and bombshells (the biggest being the burgeoning cocaine habits of Indya Moore’s Angel and Angel Bismark Curiel’s Papi, and Pray Tell’s sexual relationship with Dyllón Burnside’s much-younger Ricky). This material is handled with sensitivity and intelligence, in a way that doesn’t let anyone off the hook and allows more than one person in a scene to be right. (See: Blanca ultimately accepting Pray Tell’s judgment that she has different standards for each of her kids, and Angel walking back her indignant attitude and telling Blanca that she deserved to be kicked out of the house for violating Blanca’s no-drugs rule).
In the end, the life-sized nature of these scenes proved far more compelling than season two’s often strained attempts at melodramatic catharsis. In particular, Pose botched two stories in the category of death: the episode dealing with Elektra’s attempt to cover up the death of a client (a twist loosely based on a real incident that became a New York Magazine cover story), and the subsequent episode revolving around the murder of Angelica Ross’s Candy. The latter should’ve been one of the most powerful episodes of 2019, but it was undercut by an awareness that Pose hadn’t made enough of an effort to develop Candy as a person, as opposed to a shit-stirring foil, before killing her off. (You can always tell when a cable drama is about to off a supporting character because they suddenly start appearing at the center of lots of scenes.) Then there was the immense and in some ways unfair acting burden placed on Ross, who ended up having to play multiple Six Feet Under–style post-death visitation scenes with other characters (including Candy’s mother and father, non-presences until this very moment). That episode’s poker-faced contemplation of violent loss and the surrendering of delusions might’ve been a touch more persuasive if it hadn’t come on the heels of that sub–Weekend at Bernie’s episode, a cavalier treatment of criminal conspiracy that was largely forgotten by the rest of the season, save for a single shot of Elektra contemplating the trunk in a closet where the moldering corpse of her client is indefinitely stored.
That business with the trunk underlines a persistent problem with season two, which often seemed to be thinking about what would produce the biggest shock or emotional reaction rather than simply observing these in-period characters as they lived lives that were extraordinary because of the adversity and discrimination they suffered, not because their basic desires were drastically different from anyone else’s. Right out of the gate, the most revelatory and subversive thing about Pose wasn’t that it was the first network series built mainly, often entirely, around ball culture and transgender performers shut out of the mainstream, but that it paid such close and loving attention to the construction of the “normalcy” that most of them were denied by the culture that birthed them and still surrounds them, despite the presence of a plague worsened by discrimination and official neglect. The flow of minor incident and everyday exchange gave season one a cohesion that season two, structured more around events and big moments, lacks. And yet the mere presence of the series on American television remains noteworthy in itself, and these characters are so vividly realized that it shouldn’t be too difficult to return Pose to its original state of grace, once a few bells have been unrung.