The title for the second episode of Pose’s final season (which aired in tandem with its premiere opener) hints at exactly what dominates the hour-long proceedings. Only, it would have perhaps been more accurate had the title been a plural. “Intervention” may hint at the staged gathering wherein Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) and the House of Evangelista lovingly attempt to get Pray Tell (Billy Porter) to acknowledge the fact that he has a drinking problem, but there were several scenes peppered throughout that followed that very same dynamic (see: Papi and Angel, Elektra and Lulu).
But the bluntness of the episode’s title speaks also to the tacitly understood structure of the show. There’s always been a welcome didacticism to Pose, an understanding that the FX drama hopes to be this generation’s Beverly Hills, 90210. Or, rather, its contemporary companion. Seen side by side, especially when operating in the kind of “very special episode” vein that an entry like “Intervention” so recalls, 90210 and Pose almost feel like sister shows, intent on serving as narrative PSAs that embolden viewers young and old to understand why some people make the ill-conceived choices they make. Pose is both a belated corrective and a fabulous reworking of that kind of storytelling, filtered through the specificity of its queer and trans characters, many of whom (like Pray) carry with them traumas and burdens that span generations.
So yes, if there are some moments in the episode that feel a tad ham-fisted or slightly overwrought, I’m inclined to look past them. It’s not just that I couldn’t have fathomed seeing the kinds of conversations about addiction as tied to the grief over HIV/AIDS on a show like 90210 back when I was a teen, but that now, in my 30s, seeing those same conversations feels powerful in and of itself: Much is made of what a show like Pose is doing for younger generations, but I’m constantly reminded (especially in those moments where intergenerational rivalries and solidarities flare up, as between Pray and Lemar, or Pray and Ricky) that this chronicle of a queer past is a potent call to arms for our very present.
Watching Blanca, for instance, navigating a terse outing with Christopher’s parents filled with euphemistic barbs (his mother finds the prospect of Blanca’s having owned a nail salon “stimulating” and her growing up in the projects “colorful”) only to then see her standing up for herself is as heartwarming as it is empowering. She may claim she’s lost her self-confidence, but there’s something in Blanca that will always make her stand out and stand up for herself. Credit where it’s due: Rodriguez’s ability to capture a fragile but steely resilience is what makes Blanca such a revelation; watch her in those two “meet the Huxtables” scenes and notice how she’s constantly shuttling between shrinking herself to be liked and gritting her teeth for making herself do so. By the time she stands up (quite literally), it feels like a vision of the Blanca we know, the one Christopher first fell in love with. It’s a glorious moment of self-empowerment that is accompanied by a loving show of support: The dinner’s been a redo and Christopher has risen to the challenge when, perhaps in a different show, he may have failed.
I return here, as I did in my previous recap, to the way this signals a subtle but undeniable aspect of the writing in Pose: These are people who are not only rooting for their characters, but actively creating worlds (as imagined as they are authentic) that allow them to be the selves they deserve to be. That’s why even when the show puts a character like Pray Tell in a situation where he’s clearly on the path to self-destruction, you know there’ll be a light at the end of the tunnel. Does this deprive the show of what we would normally call narrative tension because we trust a happy ending will be inevitable? Perhaps. But as Pray in this episode shows, that doesn’t detract from Pose extracting all the drama out of such a plotline.
Which is to say: This episode alone could handily win Billy Porter another Emmy.
Think about it: In the span of an hour, we get to see the actor perform a killer lip sync (give it up for En Vogue!), deliver a scathing series of all too personal reads (“If I wanted advice from a crackhead, I would walk out on the streets and ask for it”), break down in tears when faced with the prospect of losing Ricky, and finally find his way back to sobriety before checking into rehab upstate. Porter gives you everything: the numbness that comes with alcoholism, the euphoria that comes with an energetic ballroom outing, the righteous frustration that comes with seeing friends and former lovers dying — all while showing the children what a seasoned performer can do with a perfectly timed close-up.
Again, Pray’s storytelling feels all too neatly parceled out, too tidy even amidst Pose’s penchant for keeping its episodes tightly packaged. I mean, the episode is titled “Intervention”; obviously this wasn’t designed as a season-long arc despite its rich thematic content. But even with this accelerated pacing, there’s no denying Porter was given a feast of an episode (give or take a too-clever clunky line like, “I drink because I hate myself. And I hate myself because I drink”).
And just as with Blanca’s story line (funny how both of these early episodes have so sidelined the show’s ancillary characters, no?), Pray’s moments of self-reflection hit a chord precisely because they vocalize what many then (and perhaps to this day) carry with them as they cope with life in the shadow of HIV/AIDS. What do you do with such pain? What do you do with the trauma? How do you go on with your life when your every day is shaded by death? The House of Evangelista is right to call Pray out on his drinking, but they don’t really have too many answers as to how better to go on when his body, his life, his friends are constant reminders of what seems like an inevitable outcome.
That’s what made his outburst during his intervention so painful. Whether calling out Elektra for her delusions of grandeur or sniping at Papi for riding Angel’s coattails, you got to see Pray wielding his sharp tongue on his loved ones with the same verve he no doubt reserves for himself. There was no generosity there, just the lashing out of someone in pain taking the blade he’s been using on himself to hurt everyone around him. That his reads also echoed his stage presence and his role as emcee merely stressed how his acid-tongued performances always hid a darker way of looking at the world. But where amid the glitter of the balls, he’d turned that skill into a shining moment of levity, here it was swallowed whole by the darkness that so consumes him.
It’ll be interesting to see what a post-rehab and sober Pray looks like, both in and out of the spotlight. Let’s just hope it gives Porter even more fabulous notes to play as he sketches out the final few episodes of one of television’s most fascinating characters.
Tens Across the Board
• “Who are you calling queer? I am a proud transexual woman!” I loved Lulu’s almost throwaway line during the intervention prep: It was a quick gloss on the way umbrella labels like “queer” can oftentimes obscure the specific lived-in experiences of those they’re trying to include.
• I’m still gagging over Elektra’s feathered ensemble. And Pray’s glittery romper.
• I know the show has long framed Blanca as the central mother figure (she was called out as such by Pray himself in this episode), but can we take a moment to rejoice in Ms. Elektra’s excellent mothering skills? She may never get herself a Pietà-like statue, but her no-bullshit, tough-love approach (with Lulu: “The category is: seamstress!”, with Blanca: “You are every-fucking-thing!”, and even with Pray: “Think of your skin-care routine if nothing else!”) remains especially welcome, especially during scenes when the show’s writing risks becoming all too cloying.
• Any show that manages to feature Toni Braxton, En Vogue, Janet Jackson, and Mariah Carey in a single episode deserves extra props.