“Don’t you want our story to have a different ending?”
The line, delivered by Pray Tell’s high-school lover, now a man of God seemingly eager to leave his family and run away to New York City to spend Pray’s final months with him, could very well serve as Pose’s entire storytelling philosophy. On paper, after all, a show centered on Black trans women and gay men set at the height of AIDS epidemic in New York City seemed to call forth a pre-written narrative. We knew the stories (and endings) these kinds of characters have been afforded, both in real life and on screens both big and small.
Yet time and time again, Pose has found ways of subverting those narratives. It’s not so much that the show has painted a rose-colored vision of early-’90s NYC, but that it’s refused to let itself be boxed into well-worn tropes that are often deployed for the sake of authenticity. There’s an optimism that runs through these stories, however tragic or heartbreaking or harrowing they may be. That’s what I kept thinking as Vernon (Norm Lewis) professed his love for Pray Tell (Billy Porter) and gave him the closest to a third-act rom-com speech as one can give to a former lover you haven’t seen in decades who’s just got word he may only have six months to live.
Oh yeah, we should rewind a bit. I guess it’s summer now and Pray is back from rehab. (The episode glosses over this, sort of the same way it wrote off Damon a few episodes back with a line about him having moved.) But more to the point, “Take Me to Church” gives us the news we hoped we’d never hear: Pray has developed lymphoma and his doctor has just told him he has, at best, a few months left. In true Pray fashion, he takes the news in stride: “Ain’t no white man in a lab coat and cheap shoes gonna tell me to throw in the towel.” Nevertheless, he’s set on making amends, so off he goes back home to break the news to his mother.
There’s so much that happens during Pray’s homecoming that I almost wished we’d gotten a two-episode arc here. Because in addition to Pray’s reunion with his teenage paramour (who’s gone and married Pray’s bff and has become an integral part of the church), we get heavy moments between Pray and his mom (over the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his stepdad), as well as thorny conversations about faith, sexuality, marriage, and the many scars Pray still carries with him since he first came out to his family. Any one of these threads — those flashbacks to a young Pray at church, the heated confrontations over sexual abuse, the debates over homophobia in the church — could have made for enthralling episodes of their own.
Indeed, some have such lucid moments of dialogue (“Peace is more important than truth,” “I needed you to believe me and leave him”) that I was left wanting more room to sit with each of them. Together, though, they feel a bit rushed. But perhaps that sense of being overwhelmed is the point. There’s no way one trip home, one conversation, one breakthrough, will undo decades of trauma.
But back to Vernon and Pray. It’s a testament to the show’s storybook approach that I wouldn’t have been surprised had Norm eventually showed up at the bus stop and left it all behind. The world writers like Steven Canals, Janet Mock, and Brad Falchuk have created in Pose is one that makes such a show of love from one Black man to another feel wholly plausible. Pray may say he knows how his story ends (“Rewriting my past is not gonna change my future,” he bemoans), but that exchange nevertheless opens up possibilities that would already have felt unimaginable to the young Pray he later sees in passing as his bus drives away. Seeing him composed, saying grace surrounded by the House of Evangelista, giving us a vision of the queered family and individual spirituality he’s come to embrace, is in itself a rewriting maybe not of a future, but of the present he’s making for himself.
Tens Across the Board
• Can we talk about the glorious casting of this episode? Norm Lewis as Vernon is inspired, yes, but bringing together Anna Maria Horsford (Amen), Janet Huber (Fresh Prince of Bel-Air), and Jackée Harry (Sister, Sister), all of whom played pivotal roles in late-’80s/early-’90s Black sitcoms, was just divine. It’s the kind of casting touch that helps us feel like we know Pray’s family — even if we’re borrowing that familiarity from these other shows instead. It also makes their interactions brim with welcome warmth, though you see where Pray may have gotten his gift for shade (“You weren’t always a swan” is the kind of read you just have to bow down to). It’s also what makes that final scene with Harry’s Jada all the more powerful; you just know she’ll take care of him and fight for him, loving him then the way she hadn’t all those years ago. Because that’s just the kind of motherly figure we all know Jackée Harry to be.
• Continuing to use headline-grabbing scandals to ground us firmly in 1994, the episode ends with a dinnertime discussion over Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and her infamous arson incident (a.k.a. that time she burnt down Andre Rison’s mansion, a story that’s almost wilder than you can imagine).
• “Your husband is a homosexual.” I can’t be the only one who immediately flashed back to one of Angels in America’s most famous scenes, where Prior Walter bluntly tells a frenzied Harper, “Your husband’s a homo.” It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment, but the echo felt appropriate as Ebony, like Harper, cannot help but reject that description lest it destroy the idyllic image of a well-kept married couple they’ve constructed together. And, just like that Tony Kushner opus, “Take Me to Church” explicitly grapples with the intersection of queerness and faith.
• Music has always been a central part of Pose’s storytelling and “Take Me To Church” was no different. From Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song” scoring Pray’s relationship with Vernon to Billy Porter’s heart-rending take on “This Day” (letting Pray live his Whitney Houston fantasy), there’s no denying that sometimes it’s easier to bear it all out in a song.
• “I thought I was your home.” I’ve remarked how much Pose is about family but I loved the way “Take Me To Church” almost remixed that theme with an exploration of what it means to talk and find one’s home. From the song that opens the episode (“No grave shall hold my body down, This land is still my home”) to Pray’s memory of what Vernon once said to him (“I thought I was your home”), the concept of “home” kept ringing throughout — not as a place or a feeling even, but as a body.