If I had to distill the essence of FX’s trailblazing drama series Pose, I could do well to borrow the words of Blanca Rodriguez (played by the luminous Mj Rodriguez): “We’re family and ballroom is our home.”
The line, which comes at the end of the season-three premiere episode, feels like a succinct summation of what’s made the Steven Canals–created show such a welcome presence in the American television landscape. Pose has long billed itself as a family drama, one that reconfigures what it means to be a family — and to be a “mother,” in every and all senses of the word — in a space that has, for decades, understood the impact such familial bonds can have on everyone involved: ballroom. Where the nuclear family, a staple of American television, has oft been housed in, well, literal houses (think of those living rooms and kitchens that frame your favorite sitcoms, from All in the Family to Diff’rent Strokes), Pose has spent its past two seasons stressing the importance of a more abstract but all the more grounded vision of a “house.” After all, Blanca’s House of Evangelista, as this first episode reminds us, exists just as much in scenes around a dinner table as it does on the floor of a ball.
It’s no surprise, then, that it’s in those two spaces that “On the Run” truly shines, in moments where the chemistry between its ever-charming cast is palpable. Watching Blanca improvising a family gathering at her apartment (to watch O.J.’s infamous white Bronco chase, of all things) and later beaming from the sidelines as Elektra (the magnetic Dominique Jackson) oversees a jaw-dropping showing by the House of Evangelista, you’re instantly reminded why Pose, despite its familiar trappings (pun intended), nevertheless feels quietly radical. This is a love letter to Black trans women and to the mothering Black trans women like Blanca have been shouldering, and, rather than merely pointing out such burdens, celebrates its potential as well.
When Blanca talks about her work at the hospital caring for AIDS patients and says that “it never crossed my mind that a woman like me could have the answers, would be the one with the solution,” you can almost feel Canals and co-writer and director Janet Mock voicing the kind of statement they want to normalize with this show. Our fearless protagonist is a steely beacon of empathy, and her selflessness is precisely why she (and the actress bringing her to life) deserves her flowers. It’s an empowering moment of self-actualization that looks to set in motion a final season that finds the emotional anchor of the show pursuing her professional dreams, teeing her up for what might be a well-deserved fairy-tale ending now that she’s also found her very own “Theo Huxtable” in Jeremy Pope’s Christopher.
If “On the Run” finds Blanca looking ahead with bright-eyed optimism, the same cannot be said for Pray Tell (Billy Porter). The usually fiery emcee is adrift, looking for solace at the bottom of a liquor bottle, making his usually sharp-tongued quips feel more cutting than usual. His bitterness about his place in the world sours every interaction he has with those who love him — and, it must be noted, gives the ever-game Porter a chance to further show his range. Attempts by Blanca, his beau Ricky (Dyllón Burnside), and even the sweetheart that is Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), with a ready-made AA pitch, aren’t enough to convince Pray Tell that his way of self-medicating may not be the best way to deal with the immense grief he’s facing on any given day. As he rightly notes at one of the many funerals he’s now attending, “My drinking is not gonna fill this room back up.” It’s a statement that reframes his self-destruction as survival, which is what makes it all the more troubling. And with hints that Angel (Indya Moore) and Lulu (Hailie Sahar) are all too happy to smoke joints laced with crack, it’s clear the perils of addiction may well continue to structure and dictate the final episodes of the show.
But, like much of Pose, these nods toward the darker edges of the lives of these characters is more gesture than anything else. The love its creators and writers have for these characters, the way they’ve been etched on the screen as a balm and as a corrective (to erased and ignored histories, both mediated and embodied), means they’re always haloed by a protective force. It doesn’t make the likes of Pray Tell and Blanca, say, immune from the horrors of the world around us. But it means Pose’s story lines will always put more weight on those rays shining through the darkness than on the darkness itself — it’s why, perhaps, that police raid that opens the show is so fleeting, while those moments of joy (like, say, sharing Chinese food while Shanice’s “I Love Your Smile” plays us out into the credits) are the ones given most attention. They’re the ones the series wants us to sit with and remember the most: “I’m showin’ the life that I’m livin’,” Shanice sings in that ’90s hit, capturing the Pose ethos at its most lucid. “This is the life that I have. Yeah, and it’s true.”
Tens Across the Board
• One thing worth noting about that final ballroom scene is the way it feels like a snapshot both of ballroom’s past and its present moment: Here, after all, is a scene scored by RuPaul’s 1993 hit song, “Supermodel (You Better Work),” that features, among its many performers, Legendary’s emcee himself, Dashaun Wesley. Such a prismatic moment is a reminder of how powerful a cultural object Pose can be, suturing as it does where ballroom was in 1994 and the place it occupies in 2021 as a way to honor its roots and further celebrate its place in contemporary popular culture.
• I can’t decide whether my favorite line was Elektra’s “The balls are how we grieve!” or Pray Tell’s “You want some noodles before you get grilled?” Thankfully, I don’t have to choose between them and can crown them both.
• Couldn’t let a recap go past without noting the truly outstanding work being done by the costume and hair and makeup departments, led by Analucia McGorty, Sherri Berman Laurence, Barry Lee Moe, and Chris Clark (all Emmy nominees for their past work on the show). And I’m not just talking about those ball looks (which are, yes, to die for) but to quieter ensembles, like a color-blocked Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel) in a black turtleneck with a blue blazer and a gorgeously coiffed Angel living their ’90s model fantasy with a bright-red lip and statement gold earrings. And yes, even that final Blanca outfit with those killer boots.
• Can we talk a minute about Jason A. Rodriguez, a.k.a. Lemar, Father of the House of Khan? In an episode that was chock-full of reassuring smiles, comforting lectures, and kind, loving heart-to-hearts between its OG characters, it was quite a treat to see Lemar be his deliciously sassy self, slaying his voguing in competition and further establishing him as a killer one-liner deliverer. (That said, I can’t say I much cared for the diner food fight, which felt straight out of a more broadly drawn ’90s family film comedy than, well, a ’90s family TV dramedy, which Pose feels more in line with — but then again, the messiness of the scene speaks to the knotted messiness where the show often finds its most interesting beats.)