Pray Tell has come home and sits in front of his vanity mirror. He removes one lash. Then another. He slowly and carefully removes his makeup. He’s staring at himself but also past himself. The camera knows to stay with him, letting us take in every second of this moment. All the while, Aretha Franklin’s rendition of “Say a Little Prayer” plays in the background, perhaps giving voice to what’s going through Pray’s mind. And what, in turn, Pose is telling us with its very last episode: “Forever, and ever, you’ll stay in my heart, and I will love you.”
Like the best moments on the show, this scene is powerful because of its simplicity. Sometimes, all you need is Emmy and Tony winner Billy Porter to hold you rapt as he updates what’s arguably one of the most iconic moments of 21st-century television and give it a queer spin. The moment speaks volumes for the amount of information it withholds, a restraint that Pose so rarely affords itself. Watching it, you pretty much knew what Ricky would find the following morning when he let himself into Pray’s apartment. But that didn’t blunt its impact one bit. The season has, in a way, been always leading to Pray’s death. We should be thankful he went out on his own terms after one brilliant, incandescent ballroom performance.
Speaking of which: “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”!
That’s it, that’s the tweet. No, really. You really just have to bask in its fabulousness. It requires no further commentary. Other, perhaps, than to remind us of the joy these ballroom scenes have captured throughout Pose’s tenure. From that very gag-worthy “Royalty” runway courtesy of the House of Abundance in the show’s pilot episode, that “airless room” (as Elektra describes it) has been a safe haven, a space of possibility. No matter what was happening outside, the community inside those walls offered comfort. It makes sense Pray would feel he could finally let go after such a deliciously joyous send-off.
What we got on either side of this heartbreaking loss was an episode that showed us all the reasons why Pose will forever remain a towering achievement. Co-written by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Steven Canals, Janet Mock, and Our Lady J, the two-part “Series Finale” is a portrait of a community, an urgent historical chronicle, and a love letter to its characters, gifting them a dignity that’s always been theirs but that’s been absent on our small screens for far too long. Pose’s greatest strength (and arguably its biggest burden) has been the way it planted itself and knew itself as more than a television show. This was a statement about what television could be. About whose stories can be told. About who gets to tell said stories. And, more importantly, about what viewers and critics and the industry alike get to learn when a Black, Latina trans woman is the gravitational center of a cable drama.
Likewise, this final episode delivered on its promise to illuminate the kinds of narratives that become central when women like Blanca and men like Pray are the heart of your storytelling. Covering everything from medical racism and ACT UP’s (belated) rainbow coalition to survivor’s guilt and government inaction (“A pile of dead Black people is bad optics. A pile of dead white people is a national tragedy.”), this final episode didn’t let its characters be singular figures spared from the grief and the anger that’s still rampant in their own communities. As Pray notes early in the episode, what good is knowing you’ll survive when that means plenty of others are left to die?
Here’s where the “mothering” the show has so championed became an obvious community-building philosophy. A mother — like Blanca, for instance — understands that caring for another isn’t about putting their needs above your own but about knowing that their wellbeing is intrinsically tied to yours: It’s about pulling people up with and alongside you, about recognizing that there’s strength in numbers, about realizing care is a political act. It’s what made those protest actions feel so urgent. They remain uncomfortably timely.
Images of police officers assaulting peaceful protesters and throwing Black bodies to the ground. Visions of angry civilians calling for the government to do better for its marginalized communities as many are dying. To watch those scenes in 2021 is to have history speak in the present tense.
As Pose wrapped up its storylines, it struck me that what’s most touching about its decade-spanning plot is the way it stressed intergenerational solidarity. From Elektra to Blanca, from Blanca to Angel, from Pray to Ricky, from Ricky to the newer members of the House of Evangelista, Pose serves as an example of why it’s important to look back at these recent histories not as museum pieces that need to be embalmed but as vibrant testimonies that live on in those that are still here.
Which brings me back to Pray’s scene in front of the mirror, which feels even more poignant when paired with that final, dreamy, tête-à-tête he has with Blanca: “Forever, and ever, you’ll stay in my heart and I will love you.”
The line, of course, is mirrored yet again. Pray may have been telling himself those words but he was also hearing them as uttered by those who have long loved him — us included. Franklin’s voice was speaking for those of us who have watched Pose during its three-season run. There’s an intimacy there that doesn’t begin or end on one side of the screen. In creating this world where Papi and Angel can get a film-worthy happily-ever-after, where Blanca can gain Legendary status while living a full life outside ballroom, and where Elektra can lord over her own business empire, Pose has long chosen to see its fans as fellow family members. The show’s ethos has always been one about building community, and with this final episode, it made sure characters and viewers alike knew they would never be forgotten.
We may be parting and, but we’ll always have Pose.
Tens Across the Board
• Don’t think I missed that blink-and-you’ll-miss-it “Waiting to Exhale” poster right when Pray and Ricky meet up in the streets of New York City.
• “I want to be remembered as a representation of all that the balls could be: hope and joy and family. Sometimes viciousness.” Pose may have left viciousness behind for much of its run (even Elektra’s cold exterior was slowly dismantled to show a warmhearted, charity-driven soul), but there’s no denying it more than uplifted those other markers of ballroom.
• History Lesson I: Learn more about the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus (SFGMC) and their now famous photo in the Chronicle from 1993, no doubt the inspiration behind the Gay Men’s Choir we meet in this episode.
• History Lesson II: Learn more about the ACT UP Ashes Actions taken in 1992 and 1996 at the White House lawn (inspired by none other than David Wojnarowicz) that play backdrop to the protests here fictionalized.
• How beautiful was that moment between Pray’s two “mothers”? Moreover, how touching and graceful to see a mother so readily admit her own missteps and to make room for those who stepped in her place.
• “These girls came to the city to have sex?” is a pitch-perfect Elektra line, the kind of offhanded and unintended read only she could so blithely throw away and still have it land with indifferent venom. That said, the wink-wink, nudge-nudge jabs at Sex and the City felt almost too pat, yet another instance where Pose’s penchant for telling rather than showing risked undermining the power of wrenching the “girls brunching” image away from that HBO staple and rewriting it to tell another story of four gal pals in the Big Apple. (Aside: FYC for Dominique Jackson in the Best Supporting Actress - Drama category at the Emmys. She deserves.)
• “Happy endings are for movies,” Blanca says. It’s why she believes one should celebrate happy moments, no matter how fleeting, instead. As beautiful a philosophy to live by as anything else “Grandmother Blanca” doled out during this episode. (Reminder: FYC for Mj Rodriguez in the Best Actress - Drama category at the Emmys. She deserves.)