Television

In Season 2, Pose Became One of TV’s Most Urgent Dramas

The FX series has transformed from a security blanket into a rallying cry.

Blanca and Pray Tell raise their fists.
Blanca and Pray Tell from Pose.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by FX.

This article contains spoilers for the second season of Pose.

When the second season of Pose debuted earlier this summer with a three-year jump, the FX series raised the stakes for its characters quietly but considerably. Even its older, more jaded characters found, in 1990, new hopes for the decade to come. Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) anticipated, mostly wrongly, that Madonna’s “Vogue” topping the charts would herald acceptance for the inventors of the dance in the ballroom scene. Pray Tell (Billy Porter) decided to exchange his despair about the AIDS epidemic for activism, joining ACT UP at the dogged behest of his friend, HIV ward nurse Judy (new series regular Sandra Bernhard). But Pose, which gave Blanca an HIV diagnosis in one of its very first scenes, has never let viewers forget that time is its characters’ most formidable foe. Even if one of the show’s lead creatives, Janet Mock—who wrote, co-wrote, or directed six of this season’s 10 episodes—has promised that Pose would be nothing like the ending of Paris Is Burning (which was forced to bear witness to the devastation of the ’80s ballroom community via homicide and AIDS), time bore down on Blanca, Pray Tell, and company this year in ways both bracingly fresh and distressingly familiar. Combined with substantial character development, especially for Blanca, Pray Tell, and Elektra (Dominique Jackson), this renewed sense of the ticking clock made for a sophomore season that elevated Pose from a comforting but cautious security blanket (with one notably superb performance) into one of TV’s smartest, funniest, and most urgent dramas.

When Blanca was diagnosed in the pilot as HIV-positive, she resolved to start the Evangelista family—a microcosm of a world she wished existed, as well as a legacy she hoped would outlive her, so that her life and hard-won struggles would not have been in vain. Such is the beauty of Pose: The series acknowledges the struggles endemic to its poor, black and brown, trans and otherwise queer characters, but it allows them the grace to be defined by much more than their institutional hardships.

Bookended by episodes about AIDS, this season was darker and angrier, and the sudden demise of Candy (Angelica Ross) in the fourth installment was particularly wrenching. But several of the characters underwent less dramatic, if no less involving, disasters. One of the season’s best storylines followed Blanca’s thrill at vogueing’s domination among the MTV crowd (“the most famous woman in the world singing about us!” she crowed). It set Blanca up for a grand disappointment (“white folks like to visit, but they never move in”), when she would realize that the ballroom scenesters would not be recognized as the creators of vogueing by the mainstream, let alone profit directly from it. Still, in her characteristic optimism, she nudged Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) to teach the dance—exposure that, with talent honed by his education (also encouraged by Blanca), would eventually lead to a career as a world-touring backup dancer. And at a time when debates about cultural appropriation rage as hot as ever and many within Hollywood are voicing fears that the current diversity boom might end up a fad, it was fascinating to watch a previous generation grapple with the double-edged sword of being turned into a mass-culture commodity.

Blanca also pushed Angel (real-life model Indya Moore) to try to make it in the mainstream, and though the younger Evangelista’s aspiration to become a wholesome cover girl seemed doomed from the start (having been almost instantly recognized from the piers where she worked as a prostitute), the older woman’s infectious buoyancy did lead to a rethinking of what a modeling career could look like by her and her new beau Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel). That storyline, inspired by the cruelly truncated career of real-life model Tracey “Africa” Norman, was Pose at its most invigorating: Its characters outsmarting brute injustice.

Rodriguez’s performance became much more naturalistic and layered this season, particularly as her other storylines gave her more to do than heal and nurture. The empty nest she faces after Damon leaves on tour and Angel moves out with Papi spoke to the sometimes hollow rewards of good parenting. (“Your children will truly appreciate you. When you’re dead,” commiserates fellow mother Elektra.) The image of Blanca alone at the dinner table, waiting to feel pride in her hard work, was one of the most mournful images yet on a show steeped in tragedy. Blanca also squared off valiantly against the unstoppable forces of gentrification, as Patti LuPone guest-starred as Frederica, a forward-looking real estate mogul who wanted to make sure that women, too, got to wear the boot made for stepping on the little people. (Bernhard and LuPone took over from Evan Peters, Kate Mara, and James Van Der Beek as the series’ token white characters this season, and their smaller, scrappier roles make much more sense for Pose’s universe.) Frederica’s efforts to wipe the streets “clean” of the likes of Blanca reminded the younger woman how much further she had to fight—and how many were willing to support her in it.

Billy Porter enjoyed a showy supporting role in Season 1, but in Season 2, Pray Tell moved to center stage, where he shared the spotlight with Blanca. The gloom-prone emcee seemed doomed to be haunted for the rest of his years when he had the ghost of Candy popping up to remind him that he didn’t have to struggle so hard if he joined her—a manifestation of Pray Tell’s guilt and melancholy, or a sort of revenge by the rules-flouting contestant against her harshest critic. Porter and Ross are enormously fun in their barbed banter, but a weight seemed lifted as Pose started focusing on different aspects of Pray Tell’s life: his Sex and the City–style brunches with his three gossipy friends and fellow ballroom emcees, his efforts to embrace his more feminine impulses, and, of course, letting himself fall in love again with Damon’s ex Ricky (Dyllón Burnside)—a May-December relationship that put him on the outs with his best friend, Blanca, who was offended on her son’s behalf, but a soul-replenishing one nonetheless. The tear-wringing culmination of Angel and Papi’s syrupy new love notwithstanding, it was Pray Tell and Ricky’s shouldn’t-work relationship that unexpectedly became the season’s romantic heart. Out of individual desperation, they conjured mutual nourishment.

But it was arguably Elektra who grew the most in Season 2, casting off the stiff mantle as the villainess and transforming into a human being before our very eyes. It’s hard to imagine Jackson playing anyone other than haughty Elektra—her line readings, like her grapefruit-size cheekbones, are so grandiose and overripe. Yet Jackson was able to discover Elektra’s teeny, tiny, stiletto-wearing soul in the third episode “Butterfly/Cocoon,” a masterful horror comedy about disposing of a dead john that made up, along with the following funereal installment, “Never Knew Love Like This Before,” one of the season’s twin highlights. Inspired by Paris Is Burning star Dorian Corey, who was found after her death to have stored a dead body in her closet for decades, the ghoulish storyline forced the usually above-it-all Elektra to reckon with earthly realities. (This season’s introduction of episode-closing quotes by Corey and other brown and black queer trailblazers helped connect the dots to the real-life history that the show celebrates.) Elektra’s turn this year as a dominatrix was campy brilliance, but just as exciting was the relaxation she got to enjoy in the dommes’ green room, where she didn’t have to perform her tyrannical petulance for her family to keep them in line. It’s the closest we’ve ever come to seeing the towering matriarch girly, corseted in leather but unfettered by the clock, where she has the time to think through the realities she can dictate with the power of her words and her words alone. Out there, she’s always on guard, awaiting life’s next blow. But in here, if only for a moment, she can get a glimpse of what it’s like to be in charge.