Unlike the opening of Pose’s second season, which began in a place of biting sobriety, episode two (“Worth It”) brings us right back to the runway. Category is: Fashionable Femme Queens. Lulu Ferocity enters the floor in a metallic bra and standing tulle skirt that, when unbelted, reveals matching metallic pants. “Just a vision in lavender,” Pray exclaims from the podium, as the House of Ferocity wins (one can only assume) their first trophy ever. Pray takes a moment to promote the upcoming inaugural Eros Ball, telling the house mothers and fathers in attendance, “I need you to tell your spawn to spread L-O-V-E in the form of some sickening looks.” He then goes on to compliment Elektra for knowing “how to upgrade a house” (“A praise for one is a praise for all,” she slyly assures Lulu & Candy). On the floor, the girls are confused as to where Elektra’s consistently finding the money to afford her ever-expanding collection of real furs. With perfect timing, Elektra says she’s going to work the night shift at Indochine. “Doesn’t Indochine’s close at 11?,” Lulu questions. “How would you know? We’d never let the likes of you in.”
Sauntering down a Chinatown block, Elektra throws her coat open to reveal a skintight leather dress (complete with deviously strapped neckline), snatches a cigarette from the mouth of a similarly-clad twink, takes a puff, throws it to the ground, and heads downstairs to god knows where…until we pan up to the sign above the door: The Hellfire Club. An underground fetish dungeon, Mistress E unlocks door #13 (of course, lucky bitch), where we find Paul (Frank De Julio) her “worthless piece of shit” who’s already ass up on a saddle, wearing nothing but a pair of red panties and (we quickly discover), Elektra’s (perfectly matching) heels. He huffs poppers and says that they (plus coke) will keep him going all night. Elektra doesn’t approve, but when he flashes an enormous wad of cash that few would be able to resist (much less Elektra with her expensive taste) and says “You charge by the hour right?,” she soldiers on happily.
In the changing room after their session, she exclaims to the other girls, “Holy shit, I can’t believe I finally found a career that truly fits me! Four days a week and I’m already making more than I have in my entire life!” Working at Indochine keeps her name “on the lips of the rich and famous,” while this second, hush hush job keeps her rich. “Sometimes I feel bad for these guys,” says a fellow madam, to which Elektra looks at her quizzically. “Too scared to feel pleasure so they turn to pain.” “I never feel bad for a man,” Elektra buzzes back. “All I know is for the first time in a long time, I feel great.” (Let’s see how long that lasts; hopefully for quite some time, as I could watch her whip worms into shape for hours.)
At the House of Evangelista, Blanca shows of her “primo look,” a simple pink and white striped crop with light washed, high-waisted jeans. Angel, giggling, isn’t convinced. “Ain’t no way you getting anybody to give you a storefront if they clock you, you know that.” She notes that “selling fantasy” is of primary importance, to which Blanca counters that she isn’t so lucky without Angel’s from-birth perfect bone structure. “I appreciate my privileges, but that don’t mean you gotta make things harder for yourself, ma.” Blanca retorts, “How many ladies’ dressing rooms you been kicked out of? I grab what I can off the rack and get outta dodge before someone calls security.” It’s impossibly relatable for any trans woman, and already we know Janet Mock, returning as scripter for the first time this season, has us in all-too-capable hands. Angel, playing the role of fairy godmother, says that they’ll throw her rags (including Blanca’s “good shirt,” poor thing) away and replace them with “proper high fashion.” “Mama’s gotta pay the rent, girl.”
Enter the recently-divorced-from-her-“half a fag”-ex-husband, Ms. Frederica Norman (“I walked in on him bent over a Vitra Grand chair, getting plowed by our doorman”), played with audaciously bewigged camp by Broadway icon, Patti LuPone. She asks Blanca, “Are you PR? Puerto Rican?” When Blanca specifies that she’s American with Dominican lineage, Frederica casually responds, “I don’t normally rent to anyone darker than my Aunt Lily after a week’s vacation in Palm Beach, but I’ve had good luck with Dominicans.” “This building is one of many that ended up in my pocket,” she says while swinging its set of keys with all the subtlety of Ursula the sea witch. Frederica extolls the praises of city-wide gentrification (which Blanca mistakes for a new-to-the-scene beauty technique that she’s not privy to), which’ll keep “normal” (i.e. white) people feeling safe against the “troublemakers” (i.e. people of color). Blanca pays first, last, and a security deposit in cash, which Norman predictably prefers for “tax purposes,” and just like that, Vogue Nails is one step closer to coming to fruition.
Back from tour, Ricky (Dyllón Burnside) enters the apartment to a trail of rose petals, reminding Damon, who’s waiting for him on their bed, that Valentine’s Day was two months ago. “What? I need an excuse to make love to you?” Damon states, seductively. Blanca walks in on them, and apologetically notes that there’s a mandatory family meeting in the living room that can’t wait: they’ve got another funeral to attend.
Pray and Nurse Judy are already in line for mourning when the Extravaganza family (sans all the boys except for my fave, Lil Papi) enters. “Are you trying to wake the dead from their slumber?,” Pray questions in reference to Blanca’s new angel-assisted look. “If I liked it anymore, I’d be straight!” “Then the dead *would* awaken!” Judy questions Blanca as to whether or not she’s doing okay on her AZT, being that she hasn’t come in for her follow-up visit yet. Knowing without even hearing it, she wonders why Blanca hasn’t been taking them, and whether she feels she doesn’t deserve them. “No. Part of me feels like maybe I deserve the disease, y’know?,” Blanca sighs. Pray, fed up with all the whispering, asks whether the infamous-to-New York society Frederica Norman really has “fangs like everybody says.” Surprised to hear that Blanca accepted terms via a handshake (his glance to Judy says it all), Pray delicately congratulates her.
Back home, Blanca confronts Damon, Ricky, Cubby (Jeremy McClain) & Lemar (Jason A. Rodriguez) who skipped out on the funeral for “Sunday tea” at Palladium (RIP). They attempt to excuse themselves by clarifying that once they started voguing, the crowd went wild and treated them like celebrities all night. “It was like they saw us for the first time,” Ricky says dreamily. Something’s changed for Blanca, whose done a complete 180 since last week when she couldn’t stop thanking Madonna for bringing their scene to Hollywood. “Ballroom is not a trend,” she cuts, “nor is it about some flashy dance moves. Ballroom is about family. Something y’all didn’t show up for today.”
At the House of Ferocity, the girls are feasting on SlimFast and child-sized bags of popcorn with hot sauce sprinkled on top. “It truly is a lovely house,” Elektra muses. “Our cuisine should be as equally impressive, don’t you think?” The rent, Candy notes, broke her piggy bank, leaving just enough for the (lol) food and a manicure. “It’s not about what’s on the plate,” Lulu opines, “it’s about communion, conversation, and the sisterhood!” Utterly unconvinced, Elektra broaches the topic of the broom closet given to her, which can only fit her hat boxes and gloves. Sadly for her, the only other closet is in Lulu & Candy’s room. Candy asks if Elektra’s gonna share her “fine luxuries” with them, though she already knows the answer. (The jump cut death glare Elektra gives her is worthy of a standing O). Clearly not, so: she can put it under her bed! “That is no way to store luxury,” Elektra spits back (the way she growls “luxury” is my song of the year thus far). She’s a guest, not the mother of the house, after all. “You ain’t talkin’ to Blanca, bitch. Remember that.” This all spurns a classic Elektra outburst: “Why do I keep lowering myself by associating with you tired, old, raggedy reminders of my failure as a mother?,” she shrieks. (It’s typically exquisite.) When Candy retaliates that she’s nothing but “a over the hill, homeless sex change,” Elektra realizes that that was the moment she “went soft”, post-her surgery and abandonment by Dr. Ford (Christopher Meloni). She’s weak and insecure no more, but the “one and only Elektra,” just in time for “her new signature move,” the wrecking of yet another dinner table (granted, for once, there wasn’t really a meal to be ruined). “I’ll send for my things,” she says, indifferently, walking out. (Jackson is at the height of her grande dame powers here; give her all the bloody gold.)
With that, it’s time for Elektra to build the “fiercest house ballroom has ever seen.” Presenting Cartier gift boxes to Tess (“vogue femme fatale,” the returning Trace Lysette), Shadow & Silhouette (“the king and queen of vogue”) and Jazmine (“triple threat”) for their allegiance. “Dance is the future,” so, in order to snatch every trophy in sight, she needs children who will “vogue the house down,” not just serve on the runway.
On the ballroom floor, Pray is holding court as Mother Goose, “about to tuck you in” with “fairy tales dripped in romance and drama.” Lil Papi & Angel give the crowd an overly-saturated Romeo & Juliet moment, while House of Ferocity serve an admirable enough for their standards Cinderella, with mid-twirl transformation reveal. Suddenly, everything goes dark. “Who did not pay the light bill?,” Pray call out. But, oop! It’s Elektra with her new family, walking in single file ready to present themselves to a decidedly unenthused crowd. “They can’t be storming balls like this, interrupting festivities just to make a statement,” yelps Blanca. Candy, beyond fed up, grabs a hammer from Ferocity’s table, just in time for Elektra to flick open her switchblade. (Elektra’s “I’ve come prepared to gut you like the fish you’ll never be!” might her best line yet.) “This is ball, not a brawl,” bellows Pray as security breaks them up. Elektra promises that she only wanted to introduce her house. “Aren’t I worthy of that, considering all the glory I brought to ballroom?” The council speaks: “No, bitch.”
Alas: this is Elektra we’re talking about, and she always (at least in her mind) has the last word. Named after “the legendary editor-in-chief of the sacred text,” they are the House of Wintour. “Quake in fear, children. Wintour is coming.” Scheming Thing 1 & Thing 2 (i.e. Cubby & Lemar) immediately run back to Elektra, defaming House of Evangelista as a banjee and undeserving of their supposed talents. She, for whatever reason, takes them back. At the bar, new boy Chris (Blaine Alden Krauss) offers a drink to the unavailable Damon, telling him he’s cuter than he imagined. “Don’t tell me you’ve seen me in your dreams,” Damon drolly replies. “No, in photos.” He was Ricky’s bunkmate on tour. Damon assures him that he’d never heard of him before “Can’t be guilty of a crime no one knows you’ve committed,” Chris jabs, planting the seed of doubt in Damon’s mind. “Whatchu think he was doing every time you called and couldn’t reach him, hm? Playing cards?” A fist fight ensues, resulting in the ball being shut down by Pray “until you bitches learn how to act.” “We got other shit to worry about and y’all fighting each other!” he shouts, incredulously.
Hours later, at home, Blanca begs the two to stop going back and forth about the matter, Damon furiously making Ricky swear it’s all a lie, calling him out for saying all his fellow dancers were straight (which, poor Damon, might be the world’s most laughable red flag; Lil Papi’s “I mean it’s a concert tour, aren’t all the dancers gay?” was a riot). Blanca is horrified to hear that Ricky had talked Damon into not wearing a condom “again.” Ricky’s reaction tells all, spelling disaster for not only their relationship, but my nerves.
We enter Ms. Norman’s non-surprisingly lush apartment while she’s being simultaneously interviewed and photographed while holding her two dogs, Cash & Credit (when I tell you “I screamed”…!), who she requires to appear in the story. The only way she agreed to the piece in the first place was if she (naturally) had some “editorial control.” “My angle was going to be that ‘powerful women can have it all,’ even after a tough divorce,” the reporter, Elizabeth (Cassie Beck), declares. Frederica’s son Jonas (Edward Carnevale) comes home in what can only be described as “mafioso drag” (his Umbro tracksuit is “more expensive than any Ralph Lauren suit,” he proudly states for the record), flashing god knows how much money in cash, saying he was “out for collections.” As per her own words, the woman with the largest real estate portfolio in all of New York (”probably the world”), Frederica likes to keep the organization streamlined, efficient, and in the family. With Elizabeth excused for a break, Jonas lambasts his mother for not noticing Blanca is “a guy.” “You’re too busy being superior to other people to actually look at them.” If true (sigh), of course, Ms. Norman curtly states, “He has to go.” (For those keeping score: she’s not only wildly racist and homophobic, but also transphobic!)
Jonas walks in on Blanca painting the salon, gives her the rent money back (…at least?), and tells her she’s out. Back at the apartment, Pray guarantees Blanca that what the Normans have done is illegal (“You ain’t even polished a fingernail up in that dump yet!”), but she reminds him that—nevermind the fact that people treat girls like her like dirt—they didn’t even sign any papers, so there’s no trail (fuck that fucking handshake). Twenty steps past “done with it,” she vents to Pray about the drama between Damon & Ricky, wondering how to make them make smarter choices (especially when it comes to their sexual health). “You and I have been where they are,” he nudges her. “How you think we got here?” He tells her that showing them their worth will be the key. “You are their mother. Set an example.” Pray offers a thought: if she isn’t willing to defend herself against someone like Frederica Norman, how does she expect her children to fight for themselves?
Mercifully/to our audience delight: she does! Back at the salon and continuing to set it up for their grand opening (fun fact: it’s painted the exact shade of my bedroom; we love good taste!). Frederica accuses Blanca of not only trespassing, but deceiving her. “I can do business with thieves and murders, but not…a liar.” The two spar mercilessly, Blanca hitting back with the best of them thanks to her newfound knowledge from “those nice people at New York City Commission of Human Rights.” Set up with a pro bono lawyer to fight Frederica’s team of “the best Jews from Harvard & Yale,” Blanca’s finally in control and ready to fight back “‘til the bitter end.” “I’m not here to gentrify neighborhoods so white ladies like you can feel ‘comfortable walking down the street,’” she states plainly, head held high. “I’m here for me.” When Frederica brags of the Italians and Russians in her Rolodex, threatening, in particular, Blanca’s kneecaps, Blanca assures her that she’s had more beatings than Norman’s had breakfast. It’s a giddily triumphant moment for Blanca, Mock’s words slapping back and forth with a powerfully acidic brevity that thrills and much as it does uneases. (Be careful, Blanca, baby!)
At the Evangelista abode, Damon celebrates Cubby, Lemar and Elektra’s exit from their house, as, in his opinion, they crowded the already-full-enough space. Papi doesn’t quite feel the same way, noting they won’t be so happy when they’re dancing for the House of Wintour and Evangelista’s back on the bottom again. “I’ve seen plenty of bottoms flip and become tops, it’s not that hard,” counters Blanca (the bellow of “yass”-es emanating from viewing parties worldwide could be felt like a minor earthquake). With that, it’s time for Mother B to take some “direct action” and teach a bit of sex ed, pulling out a cucumber to visually assure everyone at the table (especially the two young lovers) understand how to properly use condoms. The boys revert to childishness, while Angel looks on, decidedly unamused, until she slams her hands on the table. “You think you so special, this thing is just gonna skip on over you, but you’re not.” Blanca, then, tells “the hard truth”: “You boys are young, black, gay, and poor. This world despises you. You get this disease? You die. They feel relieved.” “Living in a world like that can make you desperate for love,” she continues, launching us back in time to one of many trysts she had with men she was all too willing, all too desperate to please. She, then, tells her children about the heightening nature of her diagnosis, Papi kneeling by her side and pledging, through tears, to look after her like she did him, “when no one else would.” “Listen, I don’t want none of y’all to not love y’all selves,” she begs. “That was my problem, my mistake, and sometimes it still is, but no more. No more.” It’s an all-out gold star moment for the series, an impossibly gut-wrenching showcase for Mj Rodriguez, Indya Moore, and (especially) Angel Bismark Curiel; I rewound and rewatched it three times in a row through my own sobs.
We’re at the clinic, then, with Damon & Ricky getting tested. Ricky, thrilled with his negative status, seems surprised to find Damon in the corridor, looking the opposite of relieved. Damon feels stuck behind while Ricky is shooting music videos, his being in school and slaying the ballroom scene not competing with his boyfriend’s successes in his mind. “I just really don’t have a good feeling about myself right now,” he says. “You my good feeling.” Naturally, Ricky is gonna be late for rehearsal and has to go, promising to finish the conversation later on.
At the Eros Ball (“celebrating passion, reveling in love and sex”), Pray commands that everyone treat themselves with dignity, because “everyone in this room is deserving of love.” Category is: high fashion in feathers. Angel leads House Evangelista onto the floor while Blanca rides behind her on a chair carried by the boys. They receives middling scores while Candy snatches the cheapest looking pair of wings television has ever seen off an innocent fellow attendee and stomps through their group to a chorus of deserved boos. “Can somebody take this bitch back to kindergarten so she can learn the difference between ‘feathers’ and ‘foam’?”, Pray laments, chopping House of Ferocity from the competition. House of Wintour makes their official debut, stealing the show when Elektra, who plays “Black Aphrodite”-cum-Venus de Milo, is birthed from a three piece, crackable clamshell to extend her wings at just the right moment and receive 10s across the board. Despite Elektra taking home yet another trophy, Pray shines the real spotlight on Blanca, “business woman of the year,” for being “a shining example of excellence” and standing up for not only her own rights, but for “everybody in this room.”
Damon pulls Ricky into the hallway, telling him that he loves him, but (classically/rightfully) wants to love himself more, suggesting they go on a break (which Ricky immediately contests). “I’m way too young to have somebody already be my everything,” Damon says, knowing that whether he denies it or not, Ricky slept with Chris, and that he deserves to see where that goes. Ricky begs Damon to fight for their relationship, but Damon “can’t help him” any longer, saying mother Blanca needs to be the one to give him advice from now on, not him.
The next morning, Judy is with Blanca at the apartment, drinking some wine and assuming she’s there to be told off for “pushing her medicinal agenda.” However, joyously, it’s the opposite. Blanca’s starting her AZT regimen then and there, newly inspired to live for herself and her children, the two clutching hands in solidarity as we lead into a montage: Vogue Nails, officially open, with Blanca excitedly taking her first real customer; Angel sharing her advanced modeling technique with Papi, their adorable flirtations signalling romance to come (I’ve never been so ready to ship a fictional couple in my life); Ricky moves out and Damon is happily seen teaching his Vogue 101 class at the Y; Elektra moves House Wintour into a new, palatial apartment, where she, with characteristically outrageous sincerity, insists Lemar & Cubby arrange her closet alphabetically (“Chanel, Dior, Fendi! Get it right!”).
At dinner, Angel is supportive of Damon choosing to better himself without Ricky, but wishes he were still in the house as they loved him too, with Lil Papi quickly following up that perhaps she’ll feel differently after he drops a bomb: Ricky is now a Wintour. “Listen, we can do anything as long as we got each other,” Blanca motivates them, to cheers from both her house and us at home.
So far, each episode this season has closed with an important quote from a branch of queer history, and this time we’re graced with one from the legendary Grandfather of ballroom, Hector Xtravaganza, about the true meaning of family (“…those whom you share your good, bad, and ugly, and still love one another in the end…”). Xtravaganza passed away at the age of 60 last year, and the inclusion of his words reminds us, bittersweetly, of just how real and raw and soulfully beating the heart behind this landmark show is.