Season Two of ‘Pose’ dives deep into the AIDS crisis, cherishes Madonna and the bonds of family become more important than ever
The first season of FX’s breakthrough series Pose served as a history lesson to the New York City ball scene of the 1980s, telling the much-needed, and much denied, stories of gay, queer and trans people of color through their own eyes. Show creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (Glee, American Horror Story) with Steven Canals created something revolutionary that is both an exclusive kiki and an invitation to the ball. We met the houses: Evangelista (led by MJ Rodriguez’s Blanca) and Abundance (led by Dominique Jackson’s Elektra), mothers with gathered and collected children, castoffs from their families and society in general. We met legendary ball emcee Pray Tell (Billy Porter), with his Cabaret style and lacerting quips. Season one allowed us to know them, to root for them and to love them.
Season two jumps from 1988 to 1990 and wastes no time diving into how devastating the AIDS crisis has become. “I’ve been to three funerals this week. Where is the cure?!” asks Pray Tell as he and Blanca search for their deceased friend on Hart Island. Moving through numbered pine boxes, it’s a burial ground for families who can’t afford a funeral or for those that fled their hometown for NYC and have no one to be there for them. But for those that have died of AIDS, even in death they’re quarantined. “They’re already dead!” screams Blanca. This moves Pray Tell (with the help of Sandra Bernhard’s nurse Judy), Angel (Indya Moore) and the rest of House Evangelista into activist mode (the first episode is titled “Acting Up), disrupting a church mass with a mock die-in. It can’t go without being said that Billy Porter is a true force of nature. A whirling dervish of deep shade and pitch black reads but always the show’s heart, soul and voice. His work here is nothing less than Emmy-worthy.
Then something rather miraculous happens. Madonna releases one of her biggest hits ever, “Vogue,” and the video that features queer Black and Latin dancers pulled from the ball scene. It’s a worldwide hit, taking vogueing mainstream and Blanca is sure this is going to be the turning point. “Madonna is shining a bright spotlight on us, girl. ‘Vogue’ will make us stars,” she says. Madonna has been tethered to the queer population, and very much the black and Latinx population, since her beginnings and although the song and its impact is weaved through all four of the first episodes made available to review, one of the most successful things Murphy, Falchuk and Canals do in season two is never let their characters be beholden to a white savior. The first season featured AHS regular Evan Peters as a married businessman who wants to whisk away Angel, but this season our characters are existing, succeeding and failing, on their own terms.
In a truly moving sequence, Judy takes Blanca (in a richer performance from MJ Rodriguez) through the motions of how doctors procured AIDS medications like AZT from rich, white men who were dying of the disease (and who were the only ones who got the modicum of media attention) in order to supply it free to those who couldn’t afford it. Blanca, resistant at first (“I’m scared.” Judy: “To die or to live?”), commits to taking the life-extending drug and with a new lease on life searches for a new lease for a nail salon. Enter Patti Lupone, with a neck of pearls the size of intermediate level anal beads, doing a devastating version of Leona Helmsley the house down. You will gasp. “I don’t normally rent to anyone darker than my Aunt Lillian after a weekend in Palm Beach,” she tells Blanca, whom she agrees to rent to on a handshake deal.
Angel goes after a modeling contest – Fresh Faces of 1990 – and for her it’s a fairy tale, right down to the cascading staircase in order to present herself to the judge (played by Trudie Styler) who could change her life. After a recommendation that ends up with Angel being forced to reveal herself in a way she didn’t intend, she fights back, and fights back hard. What Moore is doing this season, volleying between expressions of incredible strength and vulnerability is tremendous.
Everyone gets time and room to tell their stories and grow, even the boys. For Ricky (Dyllón Burnside) and Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) it could be the end. For Cubby (Jeremy McClain) and Lemar (Jason A. Rodriguez), their defection both defines and limits them. For sweet Lil Papi (the wonderful Angel Bismark Curiel, this kid is fantastic), his allegiance to Angel is one of chivalry, self-confidence and self-discovery. The fashions and music are as on point as they were season one. Joining Madonna’s iconic “Vogue” you’ll hear Roxette’s “You Got the Look,” Soul II Soul’s “Back to Life,” Janet Jackson’s “Black Cat,” Anita Baker’s “Giving You the Best That I Got” and more.
Elektra, having found herself at House Evangelista at the end of last season, can’t seem to help but look a gift horse in the mouth and has nothing but complaints about her lodging and the food. Frustrated and fed up, she loses her shit and flips the table, real housewife-style. She bounces and heads over to House Ferocity led by Candy (a standout Angelica Ross this season) and like a verse-chorus-verse, disrupts dinner once again with a showstopping exit. What no one knows is that Elektra has been moonlighting at the Hellfire Club as an after hours mistress for rich, white sex slave wannabes. She breaks her own rules, allowing a client to use drugs during a session, but at a much higher rate. With her saved cash she creates an all new house…the House of Wintour and enters the ballroom with the warning “Wintour…is coming.”
This season’s relationship with death is one of incredible balance or sadness, horror and yes, even levity, especially in episode three under the direction of Janet Mock. After a sudden death under Elektra’s dominatrix watch and afraid to go to the police, she reaches out to Blanca, then to Candy in order to dispose of the body. “He white?” asks Candy. “Oh bitch, you fucked.” They connect with a shady queen who hooks up queens with, let’s just say less than quality silicone (cement, in some cases) to help and the trio make haste of the Wall Street bro that would make Dorian Corey snap her fingers in approval.
Episode four, written by Ryan Murphy and Janet Mock, gives us a shocking death, one I won’t reveal here, but underlines one of the show’s main themes of family – both those we are born into and those we choose when we’re cast out. “It’s May, 11 of us have been killed!” underlining that 2019 does not look all that different from 1990. “We must protect our sisters from the hands of men who are weak!” cries another. As we embark on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall, it’s through strength, perseverance, and speaking truth to power that season two of Pose is game-changing television and yes Gawd-level good.
Pose was co-created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals, who executive produce alongside Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson, Alexis Martin Woodall and Sherry Marsh. Janet Mock is a co-executive producer, and Our Lady J is a supervising producer. Lou Eyrich, Tanase Popa and Erica Kay also serve as producers.
The ten-episode second season of Pose is produced by Fox 21 Television Studios and FX Productions and will begin airing exclusively on FX Tuesday, June 11th. Get caught up on season one with FX NOW or Netflix.