When the news broke earlier this year that this season of Pose would be its final one, fans expressed their shock and disappointment. Over the course of four short years, Pose, with its centering of a group of Black and brown trans women and queer men in ’80s New York, has become a vanguard in trans representation and a compelling melodrama. “Diversity,” “representation,” and “inclusion” have become buzzwords in entertainment as of late, and Pose has demonstrated what it looks like to make historic strides in these areas.
In a press conference on Monday, co-creator Steven Canals assured the media that the decision to end the show after three seasons was the plan all along. “We certainly could have continued to create narrative around these characters and in this world,” said Canals, adding that he and Ryan Murphy always had a set end in mind. “As a true lover of television, one of the things that has always frustrated me is when I am tuning in to a season of television, and I can tell that this season just feels like filler,” Canals said. “And I think that the last thing that I wanted to do to our audience was to create narrative simply for the sake of creating narrative with no real intention.”
The intention behind the show has always been one of its most admirable qualities. The creators of Pose express a level of care for their characters and actors that feels rare, especially considering the show boasts the largest number of transgender actors in series regular roles. The storytelling is important because it highlights the pain and joy of people often relegated to the margins, and the series actually employs people who have — to some degree — a shared lived experience with the characters they bring to life. Pose is both a testament to the importance of onscreen representation and the limitations of it as well. As the series nears its end, premiering its first two episodes of the final season this Sunday, it feels appropriate to look back at the things the show got right — and the legacy it leaves behind.
Another thing that still feels radical is the show’s portrayal of queer love, in both gay and trans relationships.
Acceptance and belonging are central to the story of Pose. From the beginning, audiences were introduced to characters like Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), an aspiring dancer whose father physically and verbally abuses him before he ends up on the streets of New York forced to fend for himself — all because he is gay. Damon eventually finds a support system and family in Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), his house mother, who introduces him to ballroom culture. It’s here that his worldview broadens, where he gets to hang around people just like him. Ballroom is a safe space for those who are shunned by mainstream society, where they can express themselves authentically. You may not be able to be a high-fashion model or a movie star in the oppressive heteronormative world, but during a ball, your wildest dreams can become a reality.
Another thing that still feels radical is the show’s portrayal of queer love, in both gay and trans relationships. There’s the tenderness captured in a love scene between an intergenerational Black HIV-positive gay couple Ricky (Dyllón Burnside) and Pray Tell (Billy Porter) in Season 2, as well as the love between Angel (Indya Moore), a trans woman, and Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel), a cis man. The series has always done a great job of exploring the fullness of Black and brown queer lives, equally presenting the struggles of the experience (social ostracization, loneliness) and its benefits (chosen families, finding your authentic self).
The final season of Pose ends similarly to the way it began: rife with scandals and petty crimes, fights among family and friends, and of course resplendent ballroom sequences. Season 3 begins in 1994, with the grim reality that Black and brown queer people are still dying at disproportionate rates from AIDS.
Blanca, mother of the House of Evangelista, works at a hospital as a nurse aide, channeling her energy into helping AIDS patients and hoping to one day become a nurse. Her presence provides comfort to those who are sick, as she represents someone living with the virus who refuses to let it steal her dreams. She’s also experiencing new, healthy, committed love with a handsome doctor, played by actor Jeremy Pope. Diametrically opposed to Blanca is Pray Tell, the once effervescent emcee of the drag balls, who also has HIV. The heaviness of grief over the deaths of friends and former lovers from AIDS takes a toll on Pray Tell and he begins to drink heavily. As a result, he becomes negative and surly, pushing away those who care about him most.
In one standout plotline, Pray Tell visits his childhood home to see his biological family. This particular episode is a treat, not only because it features three iconic Black actors — Anna Maria Horsford, Janet Hubert, and Jackée Harry — but also because of the nuanced storytelling. There are scenes that highlight the difficulties of growing up in a Black church, how family secrets ostensibly meant to protect children can oftentimes ultimately harm them, and the burden of being conditioned to hate simply because it’s the status quo. Pose has always been great at channeling empathy for characters who one could argue don’t deserve it (Evan Peters’ character from Season 1 comes to mind), but this episode is a masterclass in that talent.
The final season is definitely not just the Blanca and Pray Tell show. Pose does an excellent job of granting all major players and fan favorites screen time without the story feeling too rushed or incomplete, a feat considering this season is abbreviated with only seven episodes. Angel and Papi’s relationship continues to grow and develop, though there is one major surprise thrown in that fans definitely will not see coming. Even characters that were typically more in the background, like Lulu (Hailie Sahar) are given meatier material to showcase their acting chops. And even though Candy (Angelica Ross) died in Season 2, her warm spirit and biting comedy make appearances in the final season by way of really well-done flashbacks, moments that add additional layers of complexity to the characters we have come to love over the last few years. The one disappointment may be the lack of Damon who is hardly seen in the final season, save for a few episodes. Canals said the actor who plays Damon “was dealing with personal family issues, and so, as one of our family members, we wanted to honor that and give him the space that he needed.”
There’s a fantastic episode where Elektra’s (Dominique Jackson) past is examined, showcasing the sacrifices she made in order to walk in her truth. Jackson does some of her best acting thus far, making the case for her as a strong contender for an Emmy nomination next year. In the first two seasons, characters were faced with the difficult realities of attempting to fit into mainstream society — mainly for the sole purpose of making their dreams come true — while, to some degree, masking their queerness, a necessary approach in order to survive and make ends meet. For example, Angel’s doubts about whether she could make modeling a worthwhile career while afraid of being outed and the uphill battle with anti-trans discrimination Blanca faced when she pursued opening a nail salon aren’t issues that plague these characters. In Season 3, they have grown into their confidence, are well aware of their worth, and take up space without asking for permission.
And this infectious self-assuredness has rubbed off on the cast too. Speaking during Monday’s press conference as to how she will approach future projects now that Pose is ending, Jackson said. “For me personally, I will never, ever, ever walk into a space thinking that I need to impress them,” she said. “I need to be a professional. I need to know my worth … I'll be professional. But they need to impress me. They need to let me know that my existence has value, acknowledge me, validate me. And that is something that this has taught me. I will not be that fearful woman anymore. I will not be afraid to lose. I will not be afraid to fight.”
It’s heartening to see a woman like Jackson feel empowered and demand to be treated with the respect she deserves as a human being. But while Pose has been an example of the kind of enriching storytelling that can be accomplished when people of all different backgrounds are brought to the fore, there’s a cloud of darkness that hangs over the show’s success when thinking about the current struggles of trans people around the country. The increased appetite for queer shows like Pose, HBO Max’s Legendary, Veneno, and RuPaul’s Drag Race will undoubtedly have a profound effect on the impressionable minds of queer youth, but the real world still has some catching up to do. Black trans women are still being killed at alarming rates, often with little if any coverage or justice served, and there are bills in individual states cropping up with the sole purpose of trying to block trans people from getting the basic right of healthcare.
And this is not to say that a show like Pose should carry the responsibility of changing the nation’s attitude toward trans people — that’s a lot to expect from any art form. Even though co-creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Canals have received rapturous applause for their dedication to hiring trans talent both in front of and behind the camera, there is much work to be done in Hollywood when it comes to recognition. To date, Porter is the only member of the cast to win an Emmy, making him just one award away from completing the EGOT (he only needs the Oscar). None of the trans cast members have even been nominated in the acting categories for Emmy Awards, though the show as a whole did win a Peabody Award in 2018.
The impact of Pose on the television industry is undeniable. Although it did not shift cultural views in a drastic way by simply hiring trans talent, it provided storytelling that will undoubtedly affect a generation of queer youth. Seeing gay and trans characters prevail while navigating a deadly plague, refusing to let the disease snuff out their zest for living will go a long way. Pose may be ending, but I’m thankful we got to experience it for three short seasons. In the meantime, we can only hope there will be a bevy of other queer shows following in its wake, reminding queer people of their inherent worth.
“You are everything, and you deserve everything this world has to offer,” said Janet Mock, who has written, directed, and produced several episodes of the series, during the press conference earlier this week. “It's a line that I've written over and over again into the scenes when either Blanca forgets it and Elektra has to remind her, or Angel doesn't know and Blanca has to remind her. It's that matriarchal power and lineage that I think the ballroom is and what trans women are to one another that, I think, then feeds everyone else and enables them to shine and have all the things that they want in the world. … With this season, I want everyone across the industry, the audience, to realize that.”●