Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
MJ Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Angel Bismark Curiel

Pose bids a fittingly emotional and celebratory farewell to its characters

MJ Rodriguez, Indya Moore, Angel Bismark Curiel
Photo: Eric Liebovitz/FX

Pose ends its run tonight after three seasons of firsts. When it debuted in 2018, Pose set a history-making record by employing the largest cast of trans actors television had ever seen. Janet Mock became the first trans woman of color hired to write on a television series and went on to make her stunning directorial debut in the first season. Billy Porter became the the first openly gay Black performer to be nominated for and win in the Emmy leading actor category. But Pose shouldn’t just be remembered for its firsts. It should be remembered for its over-the-top and bright ballroom scenes. It should be remembered for its outstanding performances. And it should be remembered for all the bold and joyful ways it celebrates the lives of its queers and trans characters of color, many of whom are HIV-positive. Its series finale earns its extra-long runtime by delivering a satisfying and gorgeous ending for their stories. As Blanca says herself near the end of the finale, it’s not necessarily a happy ending full-stop, but it is full of happy moments. Pose combines fantasy with reality, allowing for a complex range of emotions. These characters get to reach for their dreams even as they continue to face loss and obstacles.

The finale was written by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Steven Canals, Janet Mock, and Our Lady J, a fittingly collaborative and effort for the end of a show all about community. There’s a lot packed into the episode, including Christopher, Judy, and Blanca teaming up to fight hospital administration and the pharmaceutical companies about unfair drug trial practices. The latest approach to treating AIDS is a drug cocktail available to trial participants, almost all of whom are white. Christopher, Judy, and Blanca get involved in an action to pressure the trial to include more Black and Latinx patients, and they’re successful in getting Pray Tell and Blanca access. The storyline reflects the reality of racism and bias in HIV/AIDS drug trials and distribution that literally cost people their lives. ACT UP NY, which fought at length against these practices, re-enters Pose’s world here. The storyline is simultaneously personal and political.

The FDA protest scenes as well as a later protest that involves throwing the ashes of lost loved ones on Giuliani’s yard use a mix of regular camerawork as well as visual effects that evoke archival footage. While I understand the impulse to root these characters’ actions in actual history, it’s a clunky visual trick that doesn’t really feel necessary. These scenes would feel just as urgent and rooted in reality without it. While ACT UP NY’s role in the time and place Pose is set is historically significant, there’s a reason a recent book chronicling the history of the group is over 700 pages. AIDS activism was a complex movement that is very difficult for Hollywood to capture, because it doesn’t really fit into a neatly packaged story arc or hero journey. Of course, television often distills and simplifies history and political movements. And ultimately, Pose is a soap opera. It may not strictly adhere to history, but it often still reflects reality. Pose reimagines the past in a way that grants its characters agency, hope, and power. Over the course of the finale, the characters experience immense grief and pain but also have hope, momentum, and happiness.

Fighting to get into the trials provides a straightforward story arc in the beginning of the two-hour finale, but where this finale really shines is in its most meta moments that lean all the way into this being a final curtain call for a show that has always known how to deliver the theatrics. It delivers so many of the things Pose excels at—from impassioned monologues to breathtaking fashion moments to all the ballroom reveals and magic that give this show voice and style. It isn’t without pain though. One of Pose’s greatest throughlines over the seasons has been its insistence that grief and joy do not need to be inherently oppositional forces but rather can coalesce, can inform each other, can be felt simultaneously. The ballroom itself allows space for both. When Pray Tell’s health improves after the gang successfully gets two slots in the drug cocktail trial, he reconnects with Ricky and invites him to sing in the Gay Men’s Choir, which similarly is a space for celebration and mourning. These characters are mired in tragedy, but they are not tragic characters.

That said, the first half of the finale does tackle big grief. Despite a sudden resurgence in his health, Pray Tell dies. But even this major death does not feel gratuitous or exploitive. The entire season has been a celebration of Pray Tell’s life. Billy Porter has been able to flex a whole range of acting muscles, all of which are in full swing in the finale. He can do comedy and drama with equal efficacy. While the finale is, as always with this show, an ensemble effort, Porter and Mj Rodriguez are standouts. Other characters got their big send-off moments earlier in the season, and the finale marks the culmination of Blanca and Pray Tell’s stories. Rodriguez and Porter are dazzling scene partners. Blanca and Pray’s scenes together reflect the intense bond between them, one that transcends conventional categories of relationships. They’re friends, family, soulmates. They’re also dance partners. Pose delivers a true showstopper of a ballroom scene with their duet of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Diana Ross. The choreography is impeccable and exuberantly indulgent, including literal waterworks. It’s a celebration of life and a celebration of this special friendship.

It’s followed with a much more intimate scene of Pray alone in his apartment, removing his lashes and makeup. There’s power in this scene, too, but it also signals an obvious change in tone. When Ricky visits in the morning, Pray Tell isn’t breathing. It’s devastating, but it’s also done in a way that doesn’t overly dramatize the character’s death or turn him into a story device. In a way, the whole season has been preparing viewers for Pray’s passing. You don’t have a whole scene featuring a character talking about his will and end of life decisions for nothing. Showing Pray prepare for death this season has allowed the audience to do the same. That’s more grace than most television dramas extend to the viewer when it comes to something as crushing as a main character’s death, and it suggests that Pose isn’t interested in a theater of trauma.

Pray’s death isn’t a twist. It’s an inevitable conclusion to his arc. Pose spares viewers the drawn-out hospital room scenes and lets Pray have those happy moments Blanca’s talking about throughout the finale. And he lives on, with many of the scenes that follow touching on his legacy and the ways he has impacted these other characters’ lives. The twist instead ends up being the specifics of Pray’s seemingly overnight health decline. He was giving his pills to Ricky. Blanca and Pray both fight for their own lives in the finale, but they also are longtime parental figures in the community. Pray has done all the things he wanted to in life, spending much of this season seeking catharsis and fulfilling his bucket list. He wants to give Ricky the same shot.

Pray still has a voice even in death. Blanca and his mother get to connect for the first time in a scene that once again underscores Pray and Blanca’s deep connection and also Pose’s overall defiance of conventional family structures. Pray’s birth mother refers to Blanca as Pray’s sister, friend, and real mother. Indeed, this whole family of characters is constantly redefining and reimagining their relationships, the foundation upon which the ballroom is built. The Pose finale is as much about giving these individual characters the endings they deserve as it is about honoring the ties that bind them. There’s a very meta scene of Blanca reading Pray’s words about each of his loved ones as she presents them with the heart lockets filled with his ashes that he wished for them each to have earlier in the season. These tributes to each of the characters perfectly sum up a lot of the emotional stakes they’ve provided on the show, including Pray’s lovely words about how Angel and Papi’s love story showed people in their community that they could have the kind of romance seen in the movies.

Following Pray Tell’s death, the show time-jumps four years to 1998. It’s an oft-used narrative device for a series finale, and Pose employs it well, showing how these characters have changed and evolved but still connecting that growth back to the past. Blanca is officially a nurse, and Judy is working with newborns. There’s a lot more hope for AIDS patients with the development, approval, and distribution of new drugs and treatments. We get to see Blanca act simultaneously as a nurse and as a house mother—or, more accurately, house grandmother. Blanca sees a new patient named Safari who has recently arrived in New York and has no family or friends. She tests positive for HIV, but Blanca provides support and hope, disclosing her own status and also inviting her to the ballroom, a perfect bookend to the premiere when Blanca ushered Damon into the ballroom life. Blanca applies what she has learned taking care of her house to her approach to nursing. Again, Pose reimagines community and care here, making Blanca’s work in healthcare inextricable from her work in the ballroom. Ricky is the father of House Evangelista now, another fitting conclusion for his arc and one that Pray would be proud of.

In what could easily have ended up being a very corny choice but actually works amazingly well, a sequence toward the end of the finale overtly nods to Sex And The City. Blanca, Elektra, Angel, and Lulu strut down the streets of New York, looking fabulous in their dresses and heels, linking arms, and laughing. They’re on their way to a fancy lunch, where the joke is taken one step further by having the characters actually acknowledge Sex And The City explicitly. Elektra doesn’t have a television in her penthouse and doesn’t know what the other girls are talking about, but she joins in on their jabs at the show, ordering a round of real drinks for the table—Johnnie Walker Blue Label on the rocks instead of the SATC-inspired cosmos the waiter assumes they want. Here, Pose quite literally reworks Sex And The City, doing away with the overwhelming whiteness of the show and centering trans women of color instead. It’s funny, and it’s on-the-nose, but it’s totally earned, playfully deconstructing a show set in the same time and place and presenting a more dynamic and expansive portrait of womanhood in New York City.

“We’ve always made our own rules and we ain’t stopping now,” Elektra declares. Blanca reflects on their time in the ballroom, remarking on how it was never pretending but rather practice. Elektra walked the businesswoman category a million times and now is a certified mogul, expanding her phone sex empire into webcamming and using her wealth to help out other trans women. Angel walked the runway in the ballroom and then ended up with a full modeling career. The ballroom serves so many functions on this show; it’s a literal setting, but it’s also an embodiment of these characters’ ambitions and dreams. It’s a place as fantastical as it is real, where people can find their true friends and families and also indulge in creativity and imagination.

Of course, it has to end in the ballroom. Blanca thinks the other girls can’t make it to see the newbies, but the friends give each other looks at the end of lunch that suggest they have something up their flashy sleeves. Indeed, they surprise Blanca there, presenting her with a special award and bringing the original House Evangelista back to the ballroom floor. While Pray Tell and Blanca’s lip sync duet earlier in the episode is the finale’s biggest ballroom moment, this one is every bit as significant and immersive. It’s a brilliant display of family, love, joy. And again, those things aren’t separate from the grief and pain these characters have also experienced. The ballroom is a place of celebration as well as remembrance, and Pray makes a ghostly appearance alongside Blanca as she preaches about the power of houses and balls to some new young folks.

Her final monologue and the vision of Pray suggests that this isn’t really an ending at all. Houses will keep on being needed. Families will keep on being forged. Elektra, Lulu, Angel, and Blanca all have their own lives and careers now, but they also still have each other. Pose knows happy endings are a sham. Instead, it provides an ending that has its happy moments but also its moments of despair, and neither outweighs the other. Grief and joy intersect in surprising ways. Ending a series is never easy, but Pose manages to do it in a way that feels earnest and satisfying, letting its characters say actual goodbyes to each other while also nodding toward their futures. Spectacle and melodrama interplay with grounded character work and compelling relationship dynamics in the finale. In other words, Pose plays to all its strengths in its farewell.

Stray observations

  • While Pose indeed was a history-making show over the course of its run, it’s worth noting that significant transphobia, homophobia, and racism still exist in Hollywood. Janet Mock celebrated the show’s triumphs ahead of season one but also noted her pay inequity. With Pose leaving television, I hope more series will emerge that center queer and trans people of color in front of and behind the cameras.
  • While Porter’s Emmy win was a huge victory, I seriously hope some of the other talent on the show is recognized finally, especially the many trans women who deserve accolades for the work they’ve done. MJ Rodriguez should be showered in awards this year. I’m crossing my fingers for it.
  • Damon’s disappearance this season was obviously abrupt, but I think it’s handled as well as it could be. In general, I thought Pose navigated filming constraints in a way that didn’t distract from the story.
  • In addition to being a devoted house father, Ricky is also dancing with Destiny’s Child, a detail that I love.
  • I love Angel in full mom mode. The cereal line cracked me up.
  • Christopher and Blanca’s love story has been another one of this season’s joys!
  • It has been such a joy to cover this series through its ups and downs over the past couple years. I’m going to miss it a lot, but I also think it’s ending at the right time, which is not often easily said about television series these days.