Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Pose revisits Pray Tell’s past and confronts the contradictions of community

Image of Janet Hubert and Billy Porter in FX's Pose
Janet Hubert and Billy Porter star in Pose
Photo: Eric Liebowitz/FX

After last week’s Elektra-centric episode, Pose pivots to Pray Tell’s past in “Take Me To Church.” The episode begins in the intimate nightmares of Pray Tell’s bedroom, where he is suffering from night sweats and general discomfort due to an onslaught of health issues. He gets a diagnosis—delivered without a lick of sympathy by the doctor—in the next scene. He has lymphoma, and his HIV status rules out the possibility of chemo. The doctor gives him six months to live.

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Pray, Blanca, and Judy take the dire news in stride, Judy insisting that they find a second opinion. Pray also sees this as an opportunity: He decides to quite literally revisit his past, boarding a bus to Pittsburgh for a homecoming in the community and family he left behind years ago to start his life in New York. But whereas last week’s “The Trunk” weaves together Elektra’s past and present, introducing the new character of her mother but still incorporating her new friends and family in her journey, “Take Me To Church” is confined to a smaller scope and requires a lot of rapid exposition as we meet the people from this period of his life. The episode still finds a lot of compelling moments, and Janet Mock’s direction as well as Billy Porter’s performance buoy some of that heavy-handed exposition. But it often feels like this episode forces a conversation between Pray and his past by rote. It doesn’t have the same tight narrative structure and interplay between the past and present that “The Trunk” does. It’s compelling at times but overwritten at others, though its strengths are thankfully more memorable than its weak spots.

Religion, faith, and family are at the forefront of the episode. And Pose explores these themes with specificity and nuance. The episode feels almost self-contained, which is why some of the storytelling is a little too neatly packaged, but when the script allows for complicated emotions and deeply human clashes between its central themes, it’s effective. Pray’s relationship with his mother is complicated to say the least. It isn’t marked by the same overt abuse that Elektra and her mother’s relationship is, but it’s far from perfect. We learn through their conversations with one another that the biggest fracture in their relationship wasn’t when Pray came out to her but was rather the way she dealt with the fact that her second husband abused Pray. He told her about the abuse, and while she listened, she didn’t leave him. Pray accuses her in the present of valuing her image in the church over his well being. She defends herself by saying that she needed a husband after his father died. Eventually, she finally admits her wrongdoing and asks Pray for forgiveness. It’s a bruising moment, and the catharsis lands.

Yes, a lot of the episode’s writing—especially the development of these new characters—is heavy-handed, but a lot of the emotional moments still resonate deeply. Pose once again showcases its deep empathy for flawed characters and complicates the motivations and worldviews of them. None of it is easy or straightforward, and it shouldn’t be. Pray’s experiences as a Black gay man growing up in the church are written with specificity and layers so that it doesn’t feel like he’s being reduced or flattened. But sometimes the script does slip into trite, mechanical territory. Some of the heavy-handed dialogue makes scenes lag. Mock’s direction keeps things alive though. Many of the scenes set in the church are gorgeous and ultimately capture the contradictions of this space for Pray.

When the episode leans into these contradictions, it thrives. From the second Pray sits down with his mother and aunts, there’s simultaneous tension and familiarity. He loves them, and they love him. But when one of his aunt’s says the old adage “love the sinner not the sin” and also prays that he won’t face eternal damnation, he’s forced to advocate for himself. She means well. They all mean well. But that doesn’t always matter. And Pray spends so much of this episode trying to get them to see his side of things, coming from a place of love and patience. His family feels betrayed because he left the church. He has to explain to them that the church pushed him away. He left his community because he felt like it was not safe for him. He built something new and safer in NYC. His mother talks to him about how lonely and worried she was when he left, and her feelings are valid, but Pray helps her see that it’s what he wanted, what he needed.

Pose doesn’t really condemn any of the characters in the episode, instead letting them be complicated, messy, and ultimately capable of growth. It’s empathetic, sharp writing, but it also ultimately gives Pray agency and a voice. He confronts any homophobia he faces in a self-possessed and powerful way. Jackée Harry gives a great guest performance as his aunt Jada, who despite being the woman in his life who seems the most supportive of his queerness also has her own flaws. She confesses to Pray that she knew about his stepfather’s abuse and didn’t do anything about it. She asks for his forgiveness and she also promises him autonomy over his end of life decisions by offering to be his power of attorney. Throughout “Take Me To Church,” characters are challenged by the past, by their mistakes, by what it means to be family and community. There’s a lot packed into the episode, and even though it isn’t all narratively tight, the episode never loses itself. It keeps things very centered on Pray, letting him seek forgiveness and catharsis on his own terms.

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The writing of Pray’s relationships with his mother and aunts is a lot more compelling than the way his arc with Vernon plays out. Vernon is Pray’s past lover and the new pastor. Most of the community seems pretty aware of Pray and Vernon’s past, including Ebony, Pray’s childhood best friend and Vernon’s wife and mother to their three kids. The glimpses into the past, including a scene where Pray imagines himself skipping rope with neighborhood kids and the sequence that revisits Pray and Vernon’s first kiss in the church, are gorgeous. Again, there’s palpable tension between Pray’s past and present. Pray’s return to this community dredges up all the complexities of homecoming. There’s nostalgia, there’s sadness, there’s hope, there’s discomfort. A homecoming allows someone to connect with the past but also stokes a disconnection at the same time. Pray is not who he was. He’s more sure of himself, better at advocating for himself, incapable of silencing any part of himself. We see him battle against his past while also reconciling with it. We see him welcomed into the community that also once ostracized him. Pose plays with these contradictions and schisms skillfully.

But the line between Vernon insisting that his life with Ebony and his role in the church is what he wants to Vernon suddenly saying he wants to run away with Pray is clumsy. I understand the impulse. I always love when Pose infuses its narrative with big, joyous romance. In the flashback scenes, that romance works. Their love is immediately palpable in the way they move around and talk to each other as young boys. And then Pose tries to recapture that same intimacy in the present when Vernon and Pray find a moment alone in the park. It’s explained away by Vernon saying that Pray’s presence has resurfaced his past feelings all at once, but it still doesn’t feel like totally genuine storytelling. And when Vernon doesn’t show up at the bus stop at episode’s end, it’s not really surprising but also not really all that emotionally resonant.

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Some of the dialogue in Pray and Vernon’s scene in the park is where the episode veers into that mechanical territory, like when Pray quite literally states outright that he has no interest in rewriting his past. “Don’t you want our story to have a different ending?” Vernon asks. And perhaps in a different set of circumstances, this line could work, but it’s not just corny here—it’s hollow. It’s difficult to parcel out exactly what we’re supposed to take away from Vernon’s declarations of love here, especially given the fact that he ultimately does not choose Pray. Are we supposed to really believe Vernon’s sudden desire to be with Pray or are we supposed to doubt it? Neither option is particularly fleshed out. It doesn’t help that we’ve only just met Vernon. And he isn’t written with the same depth as Pray’s mother is. So it all feels very carefully plotted rather than like dynamic, character-driven storytelling. Still, while the romance doesn’t fully succeed, Pose more effectively injects levity into this story via Pray’s reconnection with his mother. The episode strikes that crucial balance between acknowledging the struggles of its characters without turning those struggles into trauma porn. Pray is ultimately at the helm of his narrative, and we’re situated very firmly in his point of view. There’s room for heartbreak and healing.

One of the best moments between Pose and Vernon—other than the flashback—comes in a very simple exchange. Vernon has just returned from overseeing the passing of one of his elderly church members. He says you never get used to it. “No, you don’t,” Pray states. These few words have a huge impact, hooking us into Pray’s present and reality. He has spent the past several years watching lovers and friends die. Perhaps Vernon doesn’t really catch all that Pray’s saying here, but it’s absolutely significant to the viewer. Pray knows death well. He knows faith well, too, but as he explains to his mother, he believes in a different god, one that is kind and forgiving. Again, the way Pose allows Pray to connect with his community at the same time as he challenges it is ambitious, multidimensional storytelling. Pray’s relationships with his birth family feel lived in, which is impressive given that the relationship dynamics have to be established all within the confines of one episode. His past informs his present but does not define him. Going home is complicated, especially for queer and trans folks who feel cast out by their communities. When this episode really needles into that perplexing, hard-to-define feeling, it sings.

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Stray observations

  • Jackée Harry should guest star in everything in my opinion.
  • I love that Pray is planning on dragging Elektra in the afterlife.
  • The musical moments in the episode are outstanding. There’s a clear line between Pray’s love of singing in the church and love of performance in the ballrooms.
  • Pose is always so good at showing all the different forms that homophobia and transphobia can take. Pray’s experiences with his family are different than Elektra’s experiences with her family. There’s no monolithic LGBTQ experience, and Pose is often cognizant of that.
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