This post discusses plot points from the series finale of Pose.
After three years of jaw-dropping looks and heart-tugging moments, Pose has ended its bejeweled run. The groundbreaking FX period drama, from Steven Canals, Ryan Murphy, and Brad Falchuk, centered on the trans women of color and queer people of color who made New York City’s ball culture. With the largest trans cast of any TV drama, Pose earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series, and Billy Porter (who plays the wonderfully acerbic Pray Tell) became the first openly gay Black man to be nominated for and win in an Emmy lead acting category.
But for Canals, who co-wrote the finale with Murphy, Falchuck, and series director Janet Mock, the critical acclaim only makes up a small part of Pose’s legacy. The multi-hyphenate, who’s been cultivating this story since 2004, wants his life-affirming show to foster just as much community off-screen (and yes, he’s ready to see your tweets). Canals is also acutely aware of what the TV landscape is losing with Pose ending. The A.V. Club spoke to Canals about the series finale, including Pray Tell’s big sacrifice, and how Beaches shaped this love story between friends.
The A.V. Club: You’ve said you always intended to structure the overall story with three seasons: a beginning, middle, and an end. But how long ago did you determine what the finale would look like?
Steven Canals: It started taking shape right at the beginning of breaking the third season. We knew from the onset of the series, so quite literally in that first 45-minute meeting that I had with Ryan [Murphy], when I pitched the series to him, we knew that the show would end with the release of the cocktail and HIV/AIDS no longer being a death sentence. That was always what the story, what the show was about. That was really what was grounding our narrative, then we just populated the show with queer and trans people who happened to also be members of the ballroom community. But the truth is that the show for me was always an investigation into the HIV/AIDS epidemic through the lens of these black, brown, queer, and trans people.
So coming into the third season, once we knew that we were going to time jump to 1994–we’ve always been very intentional about the year that we’re placing our season in. It felt to me like, “Oh, are we already there? Are we at the end?” And Ryan and I had a really honest and open conversation about it. The biggest concern for me was, it feels like we’re there. We’re at the end. I don’t know if it makes sense for us to find a way to stretch the narrative out when the end is so clearly in sight. At that point it was like, “Nope, I think you’re right.” And so we very quickly knew exactly what that final episode was going to be and where we were going to leave all of our characters. Then it just was us mapping out how we would get there.
AVC: The finale brings the larger story to an end, but even before that, we see the end of Pray Tell’s story. What was it like to write this episode for Pray Tell, for Billy Porter? And do you see this as the end of their stories?
SC: I think the reality is that the entire series, but this episode in particular, is honoring the entire community. It really is for everyone. The special story that we leaned into in this final episode, which I don’t know that I’ve ever talked about it publicly until now, is the love story between Pray Tell and Blanca. One of my favorite movies is Beaches, partly because Barbara Hershey is like my absolute favorite actress, and I love Bette Midler as well. And that story is a love story that is a romantic drama about two friends. And I think that really, truly, secretly is what Pose has always been. It’s always been a love story between Pray Tell and Blanca, and that’s really the story and the journey that we honor in our finale.
I think what we were trying to say to our audience by the time we get to the end of the episode is that these characters’ journeys will never end, and their message and their lives continue to live on. You see that at the end of the episode, when Blanca is talking to Swan on the street and giving her advice. She references everything that Pray Tell said to her in the pilot, and then we actually do the callback and you see him show up. The reality is that his presence will continue to live on, in the same way that Blanca receiving her legendary status and now sort of being a grandmother to a house, you know that her impact will continue to go on well past taking last breath. That was an important reminder to our audience that the impact of a person’s life isn’t solely from birth to death, it isn’t cradle to grave—it’s so much bigger than that. And that’s the beauty specifically of being part of this community.
AVC: This might be something that’s intentionally left open for interpretation, but we learn toward the end that Pray was sharing the trial meds with Ricky. Is the implication that he kind of sacrificed himself for his friend and former partner, or did you mean to leave that more open-ended?
SC: I think that you can read it however you like as an audience member. I would say that our intention on the page, as a writer’s room, was certainly for the audience to feel that Pray Tell made a sacrifice, which he did. He knew the risk in making the decision to share meds with Ricky. To me, it feels clear that it’s a sacrifice. I think that the place where we leave things a little more gray for our audience is the question of whether or not Pray was actually ready to go. Because in the episode there are two moments, one when Pray’s talking to Ricky about his dreams and all the other things he wants to do, like maybe go to France. Later on in the green room, when he’s prepping for his performance with Blanca, he says to her, “I’ve done everything. Everything I’ve wanted to accomplish, I have.” We wanted to let that live a little more in the gray and let the audience make that determination. Pray clearly sacrificed himself for Ricky, but was he actually ready to go or not?
For me, not solely as the writer and director of the episode, but as a viewer and fan of the series, I would say that what this series is really trying to convey through that is the ways in which we have always shown up for one another, and the realities of what it meant to be a person of color who also was LGBTQ+ at that time, in the midst of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, when it was at a fever pitch in the mid-90s. There was no access to medical care, no interventions from our government. We all had to show up for each other. We stayed and protected one another. To me, the greatest lesson and takeaway from Pray’s decision to share his meds with Ricky is that we’ve always been there for each other.
AVC: Off-screen, the show also reflects that idea of looking out for future generations and looking after each other, because it has been a platform for trans talent, for queer talent, for Black and brown performers. It’s shown how successful these stories can be when they’re made by those very same people, and why we can’t go back to the way things were before.
SC: I hope so. I appreciate you saying that.
AVC: Do you feel that optimistic about that, though?
SC: Yes, I’m optimistic. I think we’re moving in the right direction. The truth is, full disclosure, that I wish that things were moving quicker. Pose is the only show on television that has not one but three LGBT characters who are also living with HIV—that came out of the GLAAD “Where We Are On TV” report this past year. And the reality is that on Sunday, when our show ends, that representation will no longer exist. I’m also pretty sure that Pose is the only drama series that not only centers but is specifically about trans people. So I know that there have been many more trans characters that we’ve now met on television, but is that show actually about that character? Our show has always been about Blanca. She is our lead. She’s our protagonist. She’s the person whose story we’ve always tracked since the beginning. I think when the show ends on Sunday, there’ll be a gap.
The reality is that this show was announced and we began working on it four years ago, and we’ve now had three full seasons on television. And so to think that in the three seasons that we’ve aired there hasn’t been progress in that way—that we haven’t seen not only other shows where trans people or even queer people of color are centered and are the protagonists and not the side character or a supporting character, but the show is literally about them… that we haven’t seen that yet, and that we haven’t seen specifically more trans content creators emerge, pitching, selling, and producing their own series, makes me feel like there’s still work to be done.
AVC: What will you miss most about the show?
SC: There’s a lot to miss. I mean, I’ll obviously miss the cast. I’ll miss a lot of our crew. We worked with them from the beginning, from the very first season, and there are folks who really have become family. But I know that I’ll be able to see all of these individuals. We’re all connected, so it’s not like we’ll never see each other again. Hopefully we’ll be able to work together again in the future. But I think the thing that I’ll miss the most is spending time with these characters. Because the reality is that the audience has only known Blanca, Elektra, and Pray for three seasons, but I came up with the original kernel of an idea of a young boy named Damon moving to New York in 2004, and I didn’t write it until 2014–the end of 2013, beginning of 2014. And so it has been a much longer journey for me with these characters and with this world and with this story than anyone else. And to have had the last three seasons, or more specifically, since I met Ryan in 2016, the last five years have been spent only ever sitting down and being in conversation with these characters. That’s the thing that I’ll miss the most. It’s like a breakup. It’s the end of a friendship.
I know it sounds very writerly, but that is the place that I’m in now. I’m still mourning the loss of the characters. I really feel like my job as a storyteller is just to be a conduit to tell those characters’ stories. So while my name may be on the screen or on the page after “Written by,” the truth is the characters are really writing their stories. I just have to pay attention. I just have to listen and then present that to the world. And so it’s sad to me that I won’t get to spend time with Blanca anymore, that I won’t get to be in conversation with her and get to tell her story. I know that I’ll always think about her, always wonder, where is she? What is she out in the world doing right now? So that for me is the place I’m in. That’s the thing I think I’ll miss the most.
AVC: What are you most excited to tackle next?
SC: That is a great question, and honestly, I don’t know. It’s been about seven years ago since I decided to write the first draft of Pose. That was 2013. Television was being dominated by straight, white, cisgender, male antiheroes. It was Breaking Bad. It was Mad Men. It was House Of Cards. And all those shows are great, but I wasn’t seeing queer and trans people who happen to also be Black and Latin, populating television screens. We didn’t exist. We were nowhere to be found. Pose was really born out of a need, so the place that I’m in right now is that I’m watching television, and I’m doing another assessment of the landscape, and I’m keeping my eyes open and I’m paying attention to who we aren’t seeing. Whose story isn’t being told? Whose story needs to be told? Who deserves to be centered and hasn’t been? So that I can make a really intentional decision about where to put my energies and whose story to help bring to the screen.