In its final season premiere, Pose provides an empathetic and complex depiction of addiction – The A.V. Club

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For its third and final season, Pose time-jumps to 1994, with every character finding themselves in new circumstances. It’s the year that HIV/AIDS became the leading cause of death for all Americans between ages 25 and 44. That historical context provides emotional and narrative stakes over the course of the two-episode premiere. It’s not a backdrop. It’s a living, terrifying, visceral reality for these characters and their stories. The epidemic touches every plotline, but these characters and their narratives are much more than their statuses. Pose ultimately grounds its storytelling in the specific and complicated experiences of its characters.

We do see some of the macro impact of homophobic AIDS panic right from the start of the first episode during a police raid of the dominatrix dungeon where Elektra is working. Elektra gets some classic Elektra one-liners in there (“Fucking Giuliani fucking with my goddamn coin”), but all jokes aside, it’s clear that it’s hard for queer and trans folks of color to merely exist amid the racism, sexism, and homophobia of 1994 New York City. Elektra usually manages to land on her feet, but everyone struggles with survival in these episodes. And the show also focuses on the micro impacts of homophobia, transphobia, and the U.S. government’s egregious mishandling of the HIV/AIDS epidemic by getting up close and personal with these characters and what they have to do to survive.

The time-jump really works in the show’s favor, advancing these characters to new stages of their lives in a way that conveys hope while still acknowledging that the same problems they’ve dealt with in previous seasons persist—and, in some cases, have worsened. Papi has turned his success as Angel’s manager into a full-on career in a swanky office. But Angel, meanwhile, is booking fewer and fewer jobs, which sparks a spiral for her. Lulu’s in school, but a degree doesn’t automatically mean financial stability. Lulu and Angel feel stuck, so they end up getting higher and higher together with Angel relapsing and taking it out on Papi.

Blanca has a very handsome and charming new boyfriend named Christopher, and their storyline ends up providing a sweet romantic arc for the episodes. They meet at the hospital, where he works and where Blanca has been working as a nurse’s assistant. Pose serves steamy romance with these two but without overly romanticizing their situation. Blanca meets Christopher’s parents, and his mother gradually makes snide comments about Blanca’s upbringing and class status. Blanca defends herself, which she has always been good at, but she shouldn’t have to do it here, and Angel and Elektra help her realize that. If Christopher loves her, he should stand up for her, especially since she already struggles with insecurity in their relationship.

At a re-do dinner with the mother, things escalate again. Blanca discloses that she’s trans, and that sends Christopher’s mother into a whole new slew of hurtful questions. Christopher’s mother’s transphobia is subtle but cuts like a knife. She claims to have Christopher’s best interests in mind, but she’s dismissive of Blanca and says very hurtful things in an attempt to devalue their relationship. After initially cowering, Christopher finally speaks up and says that her idea of his life has no control over him. He loves Blanca, and he chooses her. Christopher and Blanca’s relationship is a welcome addition to the expansive Pose family, and the excitement her friends feel when they meet him is exactly how it feels to watch this. Blanca so rarely gets a love story of her own, because she’s so busy taking care of everyone else. She deserves this!

The year 1994 is also when the O.J. Simpson trial began, and the first episode incorporates the police chase of Simpson as a subplot. Blanca invites everyone over for a “watch party” of the news, and Pose milks it for some humor—seen in Elektra’s fangirling over Simpson and Angel’s frank and hilarious ignorance about who he even is—but also uses it as a backdrop for some of the more zoomed-in interpersonal conflicts playing out in the premiere. The watch party mostly serves as a vehicle to get all of House Evangelista back under one roof, and when Blanca sees her family around the dinner table again, she’s inspired to give one of her signature motivational speeches. Mj Rodriguez is as effusive as ever.

Pose has a soap opera’s approach to villainy a lot of the time, its characters often dramatically changing their motives and relationships with one another. We’ve seen that in the way Elektra is sometimes Blanca’s enemy and sometimes (as is the case now) her ally. Season three’s latest camp villain is Lemar, who comes out blazing in the first episode as the new father of the House of Khan. Lemar and his children are all about the new cash prizes at the ballroom, making them the antithesis of Blanca’s ballroom philosophy which centers community and creativity. House of Khan is indeed very fun to watch on the ballroom floor. There’s also a very silly (and delightful!) scene where they antagonize the emcee council, which fails to deliver the full amount of their cash prize. It’s a full-on diner brawl, and it’s slightly reminiscent of the museum heist from the pilot. There are real stakes, but it’s also just goofy fun.

The first episode also hinges on the death of Cubby, who Blanca has been caring for at the hospital. Now, here’s where Pose’s tendency to switch up relationship dynamics abruptly becomes too much of a whiplash. Lemar hasn’t been in to see Cubby at all. And when he finally does show up, he’s too late. Cubby has already died. Lemar takes his anger out on Blanca, saying that she didn’t tell him how bad it was, and it seems like Pose is almost about to add some layers to Lemar and his behaviors by suggesting that his grandstanding has all been an act and a coping mechanism to shroud his grief about Cubby, but it never actually goes there. There’s a quick pivot back to Lemar arrogantly challenging House Evangelista. Cubby’s death inspires Evangelista to come together and compete at the ballroom in his name, but it all feels like hasty and occasionally shallow character work. We see Lemar break down when he finally goes into Cubby’s room, but the rest of the time, Lemar is so one-dimensional that even this doesn’t land.

And the hasty introduction of Cubby’s mother, who has a cathartic moment on Cubby’s deathbed when Elektra essentially forgives her for being homophobic is even tougher to swallow. I love that Pose captures queer and trans joy and does not turn its characters into trauma porn, but this overly idealized depiction of a homophobic mother being given blanket forgiveness on the brink of her son’s death doesn’t have the emotional impact that it strives for. It’s too tidy, and it doesn’t really add depth for Cubby, who doesn’t get mentioned at all in the second episode. Some of the emotional weight of this character death gets swept aside too quickly. Again, I do think one of Pose’s strengths rests in the writers’ ability to write tragedy without making every character wholly tragic. But the focus on repairing Cubby and his mother’s relationship over repairing the relationship between Cubby and Lemar is a strange and distracting choice.

Both episodes deliver excellent ballroom scenes and also succeed in blending humor and grief. But the standout storyline across both episodes is hands down the messy, hard-to-watch, empathetic portrayal of Pray Tell’s alcoholism. Tens across the board for Billy Porter, who gives a wrenching performance. Pray Tell’s addiction touches every part of his life, and yet it also doesn’t wholly define him. That’s a very difficult and nuanced approach, and Pose nails it. We see how his addiction plays out in his relationship. Right away in the first episode, Ricky and Pray Tell’s relationship seems toxic. They bicker, and they outright fight. Ricky tries to cut Pray Tell off, and it only makes Pray Tell pour another drink. When Ricky gives Pray Tell an ultimatum, it results in one of the most brutal scenes. Pray Tell pushes Ricky away and simultaneously traps him. He tries to coerce him into staying, even using Ricky’s positive status against him. Ricky and Pray Tell’s tumultuous relationship is a striking and honest portrayal of addiction, codependency, and enabling. There are no easy answers here. There are no bad guys either.

It’s impossible to detangle Pray Tell’s alcoholism from his relationship to HIV/AIDS. He is sick of the cycle of grief and loss. He is self-medicating to the point of self-harm. We see Pray attend multiple funerals over the course of both episodes, and the fact that they all sort of look and feel the same is the point. But every loss weighs heavily on Pray. He just numbs it with the booze. He pushes not only Ricky away but his fellow emcee council members, too.

And also his family. Damon, who has been struggling with alcoholism himself, offers Pray Tell an Alcoholics Anonymous book. Damon’s heart is in the right place, but if anything, this only isolates Pray more. Blanca taps an addiction counselor named Lisa to help them all practice for an intervention, but when it finally does happen, there’s no amount of roleplaying or practice that really could have prepared any of them for this. Pray Tell pushes them all away in the same way he does with Ricky. Pose doesn’t seem to be taking sides here. Everyone is trying their best to help Pray, and they’re doing it out of love, but you can’t force an addict to go to rehab. Pray Tell is too deep into his addiction to accept their love. He doesn’t think he deserves it. He prefers the numbness of alcohol to the pain of his reality.

Addiction is a lot more complex than a lot of television allows it to be. What’s striking about Pray Tell’s arc across these two episodes is the amount of empathy and nuance Pose grants him. Yes, Pray Tell is fucking up all of his relationships. Yes, his drinking causes him to be erratic, self-destructive, and downright mean to the people who love him. But he isn’t demonized. He’s shown as fallible but still worthy of care and love. And the people in his life try to love him, try to do whatever they can to help him, but there are no easy solutions here, and Pose makes that very clear. He does eventually agree to rehab, a choice informed by several factors, including his friend Castle’s contemplation of suicide and decision to keep living.

Pray Tell’s road toward recovery sparks realizations for other characters, too. Angel and Papi’s relationship—while not quite as explosive as Ricky and Pray’s—is similarly affected by addiction. Angel’s getting high more often, and she blames it on the lull in her career, and she blames that lull on Papi. She’s not being fair, but once again, Pose doesn’t condemn her but rather buries into the muck of addiction without oversimplifying things, shining a light on Angel’s paranoia and tendency to lash out at Papi without assigning moral values to those things. Pose lets its characters be messy, but you also still root for them.

Both episodes end on Blanca, which is fitting, because while the show has a sprawling ensemble, she really is the heart of the series. The first episode ends with her sitting on the steps of Manhattan Technical College, filling out an application so she can pursue her dream of becoming a nurse. The second episode ends on her face as she smiles and cries while driving away from dropping Pray off at rehab upstate. In both, there’s a feeling of relief. Pose is a story of survival, but it so often makes space for joy, humor, and hope. These two episodes are particularly exemplary of the show’s mix of romance, grief, spectacle, and drama.


Stray observations

  • Damon only appears in the first episode, and his absence is explained away by Blanca in the second. He relapsed and went to live with his cousin.
  • Every single music cue on this show rules.
  • Indya Moore’s delivery of “Who’s O.J?” Award-worthy.
  • The way everyone is so excited to see Blanca has a cute boyfriend at the end of the first episode.
  • I still like Sandra Bernhard as Judy, even if the character seems to only exist as a sounding board for other characters. It works!
  • Janet Mock directed the first episode, and her directorial voice is so, so good.
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