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After a few episodes dabbling in more experimental storytelling—like the fantasy elements woven into both Candy’s death and also Pray Tell’s health scare—“Blow” returns to a somewhat more traditional structure, recentering the season’s ongoing storylines and also not necessarily focusing on just one character at once. Instead, it’s about how the central conflicts of the season touch everyone in varied and layered ways. “Vogue” is no longer the number one song in the country; Blanca’s battle with Frederica has come to a head; HIV diagnoses continue to impact this community; Candy’s death reverberates.

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“Blow” works well both as a standalone episode of Pose and as one connected to the larger stories at play. Pray Tell and Blanca round up Lulu, Ricky, and Damon, who are all experiencing personal and professional lows. Lulu’s devastated by the loss of Candy; Ricky hasn’t been booking any gigs; and no one’s showing up to Damon’s dance classes anymore now that “Vogue” is on the outs. It’s a chance for Pose to build these characters up and create the kind of spectacle this show is so good at. In this case, that spectacle is an Act Up! demonstration promoting safe sex that takes the form of wrapping Frederica’s house with a giant condom. I’ve been mixed on the use of Patti LuPone this season; she’s obviously a star, but the show seems to weirdly play her homophobia and racism for laughs, like she’s more of a cartoon villain than a genuinely terrifying one.

Jennie Livingston directs the hell out of this episode, written by Janet Mock. They’re both brilliant at weaving between the show’s levity and darkness, and this is the least tonally dissonant episode the show has delivered in a while thanks to the sharp script and rhythmic, emotional direction that never loses sight of these characters and what they want and feel. Throughout the episode, there are multiple scenes that only Pose provides on television right now. There’s a gorgeously shot, intimate, and hot sex scene between Angel and Lil Papi that doesn’t other these characters and instead treats their bodies and desires as the norm.

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Another scene depicts Pray Tell and Ricky having a candid and comprehensive conversation about queer sex, including Pray Tell pushing back against Ricky for bottom shaming and also encouraging him to get tested again for HIV even though he was tested recently. These just aren’t things seen on television often, and Pose is committed to presenting its queer and trans characters as people with fully defined desires and sexualities, validating them by presenting these moments as everyday and personal—not something to be gawked at or tokenized.

The only storyline here that veers back into the soapier territory that the past couple episodes have dabbled in involves Angel and Lil Papi. It has been incredible to watch Angel’s rise to the top, and it’s devastating to see her crash so hard here. Conflict is, of course, not bad. It drives and creates real, visceral, meaningful stories. But Angel and Lil Papi trying coke at a party one time and then falling so swiftly does come a little out of left field for these characters and for their arc together, the kind of heavy-handed conflict that has poked some story holes in this second season. The modeling agent’s monologue is lengthy and doesn’t hit as hard as it would coming from a character we know better—and whose relationship with Angel is more defined—like, say, Blanca. The kicker that the episode ends on shatters, this past abuser of Angel resurfacing at the exact moment of her decline. I do have faith in Pose not to swing too hard into tragedy for Angel, but the rapid spiral in “Blow” is a concerning development. “Blow” in so many ways builds its characters up, giving them new purpose and light, but here it absolutely guts, turning the exciting news of her BeBe campaign into something ugly.

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It’s not like Pose should be all uplifting Blanca speeches and characters reaching their hopes and dreams all the time. Those buoyant moments happen enough on the show to make Pose feel truly special and revolutionary—a rare display of queer joy and community building instead of just dismal tragedy porn. But Pose also strives to be true to its historical roots, to capture the lived experiences of queer and trans people of color in this specific time. They’re not going to win all the time, because the world is working against them. And whereas the Angel conflict feels more like supercharging the drama than raising the stakes in a more genuine and convincing way, the blow of Ricky’s HIV diagnosis hits way harder.

Damon and Ricky’s arc together this season has been a bit wobbly, but both remain compelling characters and rare examples on television of joyous, confident gay black men whose bodies are not sites of violence but rather sources of their own creative expression. But when it comes down to it, they’re not immune to the realities of their world: Ricky has a lot of unsafe sex. It’s clear from his reaction to his diagnosis that he never thought this could happen to him. Pray Tell and Blanca could give all the pep talks in the world, and he didn’t let himself believe it could really happen. Pray Tell is there for him right away, another strong display of just how deep the character relationships on this show run. These character dynamics transcend family and friendship and romance to be some sort of amalgamation or changing combination of all three. Pose above all else has an immensely strong sense of the word community, and this episode plays to many of the show’s strengths, including that sense of deep, complicated, consequential love.

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Stray observations

  • Lulu enrolled in the Bronx community college to get her accounting degree! I’m happy for Lulu.
  • Okay, did Ricky really try hitting on Pray Tell?
  • I always want more ball scenes in the ball-light episodes, but the pacing of this episode is some of the strongest all season, so I can forgive.
  • Janet Mock/Jennie Livingston = dream team

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