Photo: Pose (FX)

In her directorial debut, Janet Mock pulls together all of the strengths of Pose, delicately balancing the moments of lightness and darkness from a script co-written by her and Ryan Murphy with powerful visual storytelling. Her eye and style bring a sense of urgency but also a deeply intimate feeling to this episode. It might be her debut, but there’s prowess in every shot. Over the course of the episode, she gets to tackle a fight scene, two musical numbers, two ball sequences, and a whole lot of drama, humor, and emotion, and she does it all with style and substance.

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“Love Is The Message” hooks from the very first scene. It picks up right where last week’s cliffhanger ends, with the confrontation between Angel and Patty. While the twist then hinted at melodrama—especially given that it was the last beat of the episode—it takes a much more nuanced and compelling turn here. Patty isn’t looking for revenge, doesn’t shift the blame from Stan to Angel. She just wants answers that she knows she can’t get from her lying husband, and Angel doesn’t hesitate to give them. Their conversation is sad and revealing, both of their wants and needs laid out plainly before them. They’re not exactly allies, but they aren’t enemies either.

Angel posits a hypothetical: Does Patty think he can love them both at the same time? That’s what she wants, his love and devotion. But she also expresses that she felt like a kept woman, knows that she was starting to associate all of her worth with his attention. These personal revelations on her part give new, deeper context to her relationship with Stan, crucially putting a fine point on the underlying possessiveness in his dynamic with her. Patty’s wants are parallel but still different: She, too, feels that Stan treats her like a doll, like her self-worth is tied up in his whims. She’s pretending that this is what she always wanted, but she isn’t so sure. Finally, Pose peels back the layers to Patty. Kate Mara and Indya Moore both turn in their best performances of the season so far in this scene. Moore’s delivery of “If you wanna see who I am, that’s the last place you should look” is awards-worthy on its own.

The dialogue throughout the episode is biting, and Pose’s deep ensemble brings it all to life, gives specificity and layered emotion to the words. Pray Tell is unraveling in the face of his boyfriend Costas’ steady health decline. He’s noticeably drunk at the balls, keeps playing the same song—“Love Is The Message”—on a constant loop. The youngins at the ball think it’s just an older guy being nostalgic, but of course Pray Tell is caught up in a nostalgia loop for deeper reasons. It was his and Costas’ song one summer, before the HIV epidemic, before Pray Tell had to bury so many friends and lovers. The song becomes his breakdown echo chamber, his desperate plea for the past and for hope. Billy Porter has served all different dynamics this season with his performances week-to-week, and his portrayal of Pray Tell’s spiral is visceral.

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House of Evangelista attempts to intervene, but he can’t hear it from them, feels that they don’t know the true extent of his pain. This goes much deeper than a bender. He finds a glimmer of hope when a nurse in the HIV ward (played by Sandra Bernhard with a dependable level of spunk) suggests that he do something for the patients. He puts on a cabaret night, which gives not only Porter a chance to show off his pipes but Mj Rodriguez, too. Seriously, are there any limits to Rodriguez’s talents? She has easily been the breakout star of this show (which is not discrediting anyone else on the show—everyone is so good!), and her performance of “Home” just drives that home even more. It’s raw and magnetic and an instance when Pose’s long runtimes really works in its favor. This shouldn’t be truncated at all. It’s too powerful, too meaningful of a moment.

But it isn’t really until Costas begs Pray Tell to move on, asks him to grieve for one day and then remember how to live and love again, that he can truly pull himself out of the darkness. Costas’ death in the episode feels inevitable, but that doesn’t make it any less heartbreaking. In fact, that’s what’s so devastating about the vibe in the hospital and Pray Tell’s interactions with Costas throughout: No one is getting better.

Pose, as usual, doesn’t lose itself in the darkness. It strikes a wildly impressive balance between showing the horrors and tragedy of this epidemic while also finding moments of hope, joy, and kindness. Even the sharp-tongued Judy offers a bit of light in the dismal setting of the hospital. And Pray Tell dresses up the rec room in a very believable and grounded way, doing the best he can with the little resources that he has.

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Even Blanca’s little subplot with a smooth-talking guy named Darius has fun layers to it. Blanca’s number one priority is her house and her children, but of course she wants companionship, too. And when Darius comes in with his pick-up lines and flirtations, something flutters within her. But when the other girls tell Blanca he’s a playboy who they’ve all slept with (Trace Lysette has a super fun guest appearance here, and I hope we get to see more of her), she loses some of her giddiness. Blanca wants something real. Pose uses this seemingly small subplot to play with a lot of different things, including Blanca’s anxieties about having to disclose her status to potential sexual partners. The moment of her facing Darius and telling him that she doesn’t want to be anybody’s plaything at the end of the episode is a wonderful display of sisterhood. All the other girls, even Lulu and Candy from her rival house, stand by her side up against him. These little moments of sisterhood throughout Pose are magical and are deeply embedded in the show’s DNA. Even amid the darkness, a sense of family, love, and community shines through and carries these characters forward. Love is the message, indeed.


Stray observations

  • Billy Porter and Sandra Bernhard’s dynamic is just so good.
  • I did get very nervous that Pray Tell was going to out Blanca’s status.
  • The slow zoom-in on Pray Tell during his intervention monologue was just so powerful. Mock’s direction is phenomenal.
  • I do finally like where Patty’s arc is going. The way she seizes control of her life feels organic and real.
  • Stan and Matt’s office brawl could have been a bit shorter, but the way that Stan’s life is blowing up right now is admittedly engaging. The way he breaks down at the psychiatrist’s office and says he doesn’t know what he wants/wanted is convincing and more interesting than if he were to just start spewing excuses.
  • I love Angel so much.

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