Since it premiered last year, Pose has been a triumph of style and substance—the FX series from Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals combines scintillating melodrama with the kind of earnestness that’s increasingly in vogue on screen. The period drama built on the progress in LGBTQ+ representation made by series before it, boasting the largest trans cast to date, including MJ Rodriguez, Indya Moore, and Dominique Jackson, as well as lining up trans writers and directors like Janet Mock and, in season two, Our Lady J. Pose is a show with a mission: centering the lives of the most marginalized within already marginalized groups while highlighting just how full those lives are. Tears of sadness and joy flow throughout, but happiness always has a clear edge.
Take heart in that, because season two of Pose leaps ahead to the year 1990, when “nearly twice as many Americans [had] died of AIDS as died in the Vietnam War,” according to amfAR. A title card in the premiere informs us of the time jump, but nothing can prepare the audience or Blanca (Rodriguez) and Pray Tell (the incomparable Billy Porter) for the sight that greets them on Hart Island, that of pine boxes that hold the bodies of their dead friends being shuttled around like unclaimed baggage. It’s an absolutely gutting moment, and treated as such by director Gwyneth Horder-Payton. But though visibly shaken by the extent of these losses, Blanca and Pray Tell once more recommit to life; not just their own, but the life of their community. There are variations on this scene throughout the first four episodes of season two, but the House Of Evangelista—which includes Angel (Moore), Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), and Lil’ Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel)—only strengthens its foundation in the face of calamity.
Pose never loses sight of the very real, disproportionately high level of danger for trans women, especially black trans women—threats caused by their fellow New Yorkers and greedy real estate moguls, including one played with extravagant archness by Patti LuPone, who don’t care about the vibrant communities they pave over to make way for cookie-cutter businesses and “anxious” white residents. But writers like Mock, Our Lady J, and the series creators continue to highlight the perseverance, ambition, and jaw-dropping style of House Evangelista and their peers. Season two finds once-and-possibly-future Mother Of The Year Blanca going into business for herself while encouraging all of her children to follow their dreams: for Angel, it’s a modeling contract. Though Damon and Lil’ Papi’s visions for the future aren’t quite as developed, they join everyone else in the ballroom community in exulting in the art form’s mainstream breakthrough thanks to the premiere of Madonna’s “Vogue” video.
Season two examines the lives of the main characters through that watershed moment—which ultimately wasn’t one for ballroom’s progenitors so much as another reinvention for the Material Girl—as well as the passing of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which finally offered protection to people with disabilities, including people with HIV/AIDS. Once more, the creative team, which counted among its consultants the late, great Hector Xtravaganza, the grandfather of the legendary House Xtravaganza, avoids looking back at the past through rose-tinted glasses. Episodes like “Worth It” and “Butterfly/Cocoon” capture the excitement of the time, when the stewards and practitioners of ballroom seemed poised to get their due, only to be accosted by ungainly interpretations of their art in every waiting room and café in the city. But Blanca’s elation and optimism prove irresistible for even Pray Tell, who regularly joins the Evangelista family dinners to toast their latest gain, significant or incremental.
It’s equally impossible for the audience to not get caught up in their exhilaration, which radiates through the screen along with the pride taken in every dance move, pose, and high-concept runway. The stakes may be higher for everyone, even Elektra, who sees herself as both the reigning queen and a professor emeritus who should get points just for deigning to show up, but the revelry is turned up to match them. The ballroom scenes are even more dizzyingly gorgeous, full of Naomi Campbell stomping and more sequins and silk than you could shake a scorecard at. On Pose, the celebration of life continues, as do its earnest attempts to teach its audience about LGBTQ+ history. But in its second season, the series has a better handle weaving its lesson plan into the spectacle. One of the most stunning sequences in these new episodes tears a page straight from LGBTQ+ activist history, but the show sacrifices none of its style in communicating its message. Once more, the midseason point represents an artistic high for the series, but it also gives the sense that things are just getting started.
The cast is also even more cohesive this time around, which allows for compelling new combinations, including a deepening bond between Angel and Lil’ Papi. Moore continues to be an exceptional find; they light up every scene while still conveying Angel’s insecurities and fears. Rodriguez is equally soulful as Blanca, who is still more gracious than seems humanly possible, but is also afforded opportunities to act in more than saintly mode. Angelica Ross makes the most of her newly expanded role as the incorrigible Candy, playing a lively sparring partner for Pray Tell. Porter remains the performer of the hour, though, chipping away at Pray Tell’s formidable armor to reveal the thing he protects most jealously: his own hope. In the process, Porter lays early claim to 2019’s Best Actor Emmy.
Pose applies the lessons learned from real-world history as well as its own to deliver a second season that’s just as lovingly crafted as its first, but with even grander spectacle and greater urgency—and in so doing, makes wearing your heart on your sleeve look downright fashionable.
Reviews by Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya will run weekly.