Photo: Pose (FX)

Pose’s “Giving and Receiving” has all the hallmarks of a Christmas special. It has its dramatic, tearful moments, but its overall warm and fuzzy and dressed up in holiday spirit. Like most special holiday episodes of television, it has a message of family and love. But because it’s Pose, that message is distinctly queer and subversive, expanding the definitions of family, love, community, and care. With a pitch perfect script from Our Lady J and Janet Mock, “Giving and Receiving” presents a Christmas story that’s wholly familiar and yet inclusive of people and perspectives that aren’t always included in Christmas stories.

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While much of the episode is about queer and trans people finding space to celebrate the holidays, it’s also about the gravity of what it means to take care of one another at the height of the AIDS crisis. Every time there’s a ball in an episode, it’s so clear that Billy Porter has been perfectly cast as Pray Tell, but in “Giving and Receiving,” he gets to flex his more dramatic, emotional muscles, too. In a stunning sequence, Pray Tell and Damon’s dance teacher Helena arrive at the hospital at the same time and then head in their own directions, each visiting someone in their lives who is HIV-positive. Later, Pray Tell opens up to Blanca, unwilling at first because he knows she has the virus, too. But Blanca pushes him to share, and he wonders how anyone in his community can allow themselves to become invested in someone if they’re just going to die. It’s brutal, and Porter and MJ Rodriguez give crushing performances.

It’s often easy to forget that Blanca is HIV-positive, and that speaks volumes to the strengths of Pose’s storytelling and character development. Her status shouldn’t wholly define her. She has found such immense joy and purpose in being a mother, and one of the most compelling parts of the show is just seeing that emanate from her. Damon convinces her to let Ricky into the house, and she’s her usual tough self with him, insisting that he stop stealing, get his life on track, and let go of his arrogance so he can win at the balls. Then, she softens for a moment after Damon and Ricky say “cheers, mother.” “I like the sound of that,” she says. Yes, Blanca wanting to build a legacy that lives beyond her with the House of Evangelista is undoubtedly connected to her HIV status, but Pose doesn’t let it be the only thing or even the first thing that defines her. It comes up when it has to, like during her emotional conversation with Pray Tell, but even that isn’t just about her. On any other show, her HIV status would be her entire narrative. Pose lets her be much more.

Pose lets all of its characters be more than meets the eye, as with Elektra Abundance, who for the first couple of episodes is kind of just a fierce, fiery-tongued adversary to Blanca. She becomes much more than that in “Giving and Receiving” when she’s presented with the opportunity to undergo sex reassignment surgery by a revolutionary clinic in the city. It’s a huge moment for Elektra, and her eagerness to do it is palpable. But Elektra remains a complicated sort of villain on the show, so the ways she goes about getting the money for her surgery deposit are...questionable. I’m not talking about stealing from the Salvation Army santas; I’m talking about stealing from her children. It’s clear that her children think they helped her steal the money so that they could all have a lavish Christmas, and their imaginations start to run wild with the possibilities. But without telling them, Elektra uses the money for herself. She has a much different approach to motherhood than Blanca. She’s not full villain like Matt, but the ways she rules her house have a slight wicked stepmother edge to them.

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Speaking of complicated, the web of lies Stan has spun begins to come undone at Christmas, and as a result, he ends up breaking the hearts of both women in his life. I think I was stuck on Stan’s likability in the first two episodes and it colored the way I perceived some of his scenes with Angel. He’s obviously a very unlikable dude, and that’s especially clear in this episode when he manipulates his suspicious wife into thinking she’s crazy for accusing him of an affair. Kate Mara plays that disorienting, overwhelming switch from anger to contrition very well. (But I still think the show is underselling her.) But just because Stan isn’t likable doesn’t make his genuine attraction to Angel any less affirming and significant for her. Stan’s a more complicated character than I gave him credit for in the beginning. Even though he’s at his worst in “Giving and Receiving,” unable to keep the lie afloat and also bailing on Angel, who spends her night baking, decorating, and looking forward to a special Christmas, those complications are especially clear in this episode. Still, I’d like to see some more of Angel outside of her storyline with Stan.

Despite having some of the most devastating scenes of the series so far, “Giving and Receiving” leaves plenty of room for joy and holiday spirit. A lot of that comes out in Damon and Ricky, who are fully dating by now, comfortably and enthusiastically kissing and flirting. Damon’s pride for Ricky at the first ball of the episode is so tender and pure. And his decision that he’s ready for sex is lovely, too, and seems to come from a believable place.

When Blanca accidentally burns the turkey, she and her children plus Pray Tell end up at a Chinese restaurant for Christmas dinner, determined to make the night special. Blanca bestows all of her children with gifts in the most heartwarming scene of the episode. It’s easy to guess what Angel’s gift is going to be: Earlier in the episode, she shares a sad story about stealing a red patent leather pump on Christmas and her father slapping her across the face when he found out. Blanca, generous and perceptive mother that she is, of course gets her the pair of red pumps that once carried such negative weight for Angel. It’s the perfect kind of tearjerker end to the episode, but it doesn’t feel forced or pandering.

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Sometimes, people have complicated relationships with Christmas. But despite those complications, it’s still possible to celebrate with the right people. Damon doesn’t miss being home with his abusive parents, but he does miss his Christmas traditions and the feeling of still believing in Santa (that conversation between him and Blanca is a knockout). Pose digs into these contradictions, yielding a Christmas episode that complicates and interrogates the holiday while still feeling warm and familiar.


Stray observations

  • Best Lewk: Angel’s award-winning look at the Snow Ball is simply divine.
  • Elektra: “Fuck Barbie. They had Olympic Barbie, Malibu Barbie, doctor Barbie, all kinds of Barbies, but they only had one black Barbie. Christie. And she was still built like a white girl.”
  • I love that the house siblings bicker with each other like siblings. Lil Papi rightfully gets a lot of shit from his sibs.
  • Wow, Matt really rolled up to Stan’s house ready to screw his wife for feeling undermined by Stan at the office.

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