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Pray Tell has a health scare in a loud, lively Pose

Photo: Michael Parmelee (FX)
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Pose loves to put on a show. The series is, in a very broad and maybe boring sense, about the act of performing in general—beyond the balls that make up the backbone of the characters’ lives, complete with their performing categories and inherent spectacle, there’s Angel’s modeling, Damon and Ricky’s dancing, and, of course, Pray Tell’s AIDS cabarets. All of the characters are in a constant state of defining themselves through outwardly directed creative expression, in a way that just so happens to line up with the classic trope of a bunch of people needing to put on a talent show to save the rec center.

“Love Is The Message,” the sixth episode of the first season of Pose, enacts the “let’s put on a show” TV plot in an even more direct way when Pray Tell decides to do something to support his boyfriend Costas and winds up producing an AIDS cabaret fundraiser. Somehow, “Love’s In Need Of Love Today” manages to escalate from both “Love Is The Message” and this season’s over-the-top episodes, transforming an episode of Pose into a full-blown TV musical. What that musical is about, I’m not quite sure.

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During the episode’s runtime, Pray Tell performs Judy Garland’s “The Man That Got Away.” Patti LuPone performs “I’m Still Here” from Follies. There’s a big group performance of the title song (by Stevie Wonder). In a neat little bit of anachronism, Judy performs Prince’s “It Snows In April.” All of these sequences are glittery, entertaining, and overwhelming, all of which is par for the course for Pose.

Another typical feature of the episode: one character gets a real spotlight, and anchors a series of big set pieces. This is Billy Porter’s episode, and he knocks it out of the park, committing hard enough to make sure that, no matter how campy the action is, it remains watchable. Here’s the actual plot of the episode: Pray Tell has an adverse reaction to AZT just as it comes time to do his AIDS cabaret, and grapples with his reasons for continuing to live and fighting against HIV.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. The episode hints at Pray Tell’s ongoing class issues in the form of his hospital roommate Lewis Carter, who arrives to have a single scene centered on a class-based conflict (he refuses to identify as a “queen” because he went to college). We also learn that Pray Tell was sexually abused by his stepfather, who Pray dramatically forgives in a fevered state. I have mixed feelings about the way this information is handled, since it seems to come up very briefly and then immediately get smoothed over. I know that emotional texture and nuance is not the point of Pose, or anything in the broader Ryan Murphy production universe, but this history of abuse feels like something that might be worth spending a few minutes exploring.

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Meanwhile, as Pray Tell hallucinates and goes through his medical issues, Angelica Ross appears as Candy to serve as the voice of his death drive. Just come into the light, she says in so many words. It’s easier to be dead, and to just let it all go. What is Candy’s ongoing presence supposed to represent here? Is she supposed to be just as difficult and unpleasant as a ghost? Does she have a point? Are we to believe that she really did have HIV, even though she was “careful” with her tricks? There’s no real guiding principle here, and it might be a mistake to look for one. This is one of those elements of the show where it might be best not to think too hard, simply because trying to force it all inside the lines threatens to topple the whole thing over.

Another element of this episode it’s perhaps best to take on face value: the way credited writers Brad Falchuk and Our Lady J play around with the character of Frederica the landlord in fun, predictable ways—when Frederica first shows up at the salon trying to get Blanca to take down her flyers, it feels easy to imagine an end of the episode where the two women become friends. After all, Pose believes deeply in the power of being yourself loud enough in the general direction of your enemies. Instead, Frederica shows up to perform at the benefit show, both because it’s Patti LuPone’s and we need to have her sing, and because she wants to keep Blanca occupied while her employees seize the nail salon, change the locks, and board up the property. By the end of the episode, Blanca and the rest of the ball community are putting on a new sort of public show in the form of a protest against Frederica’s actions.

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One of my favorite things about Pose is the way the show positions itself as a classic piece of ’80s schlock. But that tone only works when the series can handle all of its energy levels at the same time. That means ridiculously big scenes that serve mostly to make capital-S Statements, like director Tina Mabry’s slow push in on Billy Porter as Pray Tell says, “This virus is attacking my cells 24 hours a day every day of the year. That is not reversible.” And it means smaller moments like the comic highlight of this episode, a scene in which Papi, Damon, and Angel discuss the possibility that Angel will be cast in a Guess jeans ad while accidentally driving Blanca up a wall as she tries to make the cabaret happen.

This moment takes Blanca and the kids seriously, but it’s also a way of literally putting the stakes into perspective, and of gently nudging the characters for how much they’ve focused on specific career moves this season. In letting its perspective curdle ever so slightly, Pose starts to give in to what Pray tells Blance he wants earlier in the episode: to have a temper tantrum, to react with intense negativity. It might not be the worst thing for the show to decide when that reaction is warranted.

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Stay observations:

  • Candy’s idea of heaven, at least in Pray Tell’s mind, is hanging out with people who died from AIDS.
  • Frederica is from Scarsdale, and apparently had quite the burgeoning show business career. Except that she doesn’t like being told what to do.
  • Pray Tell, in his own mind, after finishing performing to a room of hallucinatory patients (and also Pose): “I hope I entertained you.”
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