With its second season, Pose has found a perfect balance between fiction and historical accuracy — one that thrills, inspires, and educates in its depiction of New York City’s ball culture. The show’s cast and crew continue to deliver all the exuberance, audacity, camp, and drama that fans have loved about the show. The reads are endless; the costumes are even more enviable; the balls are bigger, more extravagant; the voguing is hyper-technical. Building on the first season which drew on these elements to tell a story of family, love, and legacy building, this season grounds us in the political reality lived by LGBTQ folks in New York City in 1990.
The opening sequence finds Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) and Pray Tell (Billy Porter) lamenting over the number of funerals they have each been to recently as they travel to Hart Island — the public site where the city buried thousands of AIDS victims — to pay their respects. A prolonged shot of unnamed caskets being lowered into mass graves makes clear the powerful effects of AIDS on New York City’s population in just the two years since we last saw these characters. This scene is a powerful reintroduction to the world of New York City’s ball culture, one which speaks to the power and centrality of chosen family — family, which as the godfather of ballroom, Hector Xtravanganza put it, “with whom you share your good, bad, and ugly, and still love one another in the end.”
Each episode ends with a quote from a queer elder of color whose legacy has paved the way for existing queer communities. In one episode, poet, filmmaker, and activist Marlon Riggs reminds us with urgency that “[i]t is necessary to constantly remind ourselves we are not an abomination.” We are reminded that for Blanca, Pray Tell, and countless HIV-positive people during the rise of the AIDS crisis, being cared for by members of their community is what kept them from being completely dehumanized (in campaigns led by powerful politicians and the medical-industrial complex) because of their diagnosis.
Pose’s depiction of Pray Tell and Ricky’s (Dyllon Burnside) steamy, intimate night together adds more depth to mainstream understandings of life for Black, queer, HIV positive men in particular. Marking series creator, Steven Canals’s directorial debut, the episode tenderly holds our gaze on Pray and Ricky finding pleasure and comfort in one another in a way that feels completely new. Speaking to the importance of the scene, Porter says, “It’s a private moment that I feel like I have now cracked open and begun to share in how I tell stories now.” The cast and crew’s ability to depict such a tender, passionate instance without sensationalizing the moment speaks volumes for the level of trust on set.
Although Pray Tell and Ricky’s intergenerational relationship caused a big stir, the inter- and intra-house feuds of last season generally take a backseat to collective care and political demonstrations. From participating in ACT UP’s stunning protest in St. Patrick’s Church; to covering corrupt real estate mogul, Frederica Norman’s (Pattie LuPone) house with an inflatable condom; to holding each others hand while waiting for a diagnosis, members of the various Houses prove that in addition to being glamorous and affirmative, participating in the ball community is about holding each other up when systems and institutions fail to.
Candy Ferocity’s (Angelica Ross) devastating murder in a hotel room during the holidays — which calls to mind the murder of Venus Xtravaganza right around the same time — was a particularly gruesome and haunting example of loss in the community. The rage and dismay felt in the wake of Candy’s death are echoed in a question from Octavia St. Laurent: “How many of us have to die before the community realizes we are not expendable?” In a year where there have already been 16 reported murders of trans people in the United States, most of them Black trans women, Candy’s death and her haunting presence throughout the season also make visible and present how particularly vulnerable trans women are outside of the spaces they create for themselves.
Unfortunately, as Lulu points out in the season finale, those who created ball culture are not necessarily those who stand to benefit the most from its mainstream success: “As soon as ‘Vogue’ hit, who became stars, Pray? The boys. Who learned how to dance on ballroom floors that we built.” For example, while Damon is scouted for an international dance company by a recruiter at a ball, Angel’s (Indya Moore) modeling career is cut short when she is outed by someone who saw her walk.
For Black trans women like Candy, Angel, Lulu, Blanca, and Elektra who created balls to uplift themselves and their community, the threat of violence and social isolation posed by being outed keeps them from experiencing mainstream success equal to that of the queer men of ballroom in the mainstream. Blanca’s declining health and increasing isolation also speak to just how vital that space is for their survival. Pray Tell and the MC Council spend the rest of the episode attempting to address the women’s concerns by agreeing to walk and be judged themselves, a gesture which speaks to their communities willingness to redress power imbalances by literally making room for women at the table.
Equally as central to its authenticity and success as Pose’s cast, is that these stories are written and directed by people who have lived through these experiences. The magic of the show truly comes from the willingness of queer and trans people like Steven Canals, Janet Mock, Billy Porter, Indya Moore, MJ Rodriguez, and Our Lady J to share their lived experiences, filling in some of the history of this community which was thought lost or erased. Their perspectives keep the sudden death and constant threats in the show balanced with laughter, beauty, and brilliance in a way that resonates with LGBTQ communities today. In its commitment to the promise in the truth of these stories, the show itself is an example of what happens when new tables are built and LGBTQ people are given the power to depict their own communities.