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Farewell To 'Pose,' Which Fused Grief And Joy, Right Up To The Finale

Angel (Indya Moore) celebrates her upcoming nuptials with Elektra (Dominique Jackson), Lulu (Hailie Sahar), and Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) in Season 3 of <em>Pose</em>.
Eric Liebowitz
Angel (Indya Moore) celebrates her upcoming nuptials with Elektra (Dominique Jackson), Lulu (Hailie Sahar), and Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) in Season 3 of Pose.

"The balls are how we grieve."

The third and final season of Pose, which concludes this Sunday, began with a loss. Jumping ahead several years to 1994, the show's colorful protagonists are in various states of highs and lows: Angel (Indya Moore) is having trouble landing gigs; Pray Tell (Billy Porter) is dealing with alcoholism and depression; Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) has a new man and is volunteering at the AIDS clinic; Elektra (Dominique Jackson) has found success launching her own phone sex operator business.

But death comes for Cubby (Jeremy McClain), one of the former members of Elektra's House of Abundance. In his final moments, he's surrounded by his chosen family – Blanca, Elektra, and the others – as well as his biological mother, who expresses regret for disowning him when he came out as gay. The moment is undercut by the group's long-gestating friction with Lemar (Jason Rodriguez), another former housemate who, as of late, has been more concerned with winning balls than being a good friend, and arrives too late to say goodbye to Cubby. Outside of the hospital room, Lemar and Pray Tell nearly come to blows, until Elektra interjects and suggests they instead duke it out on the dance floor later that night at the Summer Solstice Ball.

Pray Tell is flabbergasted. Cubby's body "is still warm," he protests.

"The balls are how we grieve, Pray," she says.

Blanca's fresh-out-of-retirement House of Evangelista edges out Lemar's House of Khan at the ball. Yet Blanca – ever the personification of "When they go low, we go high" – gracefully praises her rivals in a speech, and pledges to donate the winnings to a local AIDS non-profit in Cubby's name.

There are so many things I've loved about Pose, but such juxtapositions of pain and happiness, and renderings of how those facets can converge to build resilience, might be what I'll miss the most about it. It might seem jarring (and a bit gauche) to have someone respond to the death of a loved one by encouraging a face-off on the dance floor just hours later. But then – it's what makes Pose, well, Pose. Grief isn't so much the antithesis of joy as it is complementary to it.

Sometimes one element hits harder than the other in the most overwhelming and all-consuming of ways. The grief of familial rejection, as shown through Damon's eyes in the very first episode, when he's kicked out of his home by his parents for being gay. The fear of being outed, as Angel makes her way through the modeling industry in Season 2 and is "clocked" as transgender by a sleazy photographer who threatens to reveal her secret.

Then there is the ominous specter of death that is present throughout the entire series, whether it comes by way of drug abuse, depression, or the raging plague that has left their communities vulnerable and abandoned by their government. Three of the show's main characters are living with HIV, and they're processing feelings of shame, guilt, and, sometimes, hopelessness.

Showing these struggles is important and necessary because they are very rarely told from this Black and brown perspective, and so much history about queer life has been and continues to be erased. (I don't recall ever studying LGBTQ issues in my history classes at school; like many kids growing up in the United States in the 1990s, my textbooks came from Texas. And well ... you know.)

Yet, Pose leans into their power just as much as their struggles, if not more so: The Act Up movement and political radicalization of Pray Tell and Blanca play a prominent role in Seasons 2 and 3, as they participate in die-ins and protests around the city. Over the course of its run, this show has probably showcased more inspirational declarations of agency, ferocity and encouragement than a '90s family sitcom. (Seriously, every main character has probably given – or been on the receiving end of – at least one, shining, I-will-survive monologue per season.) A recent episode showed a by-now familiar recurrence, involving Elektra, Angel, Blanca, and Lulu being denied service at an upscale bridal showroom; the way Dominque Jackson's Elektra spikily reads the white, male store owner for filth will go down as one of the greatest takedowns Pose ever produced, which is saying a lot.

And for a series documenting so much discrimination (as well as plenty of in-fighting), there is also so much love. Love between mothers and children, between friends, and between lovers. The ways in which Blanca and Pray Tell have shown up for each other time and again to offer advice, support and comfort, especially in these final episodes, reveal an enviable onscreen friendship, one that is the result of care and attention even under the worst of circumstances.

This dichotomy of sweet and bitter is perhaps nowhere starker than in Season 2, when Candy (Angelica Ross), the tough, prickly former member of the House of Abundance, is murdered by a john. Her death is shocking and traumatic, echoing the real-life risks Black and brown trans women run every day merely by existing. What makes the plotline even more difficult to process is the fact that up until then, Candy wasn't always the most sympathetic character – along with Lulu, she was one of the cattiest and most rambunctious of the bunch, with an "I'm looking out for me and only me" attitude.

But after she's gone, everyone is forced to confront the fact that the loss of Candy is a loss for the community. At her wake, the show takes a fantastical turn, with her ghost appearing and interacting with her mourners, including Pray Tell, with whom she had a tempestuous relationship. Pray Tell acknowledges that he picked on and taunted her because he was ashamed of himself and envied her ability to be "unapologetically Black." Candy's rough exterior is recast more softly as a defiant act of self-preservation against a world that tried to destroy people like her, and her send-off performance to Stephanie Mills's "Never Knew Love Like This Before" is bittersweet – triumphant yet heartbreaking.

There have been valid criticisms made about this narrative choice and how the show has depicted both Candy and Elektra, the show's two dark-skinned female characters. For some, Candy's redemption in death was upsetting, not uplifting. I can understand that perspective, though the equilibrium feels, to me, mostly cathartic and moving. In this and other moments throughout Pose, the writers struck a balance that is difficult to get right, especially in this cultural moment where there is no shortage of media created with the specific intent of tapping into the public imagination's most harrowing nightmares. It's much easier to be hard, cynical, and unrelentingly bleak. And considering everything these characters endure, that easily could have been the kind of show we got.

Instead, that grief and joy seen here are always intertwined and inseparable, unfurling fully, deeply, and often messily. This seems to be as true behind the scenes as it is in the writers room. Recently, co-executive producer, writer and director Janet Mock reportedly called out co-creator Ryan Murphy and others for promoting diversity and equity for the media while in practice undervaluing her work and that of her Pose colleagues, especially those who are trans. In a fiery, unexpected speech during the in-person Season 3 premiere event in April, she described exuding a positive attitude despite feeling belittled in her experience working on the show: "I was happy because I had to be happy. Because if I wasn't happy the girls wouldn't know that happiness is possible."

It's disheartening to know that Mock and others have had to go through that, especially on a show that is ostensibly about representing inclusivity and empowerment. In a way, it lays bare the cracks in the façade of marketing a product for consumption no matter how progressive it may be in certain respects. It also reveals the limitations of being a minority creator working within a system that is still inherently biased and prejudiced against those who are not white, cis, straight and male. But in order to chip away at those prejudices, you have to have at least a little hope and optimism that happiness is possible in the first place. And on screen, at least, Pose reflected and understood that well.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.