The first season of “Pose,” which concludes on Sunday night, broke from Ryan Murphy’s template in one important way; this was the first of his FX series in recent memory to largely eschew familiar faces, including his usual repertory company. Aside from a small supporting role for Evan Peters — playing the swain who’s outshone in every scene by his lover (Indya Moore) and proving a point about how unnecessary established stars are here — the show bursts at the seams with performers we hadn’t seen before, particularly trans women of color. It was hard not to feel retroactively deprived, in a way. For how long hadn’t we been seeing artists this compelling, telling stories quite this urgent?
But the fact that they were new to the Murphy televisual universe didn’t mean they were immune from playing out certain core Murphy concerns. Indeed, precisely why “Pose” worked lay in the degree to which it seemed to become the apotheosis of Murphy’s style. Until now, the very best of Murphy’s work — the miniseries “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” much of last year’s “Feud” — had gotten there by ditching his baroque style. It muted the music that pulses through him, and moved with stately prestige instead. “Pose” achieved what it did by casting its heroines as unapologetically bold creatures refusing to tamp down their feelings at a time of necessarily heightened emotional stakes. A show creator who likes to play with the established personae of movie queens, Murphy found and helped to forge new stars who are masters of a certain kind of old-movie glamour-through-suffering. It takes its place among Murphy’s best work — and, perhaps, the piece of it that feels closest to what he’s been trying to achieve for so long.
Consider the performance of Dominique Jackson as Elektra Abundance, the domineering house mother whose inflated sense of self, and whose refusal to brook any treatment other than those around her kissing her ring, has the tendency to alienate potential friends and allies. (This high-handedness incites the action of the series, as Mj Rodriguez’s Blanca splits off to form her own house.) Jackson’s line readings have been controversial among those with whom I’ve discussed the series; she’s given lines that sound a bit like Shakespeare as adapted by weepie-movie king Douglas Sirk, and she spits them out atonally, as if bored by those who surround her. What works for me about Jackson’s performance is the palpable contempt she demonstrates with every unmodulated syllable. She doesn’t have time to pretend to show interest in those around her. Nor does she have the surplus self-respect to allow for humbling herself enough to be human.
Jackson’s presence in a scene changes its charge, freighting each interaction with painful tension. She’s doing what the great movie sirens of the 1930s and 1940s, women for whom we know Murphy has a strong affinity, did; she’s taking a script rooted in painful reality and adding to it the hauteur of a star who refuses not to shine. (Jackson’s humiliating expulsion from the house of her lover, and her attempts to rebuild her life, brought to mind “Feud” subject Joan Crawford’s work as a pie-maker who gains and loses the world, but never misplaces her self-respect, in “Mildred Pierce.”)
Rodriguez exists in counterpoint to Jackson; just like the crumpling Crawford and the boundlessly confident Bette Davis in “Feud,” the pair bring out one another’s most jagged angles. And though Rodriguez is playing a generous soul whose House of Evangelista is an enlightened, nurturing though hardly soft place, she’s hardly idealized. Her kindness is tempered with toughness and a frank refusal to be taken advantage of. Her unsentimentality makes the emotional high point of the season — a performance of Diana Ross’s classic “Home” to entertain the patients at an AIDS ward — yet more powerful.
The song, sung by Dorothy in “The Wiz,” is both joyful and melancholy, celebrating what the character has been through and questioning whether a world as perfect as Oz could ever have been real. Blanca, who sees in the stricken AIDS patient a vision of a future nearer than she might be willing to admit, is carried away by the song. Eventually joined in a duet with Pray Tell (Billy Porter), a friend with whom she shares the show’s most mutually supportive relationship, she hits a full belt. Her congenital lack of idealism, her willingness to meet the world on its own terms, can’t hold up against the joy of performing with her best friend. The perfect world about which they sing is “so real” to both of them — indeed, the pair sing the phrase at one another in escalating volume at the performance’s apex, turning a candy-striping visit into a dual aria. That it’s emotionally so real but practically surreal is precisely the point; Rodriguez’s mastery of the moment has brought us into a world of grand fantasy that, outside of “American Horror Story,” Murphy too rarely visits nowadays.
Breaking the action of the series for a musical number that communicates more than spoken words ever could wasn’t a tool Murphy had in his arsenal on “The Assassination of Gianni Versace” or “Feud” or “9-1-1.” Neither could he, on those shows, have a character whose view of diffident cruelty as a sort of strength goes unchallenged for quite so long. “Pose,” which is about self-dramatizing performers, hands him back some of his great strengths. But its characters allow him to do more with music, and with persona, than he’s done before. The title says it all — these characters are striking poses not merely on the runway but moment-to-moment throughout their lives. Alone among recent Murphy creations, they see their lives as great, cinematic stories, and are right to do so.
Contrast Elektra Abundance, whose self-belief may go a little far but is rooted in her truly special wit, talent, and refusal to back down, with “Assassination”‘s monstrous Andrew Cunanan, whose confidence is a defense mechanism that morphs into evil. Indeed, much of Murphy’s work builds in tension and impact by depicting strong and thoughtful characters, usually women (“O.J.’s” Marcia Clark, “Feud’s” Joan Crawford) who, forced by a repressive society to hide what they’re really thinking and feeling, become unrecognizable to themselves. The women of “Pose” are complex, reacting not always gracefully to the slings and arrows of a homophobic, transphobic, and racist society of the 1980s that doesn’t look so foreign in 2018, either. And their insistence on carrying on makes them into heroines that would fit in in the movies Murphy loves. That they don’t fit into his recent oeuvre is one more reason that “Pose” is such a welcome addition. It may, in many moments, be fantastical, a movie lover’s dream of struggle and triumph in pre-gentrification New York. But thanks to its stars’ ability to inhabit fully-formed star personae from its first moment, it’s so real to me.