It’s been an absolute joy to watch Billy Porter take awards season by storm. The veteran actor’s undeniable performance as Pray Tell, the master of ceremonies whose passionate praise (and withering critiques) define the drama’s ballroom scene, has made him the go-to public representative of FX’s drama, an ambassadorial role to which he’s uniquely suited. But if Pray is the show’s voice, MJ Rodriguez and Indya Moore’s determined, ambitious characters are its beating, bleeding hearts — and the actors deserve more credit than they’ve gotten for bringing them to life.
In the role of Blanca, Rodriguez has a deceptively difficult challenge. She shone in season 1 as she tackled Blanca’s fear and fierce will to live despite an overwhelming HIV diagnosis; her gorgeous duet with Porter on The Wiz’s “Home” remains a series highlight. She was also tasked with handling most of the show’s exposition, a clunky necessity for the audience at home that doesn’t know the world in which “Pose” takes place. Her explanations of ballroom traditions, why it matters, and what chosen family means rarely felt natural on paper, but Rodriguez tackled every single instance with heartfelt patience. As season 2 ramps up, Blanca remains the glue that holds the community together, connecting almost every character in the sprawling show with her signature empathy and maternal instinct. “Pose” simply wouldn’t work half as well without Rodriguez anchoring Blanca so firmly, and it’s time that more recognized the tricky work she’s been pulling off.
Moore’s character of Angel, a diehard romantic who draws people to her with a honeyed smile, requires someone of singular beauty and charisma to ground her Cinderella story. Moore is it. After watching her fight last season to leave a life waiting for bored businessmen by the pier, this second season has her chasing a dream of modeling, a story that runs parallel to Moore’s own. Moore handles Angel’s fragile hope with care, squeezing just tight enough when the script needs them to reveal the fissures underneath. A gutting moment in the season 2 premiere (“Acting Up”) sees Angel struggling to balance her old life with the new one she so desperately wants, her shaking face staring straight into the camera as she tries not to cry. There’s hardly a moment more affecting in “Pose,” which is down to how thoroughly Moore embodies it.
Together, Rodriguez and Moore portray the very particular dynamic of a mother (Blanca) and daughter (Angel), in all its love and difficulty. Blanca is firm with Angel, obsessed with her potential, and generous with her affection. Angel is restless and hesitant, but quickly blooms under Blanca’s care and encouragement to seize opportunities as best she can. They have plenty to teach each other, though as Season 2 emphasizes, the fact that Angel can pass and Blanca often doesn’t means that they can never completely understand each other’s experiences. But since they’re family — and the kind of family that chooses to bond together for life rather than leave things up to genetic chance — they try to bridge that gap as best as they can, anyway.
It’s notable that both Rodriguez and Moore are part of the reason why “Pose” was groundbreaking before it aired a single frame. The drama employs the most trans actors of any show on TV, now or ever; alongside Dominique Jackson, Angelica Ross, Hailie Sahar and more (!), Rodriguez and Moore are trans women of color who would rarely get the chance to lead a show in the way they do on “Pose.” Their characters are fully formed, flawed, and human in a truly unprecedented way. Recognizing the actors’ part in embodying them means recognizing them as the cornerstones of “Pose” that they are.