Spoiler alert: Do not read this column if you have not seen the May 30 “Something Old, Something New” episode of FX’s “Pose.”
“Pose,” the FX series wrapping its three-season run in June, is a show that’s always been comfortable using exaggeration as a sort of wishful metaphor. Consider the show’s first episode, in which Dominique Jackson’s character leads a museum heist in order to ransack historical finery to wear at a ball. The characters, along with their show, use wit and ambition to procure clothes worn by royals, and redistribute them to Black drag artists and trans women. By bending reality, the show reclaimed the visual language of wealth and power. To mention that such a heist seemed unrealistic at best isn’t just not in the spirit of “Pose.” It is irrelevant to what the show was doing.
“Pose” tells a story of a heartbreaking era in queer history with all the ingenuity and spirit of its characters, who rose to meet the moment with brio and theatricality to spare. That was evidenced most recently by the two-part wedding special for Indya Moore’s Angel and Angel Bismark Curiel’s Lil Papi. The show’s key scenes, from a startlingly powerful season one performance on an AIDS ward to a funeral scene that culminates in a perfect lip-sync, have long shared a vision of pain endured and transcended, through the gift of collaboration and the power of hard-fought optimism. The hospital rendition of Diana Ross’ “Home” was a duet between Billy Porter and Mj Rodriguez; the lip-sync to Stephanie Mills’ “Never Knew Love Like This Before” was a tour de force from Angelica Ross, a last look at the character Candy after she’d been murdered and a chance to make clear how loved and admired the character had been. But few actors have seemed quite so integral to the fantastical element of “Pose” as Jackson. I have always been a partisan of Jackson’s work, pitched to the rafters with a luscious, witty self-indulgence to each line reading. And it’s fitting that Jackson, who began the series as the ringleader of witty mayhem, got to do something similar in the run-up to Angel’s wedding.
A sequence in which Jackson — now, in a turn worthy of “Dynasty,” a very wealthy woman — set out to bankroll Moore’s wedding gown was carried across with a sort of juicy delight. There’s an entire novel’s worth of personal history in Jackson’s reading of the line “We’re here to shop,” among it a pleasurable reversal of fortune. The character of Elektra once had to rob and steal to make her way: Now, fitting her chosen last name of Abundance, she owns everything. As Moore cycles through dress after dress, Jackson watches with pride, flanked by Rodriguez and Hailie Sahar. Soon enough, caught up in the spirit of the day — rich, and rich in love — all three mother figures are, themselves modeling gowns. All four women look perfect, and not merely because they’re so striking and the fashions are excellent. They find a sort of bubbling-over of happiness that suggests there will be some to hold in reserve, in memory, in tougher times.
Angel’s wedding represents the overcoming of various barriers, both within herself and her partner and within society. And, soon enough, the mood is spoiled, as a gruff bridal-store owner (Eddie Korbich) shutting down the party — he refuses to turn designers’ art, he says, into “a freak show.” There’s real sorrow allowed in, as Elektra begs, briefly, for him to at least take her money even if he can’t accept her womanhood. Then the pose slips back into place, as she delivers a series of impeccably timed and thought-through insults with an old-school comedian’s gift for structure and timing.
The magic of “Pose” is the way it allows us to see both sides of its fantasy. Its characters are allowed access to the world of glamour and excitement they crave, until they aren’t; they know exactly the right thing to say, except for the times when they don’t. Later on, at Angel’s spa bachelorette party, Elektra declares that she is paying for everyone’s treatments: “Imperfections will not be invited to Angel’s dream wedding!” she declares. That’s exactly in keeping with the character’s philosophy — and, indeed, everyone at the eventual wedding looks better than great — but it’s the imperfections, the times where characters on “Pose” gather and find the strength to go on, that keep me watching.
It’s in moments like Elektra lowering herself to seek understanding where she must know none will be found, before going in on a shopkeeper she will make herself believe is beneath her notice. Or Rodriguez’s Blanca faltering in her delivery of “Home,” and relying on Porter’s Pray Tell to get her through in what becomes a display of extravagant yet appropriate emotionality. It’s the initial feeling of bad taste, of too-muchness, of Candy rising from her casket to perform. These flaws, these cracks in the facade, exist in compelling counterpoint to the lives these characters live. Their art is organized around a sort of performed perfection: Onstage, they want tens across the board. But when all is said and done, they want what we all do — love, acceptance, family, freedom — and they exist in a world that is not inclined to give it to them.
How powerful and how perfectly in keeping with the show’s mood, then, that the first half of the two-part wedding (helmed by show creator Steven Canals, with the second half directed by Janet Mock) centers around trans women claiming for themselves the iconography of cisgender, heterosexual love and becoming glowing brides. How perfectly extra, indeed, that the wedding spills out into two episodes! And, after doubt and uncertainty over whether the wedding might even happen, Papi bursts into song — All-4-One’s “I Swear.” He is, suddenly, backed by strings, as members of the wedding party join in, ending up in a group singalong in amplified by a crowd of trans women of color, many wearing bridal white. Angel’s happiness is theirs, and theirs, too, is the opportunity to wrench beauty from a world that would deny it to them at every turn.
It’s likely not lost on many in the audience that white was the color worn at last summer’s massive protest for Black trans women in New York City; this is a celebration that exists in painful juxtaposition with so much suffering in the universe of the show, and in the world of 2021, too. “Pose” isn’t shy about the prejudices its characters face: We’ve known throughout the show that Angel and her peers are, tragically, fortunate simply to be alive, and, on a slightly less grave note, Angel manages to get a marriage license only through subterfuge and luck. Angel had those moments of imperfection, too: Having no sense of what a loving family looked like, she questioned whether she was ready to assume the responsibilities of a wife and stepmother — if this was all too much for her to expect. And then the clouds parted, and she got a happy ending that it might be easy to pick apart, were “Pose” not a show that has constantly, since its first episode, pushed its way towards joy.
I will miss “Pose’s” vision of what it could be and do. Over an exceptional run of episodes, its mix of earthy, ground-level depiction of friendship with heightened-beyond-heightened aesthetics was never contradictory: Indeed, it was the grandeur of the show that provided its characters space to communicate the unsayable. Singing, Lil Papi can explain his feelings for Angel in a way that’s every bit as soaring as the love they share. Modeling together, Elektra, Blanca, and Sahar’s Lulu communicate sisterhood in a way that might seem insufficient to all they’ve overcome together were they to speak it aloud. Porter’s ebullience no matter what Pray Tell faced seemed its own kind of special effect. And back in Season 2, Candy got to declare all she never could in a final, fantasized performance — and her peers and friends got to give their love right back. The show conjured these characters’ world not by depicting relentless punishment but by showing the ways in which they found themselves lucky. There were the gifts the script gave the performers — the cunning to rob a museum, an infusion of money for Elektra by series’ end. These elements felt charmingly indulgent, ways to provide happiness to characters living through a sad time. But the greatest good luck of the characters on “Pose” had nothing to do with material wealth. It was in being performers to the core, and through ingenuity and profound hope, finding ways to turn artifice inside out, and to find the truth within.