SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the series finale of “Pose.”
In the end, the series finale of “Pose” left it all on the ballroom floor.
Staying true to its aspirational and uplifting storytelling nature while still never shying away from the reality of being LGBTQIA+ and living with HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and ’90s New York, the supersized series finale of FX’s ballroom culture drama balanced moments of pure joy with true heartbreak. On the former side of the spectrum there, Pray Tell (Billy Porter) and Ricky (Dyllón Burnside) reconnected and Elektra (Dominique Jackson) bestowed legendary status on Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), while on the latter Blanca and Pray struggled to get into a clinical trial for a new cocktail of meds and ultimately Pray sacrificed himself for Ricky and passed away.
Written by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Steven Canals, Janet Mock and Our Lady J and directed by Canals, the seventh episode of Season 3, bluntly titled “Series Finale,” kicked off with Pray Tell admitting himself into the hospital to fight pneumonia, convinced that this was the end for him. Doctors told him he didn’t have the immune system to weather the infection so he packed up his materials for his AIDS quilt patch and resigned himself to death. At the same time, there was a clinical trial taking place for a new cocktail of drugs. One of Blanca’s young, white male patients got in and saw amazing results, so she, Christopher (Jeremy Pope) and Judy (Sandra Bernhard) fought to get Pray in as well. Christopher noted that he never had a Black or Latin AIDS patient in a trial and this one only had two people of color out of 80 from the hospital involved. Using the argument that it made the trial scientifically unsound, the trio lobbied a hospital executive to squeeze both Pray and Blanca in.
It worked and time fast-forwarded to see Pray sauntering fabulously down a New York City street, where he reconnected with Ricky. Pray even took Ricky to a rehearsal of the Gay Men’s Chorus, explaining that when his health got really bad he felt he was a liability to Act Up so he found a new way to be an activist. Pray pulled Ricky into the fold to sing Joe Cocker’s 1987 power ballad “Love Lives On,” explaining that they needed to face the back of the stage, as only original members who survived the plague wore white and faced the audience; everyone else represented someone lost too soon.
As Pray and Ricky spent more time together, Ricky revealed that his own disease was worsening, showing Pray a lesion on his chest. Pray told him he had him, but the full extent of just how much he would take care of him wasn’t revealed until a little later in the episode. First, they protested in front of the hospital over the lack of access for people of color to these new drugs, chanting about healthcare being a right and waving signs (“America Isn’t Doing Shit”). While the protest was peaceful, police guarding the hospital doors responded with violence as protesters were thrown to the ground and cuffed.
Juxtaposed against such intensity was a ball performance by Pray and Blanca — a lip sync duet to Diana Ross’ “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” They were double divas as they pulled off multiple wardrobe reveals and danced around the room raising money for those in their community affected by HIV/AIDS who needed help with the cost of drugs and other care.
It was after this ball that Pray got his true solo spotlight moment, with the camera following home to watch him wipe away the glitter and the glam to reveal the man underneath. He almost seemed to float down the hall to bed, which telegraphed the events of the next scene. Ricky let himself into Pray’s apartment in the morning to find Pray lifeless in his bed. Although he rushed him to the hospital, there was nothing they could do. It turned out that when Ricky revealed his lesion, Pray began giving him his meds. While Ricky’s lesion disappeared and his strength returned, Pray was struggling in silence.
That decision, Canals tells Variety, “came solely out of the truth of the story we’ve been telling. And the reality is that for queer and trans people and for non-binary folks, the only people who are ever going to show up for us, is us. To me, the death in our finale was an act of defiance to remind the audience that the only people who you can rely on is your own community.”
Early in the episode Pray told Blanca he wanted “to be remembered as all of what the balls could be — hope and joy and family, sometimes viciousness,” and that he certainly was. The show chose not to dwell on any survivor’s guilt Pray’s loved ones may have felt. It also didn’t answer what would happen to Ricky now that his hook up with the new meds was gone. Instead, it celebrated how Pray touched everyone in his community, with Blanca reading letters he wrote to his friends and giving them lockets with his ashes inside, and it also allowed him to deliver one final, poignant message when she spread some of his ashes on the mayor’s lawn.
Reminiscent of the real-life October 1992 event when protestors scattered the ashes of AIDS patients on the White House lawn, this sequence was a follow-up to the protest at the hospital to show the consequences of inaction by government and healthcare officials. That weight was further felt in the Gay Men’s Chorus performance that Ricky took part in after Pray’s death. This time there were no members in white, nor facing the audience.
Blanca ended up finishing Pray’s AIDS quilt patch by herself. Although he told her he wanted it to blind “all the government people who did nothing [with] its fabulosity,” in the end it was a classic (but still bold) black patch with white letters that spelled out the show’s opening tagline that Porter’s voice proclaims at the start of episodes (Live. Werk. Pose) with his name and the year of his birth and death.
But “Pose” did not end there. Jumping forward to 1998, the series infused hope into where it left the rest of its characters. Blanca was celebrating not only a four-year anniversary with Christopher, but also becoming a full-fledged nurse, while Judy was working in the maternity ward since the new AIDS drugs were working so well the hospital didn’t need so many rooms for those patients. Blanca, Angel (Indya Moore), Elektra and Lulu (Hailie Sahar) even had a little “Sex and the City” homage moment at a fashionable brunch, at which it was revealed that Elektra was paying her good fortune forward by paying for surgeries and making many charitable donations, while Lulu had a job working as a tax accountant and Angel was thriving as a full-time mother to Beto (Jace Moses) but about to pick up a new modeling gig. Even Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), who was absent for most of the season, got a shout-out and an update: He was in a new relationship and teaching dance in Chicago.
Heading back to the ballroom for one final time, Ricky was truly following in Pray’s footsteps as a mentor. Leading the new House of Evangelista, he imparted an important lesson to the new children about the importance of not just slaying a category but also being a family.
And that message was further driven home by Elektra, who made a surprise return to the ballroom to celebrate Blanca. Blanca, who had once been as sick as Pray but who survived. Blanca, who was a mother to so many (including Pray) and was now a grandmother.
“Ballroom is home. Ballroom is family. Ballroom is love,” Elektra said. But, to be a legend in ballroom, she continued, “isn’t just about competing and collecting trophies; it’s about how you represent this community.” But while Elektra’s words were about one specific character, they could have been speaking about the show itself. “Pose” was the sole representation of ballroom culture on television when the series first launched in 2018, and to date it still centers the largest number of transgender characters in storytelling in the medium.
Elektra bestowed legendary status on Blanca, who then proved how deserving she was when she welcomed a new woman into the house and then channeled Pray’s previous advice to remind others in the ballroom community how important it is to “just keep trying” for all of the new generations coming in. And here, too, the show left a powerful message for its audience to continue the inclusive work it started.
“Ain’t no secrets or shortcuts to success,” she said. “You want a reason to continue? It’s standing right there in front of you. And they’re going to keep coming here, to New York City, sure as the sun rises. So what you’ve got to do is reach higher and dream big until you triumph.”
One final time, it was 10s across the board.