The first season of Pose introduced Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), a member of the ballroom scene’s House of Abundance, whose HIV diagnosis spurred her to strike out on her own and become a house mother to all the dancers and vulnerable “children” she could nurture. They included Angel (Indya Moore), a sex worker, and Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a dancer whose parents threw him out of their house for being gay. Blanca’s House of Evangelista faced off against Elektra (Dominique Jackson), the ferocious sovereign of the House of Abundance, at balls emceed by the designer and community linchpin Pray Tell (Billy Porter). These festivities of radiant spectacle, with their themed tableaux and gestural high fashion, played out against the backdrop of the AIDS crisis, which claimed Pray Tell’s partner as an early victim. (Season 1’s subplot featuring Angel’s lover, a Donald Trump employee played by Evan Peters, and his cocaine-whiffing boss, portrayed by James Van Der Beek, has been excised, a move that rightfully focuses the show back on Blanca.)
Season 2 flashes forward to 1990, a time when AIDS was devastating New York’s queer community. The most moving scene of the four episodes made available for review comes right at the beginning, as Pray and Blanca take a boat to Hart Island to honor one of their friends. There, they come face to face with the cruelty of the epidemic: unclaimed bodies in plywood boxes buried in mass graves, quarantined far away from the city. On one side of the island, visitors have left pebbles bearing the names of loved ones to commemorate people whose family and friends couldn’t afford proper burials—a field pitted with inscribed stones. Later, Pray runs into a nurse, Judy (Sandra Bernhard), at a memorial and tells her that it is his 210th service. It’s her 452nd. The first to hit 1,000, she quips, “wins a free toaster.”
The episode, which is written by Canals with Pose’s other co-creators, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, sets a mood that feels reverent and sad, and that underscores the stakes of what Pose’s characters are fighting for. At night, on the dance floor, the various houses compete to be seen, but also to be appreciated in a world that affirms their worth. (Or, in the case of Pray Tell’s scathing commentary, to be lovingly shredded to pieces.) Pray and Blanca are also compelled by Judy to join the ACT UP protests advocating for more federal investment in researching AIDS, in scenes that echo Murphy’s 2014 adaptation of The Normal Heart. And on MTV, Madonna’s “Vogue” is threatening to bring ball culture into the mainstream, a development that Blanca quixotically hopes will make her children stars.
As ever, Pose excels at portraying performance. Its ballroom scenes are shimmering dioramas of exuberance and expression; its characters reinvent themselves as historical divas, Shakespearian characters, and avant-garde fashion plates. Creative energy diffuses around the room like light beams from a mirror ball. The fairy-tale vibe is contagious and, across the community, dreams are actually coming true: Moore’s Angel is pursuing work as a model, while Rodriguez’s Blanca is setting up her own business, in a story that loops in a sharklike businesswoman played by Patti LuPone. But there are periodic reminders of how vulnerable Pose’s characters are to predatory photographers, bigoted landlords, snake-oil salesmen, and even a white megastar who’s appropriating their culture all the way to the top of the charts.