[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers from the “Pose” Season 2 finale “In My Heels.”]
It’s not every TV show that can reach its climax with a character lip-synching to Whitney Houston’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner, but “Pose” not only pulls off this performance with show-stopping style, it does so with emotional honesty. This triumphant ballroom moment is also a callback to the boldest narrative choice this season, resulting in a well-crafted arc that is both meaningful and thrilling.
In the finale “In My Heels,” House of Evangelista mother Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) has just emerged from a debilitating stint in the hospital stemming from her HIV. Although she’s weak, she attends the Mother’s Day Ball and enters the lip-synch contest Candy’s Sweet Refrain while being pushed in a wheelchair. By the end of the national anthem, she’s ripped off her frumpy sweater and lap blanket, abandoned her chair, and finishes standing proudly in a dazzling red ensemble. She’s still standing, dammit, and she’s sensational.
This ball also features the council of emcees — all men — literally stepping into the shoes of the women by taking part in a new category: Butch Queen Up in Drag First Time at a Ball. As they wobble or strut in heels, the heartening performance acknowledges the importance of the women in the ballroom and how they’re often harshly assessed by the male judges.
In an earlier scene, Pray Tell (Billy Porter) discusses the idea for the gesture with the other council of emcees. “Will we just look like a bunch of men in wigs?” he asks. “I don’t want to trivialize what these women go through, how they live, who they are.” It’s this empathy and humility in acknowledging that they truly don’t know what women endure that helps make the ballroom stunt work.
It’s the final act of solidarity in a season that has driven home the need for a strong support system for the ball and LGBTQ community. Whether it’s through activism with Act Up! and the giant condom protest or a beachside girls trip, this year “Pose” de-emphasizes the competition between Houses and doubles-down on the message that only by banding together — and specifically through sisterhood — can people not just survive, but also succeed.
That is why guest star Patti LuPone, as power-hungry real estate mogul Frederica Norman, is painted as such a villain. It’s bad enough that she commits arson to shut down Blanca’s nail salon, but Frederica is also a woman struggling to succeed in a male-dominated world. When she’s jailed for her crimes, she goes on a rant to her lawyer:
It’s to put me in my place, to put all women in their place. We are not allowed to have empires or emotions. We are expected to sit at home patiently waiting for our husbands, cook their meals, supply unpaid emotional and physical labor to aid in the fulfillment of their dreams. We are not supposed to have dreams of our own.
The only thing I feel bad about — if I have anything to feel bad about at all — is that I ended another woman’s dreams. For that I will gladly serve time but I will not be penalized for having a dream of my own and doing what I had to do to make it a reality. I refuse to be shamed for my ambition.
There’s an internal logic to how success and happiness is achieved in “Pose.” They’re made possible through the love of friends and family. Frederica betrayed a woman, and therefore she doesn’t have any allies or support of her own in jail. After Blanca’s ballroom sisters shore her up emotionally, she’s able to pursue a romance with a handsome lifeguard. And after Angel (Indya Moore) is dropped by Ford Models after being outed as transgender, it’s through the support of her new fiancé Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel) that she books work overseas.
“I learned very early on not to show nobody who I really am because nobody would see me or love me,” Angel says. “You taught how to feel safe; in the world where tomorrow is not guaranteed for us girls, safety is everything.”
Safety in the community is key. Between living on the streets, the AIDS epidemic, and hate crimes targeting transgender women of color, merely surviving is an achievement. This circles back to Season 2’s most creative storytelling choice: After Candy (Angelica Ross), a transgender woman of color, is killed by a client, her ghost appears to haunt several of the characters — not in a scary way but by arguing, goading, and joking with the friends she’s left behind. Her continued presence is a reminder of the real dangers that the LGBTQ community must face and why it’s imperative that its members look out for each other.
Candy’s death has been a critically divisive element this season. Although highlighting the violence perpetrated against transgender women, Candy’s murder and her subsequent ghosthood didn’t feel earned. Candy was “Pose’s” eighth-most important character at best, and to have all the other main characters wax on so poetically about her felt false. Fortunately, the series treated her death as more than just a one-off plot device. Through her continued presence — whether it’s through her hammer, as a ghost, or in the Candy’s Sweet Refrain category — over the rest of the season, it was clear that Candy wasn’t just forgotten, but a driving force in how the community supports and celebrates its members. Just like in the ballroom, “Pose” makes an over-the-top device work.
The series isn’t quite as successful with the dungeon storyline that appears to mock those in the BDSM community. There’s a moment when Elektra (Dominique Jackson) calls out one client’s privilege that could have offered some sort of commentary if the storyline was given more time, but alas, it was treated more as a condescending joke.
Besides this tonal misfire, this season of “Pose” has been able to fit in a surprising amount of issues organically, without sacrificing story. The finale is the beautiful culmination of all the lessons learned in fighting for justice. America has had a history of persecuting the very people who make the country great, but that’s also why the land of the free is also the “home of the brave.” Because bravery is what’s needed to challenge the status quo.
“Pose” is available to watch via FX. Season 1 is streaming on Netflix.