[Editor’s Note: The following contains minor spoilers for “Pose” Season 3.]
Anyone who’s been watching “Pose” over its history-making FX run won’t be surprised to learn the colorful show about New York’s ball culture definitely goes out with a bang. No expense was spared on the third and final season of Ryan Murphy’s most influential period melodrama — and the makeup and costumes are just as indulgent as the sentimental storytelling. With all of the pain and heartache trans people of color face in the real world, “Pose” laughs in face of reality by throwing something much more celebratory onscreen. Throughout all three seasons, “Pose” remains the fiercest advocate for itself — and for the power of living your truth.
Not that “Pose” ignores the ravages of the AIDS crisis, discrimination, and violence faced by the most marginalized (and most fabulous) among us. This season pulls no punches with the tragic realities of life for LGBTQ people of color in the mid-’90s. The show has jumped ahead a few years each season: It opened in 1987 and the introduction of ball culture, then took us to its 1990 mainstreaming with Madonna’s “Vogue” and the growing AIDS epidemic, and now is ending in 1994, when AIDS became the leading cause of death for Americans ages 25 to 44.
With both Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) and Pray Tell (Billy Porter) managing their own HIV-positive statuses while attending weekly funerals and tending to dying friends, AIDS is front and center throughout the season. As the defining crisis for LGBTQ people at the time, the epidemic is given appropriate weight and focus without detracting too much from the celebratory nature of the show’s defining spirit. With so much death surrounding them, it makes sense that more than a few characters would be dealing with substance abuse issues, though this storyline feels a bit repetitive with so much doubling up. The second episode, “Intervention,” addresses the topic with a grand flourish, as fundraising for rehab inspires the House of Evangelista to don their best looks once again. (Spoiler: They’ve still got it.)
Eric Liebowitz / FX
A few standout episodes sit apart from the overarching ensemble narrative. Episode 3, “The Trunk,” delves into Elektra’s (Dominique Jackson) back story while also having further fun with an old community legend. It continues a storyline from Season 2, when Elektra covers up an overdose at her BDSM club by hiding the body in a trunk in her apartment rather than risk calling the cops. To those in the know, this is obviously inspired by real life drag mother Dorian Corey, a central figure in Jennie Livingston’s seminal ball documentary “Paris Is Burning,” in whose closet the long preserved body of an old flame was discovered after her death.
The fourth episode, “Take Me to Church,” follows Pray on a final pilgrimage to his hometown to see his mother and aunties. It’s another diverting anthology episode that includes cameos from an all-star cast of Black TV moms: Janet Hubert (“The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”), Anna Maria Horsford (“The Wayans Bros.”), and Jackee Harry (“Sister, Sister”) each get moving scenes with Pray. “Scandal” star Norm Lewis also makes a rather intriguing appearance, and it’s nice to see Porter playing off some contemporaries for once.
Angel (Indya Moore) and Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel) provide the happily ever after that would otherwise be overshadowed by AIDS. It’s warming to see them living in domestic bliss as their friends cheer them on, and their fairytale ending feels movingly aspirational for all girls like Angel. Though she’s been sidelined a bit this season, Moore is arguably the biggest breakout discovery of “Pose,” and she’s given enough meaty scenes to solidify her status as one of the show’s best performers.
Those who found the melodrama a bit over the top in earlier seasons will find no respite in the finale. “Pose” is what it is: A flashy, high-budget, first-of-its-kind, Ryan Murphy-produced soap opera about trans women of color. “Pose” kicked down a thousand doors in six-inch pumps, launching careers and helping a backwards industry see the boundless potential in a dynamic and creative group it otherwise could have gone on ignoring for years. “Pose” has made its indelible mark on Hollywood, one that will not soon be forgotten. It earned the right to fantasize, dream big, and paint with broad and colorful brushstrokes. Category is: Making history.
“Pose” Season 3 premieres Sunday, May 2 at 10 p.m. ET on FX.