Your enjoyment of last night’s episode of Pose depends on how much surrealism you like in your dramas.
For the second time this season, a large chunk of screentime and emotional arc in last night’s episode was dedicated to ghosts/hallucinations/apparitions. It’s an odd choice, considering how much they used the device in a divisive installment two weeks ago.
Don’t get me wrong. Pose presents such a vital and rarely glimpsed story, and its cast is so overwhelmingly talented, even at its weakest, it’s still stupendous. However, last night’s reliance on spirits and musical numbers feels like a disservice to the larger story.
The episode centered on Pray Tell, played to perfection, as always, by Billy Porter. The AZT he was so dead set against is actually poisoning him. The AZT toxicity is affecting his platelets, and he’s back at the hospital.
In short order, his hospital roommate dies, and a distraught Pray is sedated. It’s during this state Pray encounters his Dickensian spirit guides.
The first is an appearance from Candy. Sigh. If we hadn’t JUST done this with Candy, this may have had a bigger impact. She acts as a sort of temptress, encouraging Pray to give up, overdose and join her in heaven where she’s hanging out with all the famous people who died of AIDS. That’s right, Candy was also positive, but didn’t tell anyone.
Here’s my whole problem with a lot of this segment. Take Candy, for example. She was always a sort of secondary character. “Revealing” all this about her after she died feels like an extremely cheap ploy to wring pathos out without doing the work to build that character organically.
I don’t want to see a fully-realized ghost Candy explaining herself and revealing herself to characters from the Other Side. No, I want to see it happen in “real time.” I want to see her interacting with multiple characters at once, I want to see their relationships change over time, and I want to see how those changes ripple out into the rest of the community.
Even the tragic exchange between Pray and his stepfather felt cheap and exploitative. The sexual predation is revealed to add depth to Pray’s character, but will it ever be spoken of again? How has this colored his worldview and actions previously? How is he changed from this exchange?
A feverish Pray performs a fantasy musical sequence to “The Man That Got Away.” Throughout it all, Porter is a goddamn powerhouse, obliterating every single scene he’s in. This was his episode to shine, and he went above and beyond to transcend the uneven storytelling.
If you think too hard about any of these flashes, it’s tough to pin down what they represent. Broadly, Pray is trying to decide whether it’s worth it to keep living. Candy and his ex Costas play the devil/angel on his shoulders, I suppose, but it’s tough to track his emotional evolution from one exchange to the next. How he gets from Point A (wanting to give up) to Point B (deciding to keep fighting) isn’t entirely clear.
The timing for all of this could not be worse, because it’s almost time for the hospital AIDS cabaret. With Pray out of commission, Blanca takes over planning.
She hangs up flyers at her salon, drawing the ire of Frederica (Patti LuPone). At first, Frederica reveals she’s also lost people to AIDS. Then, she promises to attend the event, give a proper donation and maybe also sing a tune.
OK, sure. Look, I’m not going to argue against a Patti LuPone performance, regardless how thinly it’s justified.
The cabaret is just an excuse for an extended musical sequence, which, again, I’m not complaining. Sandra Bernhard’s nurse performs in full glam. Elektra sings a song that I’m not still not entirely sure is supposed to be good or bad. Blanca and a recovering Pray Tell sing “Love’s In Need of Love Today.” It’s all amazing.
LuPone gifts us with “I’m Still Here” from Follies. It’s great. And she’s great! Frederica seems sincerely moved by the event and Blanca’s hard work.
Of course, it’s all a ruse. Frederica was keeping a close eye on Blanca while her henchmen removed all her stuff and boarded up the salon. Yikes!
Blanca has a plan though. Sure, she’ll file a lawsuit, but that could take a long time. She needs direct action, now. Inspired by all the recent ACT UP work, they stage a protest. Pray comes through with more folks to bolster their presence, including Lulu and House Wintour. The fight is far from over.
It’s a shame they wedged another hallucination/haunting story into the same episode as the musical. There is so much to explore in the lives of these characters. How much more powerful would it have been to see Pray struggle through this with Blanca or Nurse Judy? (Or if you want something fresh, why not Elektra? Angel?) How much more interesting would it be to give screentime to Lil Papi, instead of Pray’s stepdad (or Candy’s parents for that matter)?
Even as much as I enjoyed the musical elements, what was gained from Judy’s song or Elektra’s? I felt so much more community and hope from the protesters showing up at the end of the episode than I did from the cabaret.
Restraint has hardly been a hallmark of any Ryan Murphy production, but I was so hoping Pose would escape the season two curse. I’m using “Ryan Murphy” as shorthand for his style and frequent collaborators. (This week’s episode was directed by Tina Mabry and written by Our Lady J and frequent Murphy collaborator Brad Falchuk.) Murphy co-wrote the Candy death episode two weeks ago, contrasted with series co-creator Steven Canals, who wrote last week’s much more grounded story centering on Damon and Ricky.
I’m not giving up, not by a longshot. There are incredible stories that need to be told here, and the show has one of the strongest ensembles to tell them.
No gimmicks necessary.
What did you think of the episode?