The title for last night’s episode of Pose may as well have been “For Your Consideration … Billy Porter.” The powerhouse actor took center stage in a special installment that felt almost like its own spinoff film.
Every Ryan Murphy project eventually succumbs to the weight of its own indulgences. This final season of Pose is no different, but instead of trafficking in celebrity guest stunts (no shade, Jackée) or increasingly outlandish plots, the series is going all in on giving its characters its version of a happy ending.
After years of LGBTQ characters suffering in media, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And, sure, the characters on Pose are still dealing with transphobia, homophobia, poverty, sickness, racism and more, so “happy” here is relative. Still, it’s tough not to get whiplash as this season hurries to get all the players to their respective finish lines.
Taking the show to Pittsburgh to visit Pray Tell’s family is enough of a dramatic change of scenery, but throw in flashbacks, three musical performances and a guest appearance from Jackée Harry, and it becomes unrecognizable. The show has incorporated music, guests and time jumps before, but the combined result was jarring.
In fact, the whole story felt so outside the main narrative, a new viewer could drop in and follow up without any additional context. (The exposition heavy dialogue didn’t hurt either.) Fleshing out characters with compelling backstories and personal histories enriches stories. Last week’s Elektra-focused episode “The Trunk” is a great example. However, that story delivered on threads and relationships woven throughout the fabric of the series. Pray’s trip to Pittsburgh, on the other hand, was full of heretofore unknowns about Pray Tell and a whole new cast of characters.
But with Porter in the spotlight (and in director Janet Mock’s more-than-capable hands), it’s still a rich hour of storytelling on its own. Porter deserves all the praise he’ll receive for his work this season, but this episode certainly feels like the centerpiece.
Having just learned his AIDS-related lymphoma is leaving him with less than six months to live, Pray hops the bus to Pittsburgh to surprise his mom (played by Amen and The Wayans Bros. TV-matriarch Anna Maria Horsford) and aunts (the iconique Jackée Harry and original Aunt Viv on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Janet Hubert). It’s a joyous reunion, more than 20 years in the making, but when Pray tells them he’s dying, their issues boil to the surface.
His mother storms out, while his aunt Latrice (Hubert) starts talking scripture. This is Jackée’s first time to shine as she reminds Latrice how she knows how the church can turn its back on people; she learned firsthand after her divorce. (Jackée has the cool aunt energy we all wish we had/were.)
Latrice convinces Pray to join her at church to see the new pastor, a name Pray knows well, Vernon Jackson (Norm Lewis). Latrice caught them once kissing as young boys after choir practice, but everyone seems ready to glaze over that fact. Vernon certainly first appears so. He’s married to Pray’s old bestie Ebony (Michelle Hurd). She confesses to Pray how Vernon never touches her, and she asks him for sex tips (!!!). Oh, no, girl. Honey. No.
Vernon takes a walk with Pray, confesses HIS love for Pray and offers to rewrite their story, be with Pray, even knowing how little time he has left. As hard as Pray fights it, as much as he refuses to believe it, it’s hard not to get lost in the fantasy. If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. Vernon never shows up for Pray at his bus.
Things with Pray’s mother are more successful, but not much easier. They clearly still love each other, but there are lifetimes of hurt between them. She feels resentful that he “chose” to not live in accordance with her interpretation of spirituality. He still holds her accountable for not stepping in when his step-father was abusing him. She pleads with him to understand how hard it was for her as a black single mother, but that’s not what he needs to hear; not then, nor now.
Later, they manage to find some understanding in one another. She assures him she knows there is nothing wrong with him, despite the doctrine she has subscribed to, and he shares his own interpretation of god with her. It’s an honest moment where even if they don’t still quite understand all the ways in which they’ve hurt one another, they are trying to relate because they love each other so much.
Before he goes, his mother asks Billy Porter’s Pray to join her at church once more where he sings “This Day” in his full Whitney Houston glory. It’s a wallop of a performance, and Porter nails every single moment. He meets Jackée (she’s always just Jackée to me) for chicken and waffles and … legal paperwork? She explain how she regrets not being there for him when he was young, so she’s going to be there for him now. She wants to make sure he gets everything exactly how he wants it after he dies. She wants to be sure all his wishes are respected. It’s an incredible gesture, and the kind of thing countless queer people would love to hear from so many bystanders from our youths.
Back in New York, Pray sits with the rest of the House of Evangelista, saying a prayer before family dinner.
It’s a nice way to end, considering how deeply spirituality apparently ran through Pray Tell’s youth. Having made peace with his family, his church and even the Pastor, this newly healed part of Pray has renewed strength. He may not have had the romantic happy ending with Vernon, but even just knowing how Vernon really feels must provide some closure.
I don’t begrudge Pray Tell any of these happinesses, and I’d be lying if I said the episode’s
emotional moments didn’t get me misty-eyed. There was just so much packed in this one episode, an entire season’s arc could have been crafted from Pray’s final making amends. What we have instead is an emotional journey for a man at the end of his life figuring out if you really can actually go home again. It’s a powerful story with excellent performances, but it just didn’t feel like Pose.
What did you think of Billy Porter and the episode?