Few TV shows in recent memory have had as much of a cultural impact as quickly as “Pose.” Since its premiere in 2018, the FX series from creators Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals has loudly and proudly declared that its LGBTQ crew, cast, and content matter is worthy of our attention and our respect. With its third and final season premiering on May 2, “Pose” sticks to the formula that has worked so far: the centering of its consistently strong ensemble led by Mj Rodriguez and Billy Porter; a tendency to introduce a threatening or dangerous narrative element and then play it for laughs before leaping into its most devastating repercussions; and a recurring insistence to LGBTQ audiences that they deserve happiness and must be willing to “show up for each other, show up for yourself.” Each of the seven episodes of this final season includes those elements in some combination, with plenty of musical numbers, ball walks, and fantasy shopping sequences. “Pose” goes out on a wave of deserved celebration and an insistence that its characters not just survive, but thrive, continuing the art-as-advocacy messaging that has defined the show from the beginning.
With its initial 1980s setting and purposeful integration of the AIDS crisis in its narrative, “Pose” has always veered between two emotional extremes. The first is the joy, glamour, and communal camaraderie of New York City’s ball culture (made famous by the 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning”), which was a second home and creative outlet for countless gay, queer, and trans people in the city. “Pose” has upped the production value of the ball scenes with each season, leaning into Murphy’s penchant for razzle-dazzle showmanship with rival houses walking to Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson, and Tina Turner tracks, and allowing its cast members to tap into their own ball and Broadway backgrounds. The work from costume designer Analucia McGorty is consistently excellent, as is the thrill of watching Dominique Jackson walk or Jason Rodriguez vogue while Porter emcees in his mixture of flowery and vulgar commentary. You can practically smell the cigarette smoke and feel the weight of so many layers of tulle and sequins in the ball scenes, and they are some of the most well-crafted and well-choreographed on TV.
But on the flip side, the very real devastation of the AIDS crisis, of familial bigotry and ignorance, of police harassment, of exploitation by lovers and friends, and of the pervasiveness of sometimes dehumanizing and violent sex work also builds the more sobering elements of “Pose.” In the series’ second season, as its characters became involved in the activist group ACT UP, episodes from writers Janet Mock and Our Lady J addressed the universality of death. Ball elders like Blanca (Rodriguez) and Pray Tell (Porter) saw more and more of their friends get sick and die, and their own HIV-positive diagnoses became causes for increasing concern. Why was the U.S. government letting so many LGBTQ people die without doing anything to stop the spread of HIV/AIDS? How many deaths would finally push them into action?
When the third season of “Pose” starts with the 1994-set premiere episode “On the Run,” anger, fear, and anxiety has had its way with some of the members of House Evangelista. Rudy Giuliani is mayor now, and his campaign promise to clean up New York City results in a crackdown on anything the cops consider smut—including Elektra’s (Jackson) work as a dominatrix in a sex club. Pray, exhausted by the ritual of attending yet another funeral for a friend or lover, and Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) are struggling with alcoholism, while model Angel (Indya Moore), still engaged to agent Lil Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel), begins experimenting with crack. House Evangelista hasn’t competed together in a ball in a long time, and house mother Blanca worries that the family has grown too far apart. “You’re about to become an empty nester,” says nurse and ACT UP member Judy (Sandra Bernhard) to Blanca, who is now volunteering as a nurse’s aide in an AIDS ward, and so Blanca decides to take action. After everyone comes over to her apartment to watch the O. J. Simpson chase on TV, she decides to reinstitute house dinners and make more of an effort to be close to her family—while also juggling a new relationship and applying to nursing school.
Blanca’s upward ambition coincides with Pray’s tumble downward, and this final season of “Pose” uses their stories to explore big themes of self-love and forgiveness, cynicism and regret. “We all carry our pain,” a counselor tells Blanca, and Rodriguez and Porter are each exceptional: the former increasingly confident and no-nonsense, balancing her character’s unending compassion with a deserved assertiveness regarding who she lets into her life, and the latter phenomenally angry and bitter, enraged by the feeling that their community is screaming into the void to no avail. Rodriguez and Porter are the primary actors in the season’s two best scenes, one a knock-down, drag-out fight that tests their friendship, and another a ball performance to a triumphant version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” Another Emmy nomination shouldn’t be out of the question for Porter, but Rodriguez deserves one, too.
Around the characters of Blanca and Pray, “Pose” predictably bounces between fantastical indulgence and inconsistently weighted depictions of drug use, Mafia involvement, and death. Fashion remains a focal point: The premiere includes an over-the-top food fight scene that sees Porter scream in agony while someone shoots mustard and ketchup all over his beautiful brown tweed suit; in a later episode, a character has an Oprah-style moment where she hands out designer wedding gowns to dozens of friends. Flashbacks fill in Pray’s childhood and Elektra’s backstory, including how she created House Wintour and amassed Blanca, Angel, Lamar (Jason Rodriguez, an early villain this season), the deceased Candy (Angelica Ross, whose ghost appears, as it did throughout season two, to speak with characters), and Lulu (Hailie Sahar) under her wing. A subplot involving Elektra’s mysterious trunk has a heist vibe; guest stars Jackée Harry, Janet Hubert, and Anna Maria Horsford do more than offer a nostalgia kick; one-liners still zing (“Your god sounds like a real asshole”); and a recreation of the ACT UP Ashes Action is profoundly moving.
As is the way with this show, these scenes put viewers through the entire emotional wringer, from the pain of birth-family rejection to the pleasure of chosen-family acceptance. That’s not to say that everything entirely works: certain characters’ crack use is mostly a punchline until the series suddenly decides to take it seriously; a breakup feels slightly contrived; and there is a scene that directly attacks “Sex and the City” on the basis of its white-focused perspective, which is a valid argument, but feels tacked on here. But those are quibbles for a season that otherwise embraces the grandiosity of which “Pose” has always been fond while also directly engaging with questions of the show’s legacy and influence. In her song “My Love is Your Love,” Whitney Houston—who has long been a part of this show’s fabric—sings “The Lord asks me what I did with my life/I will say I spent it with you,” and that sense of gratefulness suffuses and strengthens this final season of “Pose.”
Season screened for review. “Pose” premieres with its first two episodes airing on May 2 on FX.