Pop Culturing: 'Pose' Season 2 Jumps to a Critical Moment in LGBTQ History

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Monday June 10, 2019

From left to right: Ryan Jamaal Swain, Mj Rodriguez and Angel Bismark Curiel in "Pose."
From left to right: Ryan Jamaal Swain, Mj Rodriguez and Angel Bismark Curiel in "Pose."  (Source:Macall Polay/FX)

As the world celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots this Pride Month, "Pose" returns for its second season on FX Tuesday, jumping from the 80s the 90s and landing in a pivotal moment in LGBTQ history. Along with that time skip, the queer drama sheds some of the things that didn't totally work in Season 1 while adding some new adjustments, making the latest installment of "Pose" one of the best TV shows of the year.

In its sophomore run, "Pose" is more self-realized, confident and powerful than its impressive freshman debut last year. At its core, "Pose" is a family drama albeit an unconventional one. For decades, queer people have chosen their own families after being rejected by their own. Created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals, "Pose" honors that bond with its cast of queer people of color dominating the ballroom scene in New York City.

Season 2 begins in the summer of 1990 when Madonna's hit single "Vogue" is taking the nation by storm, putting a huge spotlight on ballroom culture. Simultaneously, the LGBTQ community is still reeling from the AIDS epidemic and the first episode, "Acting Up," highlights the crisis with a sobering opening. Blanca ( the wonder MJ Rodriguez) and Pray Tell (the equally wonderful Billy Porter) take a ferry to New York's Hart Island, which was once used as a psychiatric institution and a tuberculosis sanatorium, to pay respects to Pray's ex-, who died of AIDS and is being laid to rest in a pine box after his family refused to claim his body. He's just one of the hundreds of gay people who are being dumped on the island after being killed by AIDS and no loved ones to honor them.

Last season both Prey and Blanca were diagnosed with HIV and during the time we've been away, they've both attended hundreds of funerals of friends while the government made little effort to curb the epidemic. Fed up, they both join ACT UP, thanks to some nudging by nurse Judy (an excellent Sandra Bernhard, whose role is bigger this time around). The premiere also reenacts the group's infamous "Stop the Church" die-in at St. Patrick's Cathedral that culminates with a deeply powerful scene.

Dominique Jackson in a scene from "Pose." Photo credit: Macall Polay/FX

While "Pose" Season 2 never flinches from showing the tragic history that the LGBTQ community had to face in the early 90s, the series is still as vibrant, colorful and full of exuberant life as it was in Season 1. "Pose" may take the time to reflect on the horrors LGBTQ people faced in the U.S. but it is ultimately a celebration of life and family. The brilliance of "Pose" is mainly thanks to its outstanding cast, including Rodriguez, Porter, and Bernhard, as well as Dominque Jackson as the terrorizing Elektra Abundance and Indya Moore as the stunningly beautiful Angel Evangelista. In its second season, "Pose" makes the smart move to shift gears and put more focus on some of the breakout stars from Season 1 while abandoning others altogether.

We see less of Damon's (Ryan Jamaal Swain) dancing career and more of Angel's journey on becoming a high fashion model in Season 2. Angel is no longer a sex worker (thanks to mama Blanca) and her relationship with Stan (Evan Peters) seems to be totally over. Over the four episodes provided for review, the Trump backdrop from Season 1 is totally erased. Stan, his estranged wife Patty (Kate Mara) and crazed boss Matt (James Van Der Beek), don't appear in Season 2. But the writers do manage to sneak in a Trumpian figure and that comes courtesy of Broadway legend Patti LuPone, an outspoken Donald Trump critic in real life, who plays Frederica Norman, a ruthless and wealthy Manhattan real estate divorcee. (At one point, she introduces her two little white fluffy dogs named Cash and Credit.) LuPone has a hell of a lot of fun in the role and goes toe-to-toe with Blanca, who is suddenly trying to start and run her own nail salon (a half-baked subplot that comes out of left field) and faces off against slumlord Frederica.

Indya Moore in a scene from "Pose." Photo credit: Macall Polay/FX

Thankfully, we see a lot of Elektra in Season 2, who is still working her hostess job at an upscale restaurant but... is somehow earning a lot more money than her friends can believe. That's because she's got a secret side job and, in one episode, things go completely haywire with her new gig. "Pose" does an incredible job at winking at one of the strangest and little-known stories about a particular drag queen who appeared in the seminal doc "Paris is Burning."

One of the smartest things "Pose" did in its first season was anchor the show with queer issues that are still relevant today, like how white gay men treat trans people of color. That was highlighted in an early episode in which Bianca and Lulu try to grab a drink a popular gay bar but cause an uproar from transphobic staff and customers. Season 2 does the same thing, highlighting problems within the community that trans people still face in 2019. In one intense scene, a fashion photographer uses his authority to take advantage of Angel. It's a casting couch moment that echoes the stories from women who have shared their #MeToo stories. Though he's now working for Netflix, Ryan Murphy returns to the show, co-writing the first episode and directing the fourth episode — the best of the bunch. It's an origin story of sorts about how lip-syncing started in the ballroom scene. But it's also one of the most devastating and beautiful episodes in all of "Pose" so far.

With Janet Mock and Our Lady J returning as director and writer respectively, "Pose" Season 2 is an undeniable triumph. It continues to be one of the most diverse and unprecedented TV shows ever to exist while serving a truly captivating family drama.