The return of a favorite show for its final season is always a mixed blessing, perhaps never so than with Pose, which kicks off its third season with two back-to-back episodes this Sunday on FX. On one level, it's a thrill to see this great show back on TV for the first time in nearly two years. On another, it's real bummer to know this season is the last, especially since the story that Pose has been telling — about the history of Black and brown LGBTQ+ people and their history and experiences through the AIDS pandemic — is an ongoing one, with testimony that does't simply end in the mid-'90s.
There's also the fact that this season was filmed during the COVID pandemic. While we're thankful to get a season at all (other shows, like Netflix's GLOW, weren't as lucky), the resulting season has been reduced to just seven-episodes, with filming restrictions in place that apparently prevent characters from being able to kiss.
So, yes, hooray that Pose is finally back, but boo that it's ending, and that it can't end entirely as planned.
The new season makes good on the three-year time-jump promised at the end of Season 2. When we last saw everybody, Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) and Pray Tell (Billy Porter) were leaning on each other, each one the other's support system as they dealt with their HIV diagnoses. Elektra (Dominique) won Mother of the Year, thank goodness, while Angel (Indya Moore) and Papi (Angel Bismark Curiel) got engaged, with Papi founding a modeling agency. The time jump to 1994 is punctuated by a few political and cultural landmarks. Rudy Giuliani is the new mayor of New York City, with his crackdown being felt as the S&M club Elektra works at gets shut down by the cops. And of course, it wouldn't be 1994 (especially in a Ryan Murphy-produced series) if we didn't get some O.J. action, in this case with Blanca calling everybody over for a "watch party" the night of the infamous Ford Bronco chase.
Blanca finds herself much-improved from her dark days in 1991. She's taking her first steps toward getting a nursing degree and working at the hospital in the meantime, caring for AIDS patients. One of those patients is a familiar face, Cubby Wintour, formerly of Elektra's House of Abundance, who as we reconnect in 1994 is in the late stages of AIDS, very close to death. It's the kind of sobering reminder of where we are at this point in the disease's history, one we can't be surprised by, but which hits hard. Blanca also has a new boyfriend, played by Broadway star and Hollywood Emmy nominee Jeremy Pope, making his second appearance in the Ryan Murphy Universe.
Blanca's relative upward trajectory is in contrast to where things are at for Pray Tell. As the season begins, Pray is attending one of the far-too-many funerals for friends and acquaintances who have died of AIDS. In the face of this, and seeing no hope for a cure in sight, Pray has developed a nasty drinking problem, straining his relationship with his live-in partner Ricky (Dyllón Burnside), and reaching an impasse when it comes to MC-ing the house balls.
Angel's modeling agency seems to be going very well, with some tastefully appointed office space to indicate his success, but Angel has hit a dry spell when it comes to booking modeling gigs, putting strain on that relationship as well. Frustrated and somewhat adrift, we see Angel and Lulu (Hailie Sahar) start lacing their joints with crack out of boredom more than anything else.
The House of Evangelista is, in other words, at a low point, and ripe for competition from a new house, the brash House of Khan, led by Cubby's former House of Wintour brother Lemar (Jason A. Rodriguez), who emerges as the antagonist for at least these first few episodes. But while the house balls remain a balm for the Pose narrative — and intentionally so, with the glitz, glamour, community, and pride that the balls represent in the community — this third season is finding itself increasingly challenged by balancing the warring tones of the balls with the ever-darker AIDS storylines. The specialness of Pose has always been its ability to celebrate life while also mourning the dead (see last season's spectral performance by Candy Ferocity after her ugly murder). But these two premiere-night episodes have a shakier grasp on that balance, staging a brawl/food fight in one scene, then whiplashing soon after to Cubby on death's door in his hospital bed.
Additionally, the excuses the show finds in these early episodes to shift the focus to the balls feel very schematic. We have to work out our differences at tonight's ball … for Cubby. We have to raise money to pay for someone's rehab … at the ball.
That said, however clunkily we get to them, the balls themselves remain strong, as do the themes of family, however often they're repeated. Billy Porter lip-synching to En Vogue will never not be appointment television. The performances this season are as strong as ever; stronger, in fact, for some of the cast members. Dominique Jackson has come a long way over the course of three seasons; she was always in full command of her regal presence, and the figure she cuts on a ballroom floor is without peer. But this year Elektra emerges as the most quotable queen on television, and it's a joy to watch her whip the House of Evangelista into shape to the tune of Robyn's "Show Me Love").
But this being the final season, it's getting harder and harder to look away from the ravages of AIDS on these characters we've come to love. Watching the ways in which the plague touches everyone, even those who managed to escape infection, their fates weigh on our minds more gravely than who's going to triumph at the Solstice Ball. That imbalance makes for a bumpy ride, but Pose appears poised to face down that grief with arms linked and gowns sparkling under the house lights. With seven episodes to go, they've come to work.
Pose returns to FX with its two-episode Season 3 premiere Sunday May 2nd at 10:00 PM ET.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.