By David Canfield
July 22, 2018 at 10:20 PM EDT
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Credit: JoJo Whilden/FX
S1 E8
type
  • TV Show
network
  • FX

Elektra Abundance has nowhere to sleep. She has no lover, no mother, no family. She is on her own and left to fend for herself — a steep fall from the glamorous mountain she sat atop as Pose’s first season began, and a fall which strongly reinforces one of the show’s central themes: the vulnerability of queer lives. If the woman who had everything could be left with nothing, what does that say about the rest of her community?

The finale’s quietly devastating opening sequence puts into perspective just how much Elektra’s life has changed. Where before she had people waiting on her hand and foot, now she’s reduced to sleeping in fast-food booths and on park benches. Where before she didn’t have to perform sexually for anyone but the man bankrolling her life, now she’s left to dance for random men in peep shows, with director Gwyneth Horder-Payton honing in on the dehumanization with each successive 25-cent payment into the machine. The last payment we see, however, reveals an onlooker very different from what Elektra has become used to: Blanca.

Blanca has made it her mission since opening her own House to rescue “lost souls,” and she ends her journey this season by rescuing the person who once rescued her. These last few Pose episodes have powerfully fleshed out the relationship between Elektra and Blanca, letting the resentment so apparent in the show’s beginnings wear off as they remember, through all they’ve been through, how much they still mean to one another. “I don’t like being needy,” Elektra tells Blanca at the diner. “I hate myself for it.” Finally, she’s let her guard down and Blanca embraces it, welcoming her into the House of Evangelista, even giving her Damon and Ricky’s room. (Which doesn’t exactly please Damon and Ricky. And Elektra, true to form, proceeds to insult the decor.)

Overall, “Mother of the Year” is less concerned with wrapping up story lines than contemplating its characters’ next chapters. As with Elektra and Blanca’s reunion, a dynamic sure to get more play next season, there’s plenty of other season-2 set-ups here that effectively double as moments of reckoning. Pose has been smart enough all season not to overplay its hand, in terms of the depth of its ensemble and the emotional intensity of their stories. The finale continues in that tradition, offering glimpses of hope earned and wisdom learned.

Take Damon, who has been mostly in the background the last few weeks. It’s very much by design: Helena informs Blanca early in the episode that Damon has settled into a groove at the school, learning discipline and continuing to refine his craft, and that he’s secured a scholarship for a second year of study. Damon is now in the position of realizing his talent level, and figuring out what he wants to do about it. He wants Ricky to audition as a dancer for Al B. Sure!’s next music video — hello, late ‘80s references! — but Ricky says he’ll only do it if Damon does too. Next thing they know, they both get the gigs — as well as the chance to embark on a tri-state tour.

They announce the news at dinner — with Elektra revealing herself as a mega Al B. Sure! fan ranking among the finale’s most delightful surprises — and Blanca reacts enthusiastically, but also nervously. She’s worried about pushing Damon too hard too fast, as she has been since taking him under her wing. But where before Damon pushed back, hard, on the advice of Helena and his mother, this time he absorbs and considers it. And near the episode’s end, he reveals he feels comfortable enough with Ricky to let him tour on his own, while he returns to school. Blanca had said she’d be supportive either way, but this is evidently the outcome she was hoping for. He says he wants to make her proud; in MJ Rodriguez’s eyes, you see he already has.

Another person Blanca is trying to get on the right path: Pray Tell. After the wrenching events of the sixth episode, “Love Is the Message,” we see him now a bit beyond the initial stages of grieving, trying his best to honor his late lover’s wish to keep on living. “I’ve just been keeping my head down, working,” he says. “I’m doing my thing, but life has become a wash of grey.” The line carries extra weight as the two sit on the couch together, both facing the inevitable reality of HIV’s deadly effects. But Blanca implores him not to give up. She reveals she’s even found a man — a bartender named Keenan who had an eye for Pray Tell — to set him up on a date with. Pray Tell’s hardly convinced by her efforts to persuade him, but he agrees to give it a try nonetheless.

What he discovers on the date, improbably, is a chance at a new beginning. He’s inspired by Keenan’s “fire,” his confidence in his abilities as an artist, and laments what he’s lost as he’s grown older and looked death in the face. He recedes when Keenan reaches out to him, offering to help reignite that flame, and confesses his baggage: that he’s HIV-positive, and reeling from the death of his partner. But Keenan takes it all in stride. He says he’s dated many HIV-positive men, that it’s not a barrier to them getting to know each other. Grandly, Keenan then kisses him in the restaurant — an expression of passion that seems to run through Pray Tell like an electric current, fully charged.

They also run into an unexpected face while dining out: Elektra, who’s working as the hostess at Indochine (a restaurant which gets some nice PR in this episode). Indeed, one of Blanca’s first orders of business is to get Elektra off the streets, out of the peep shows, and into stable, honest work. She drags her to Indochine where they’re looking for a hostess — the description of which, imperious and judgy, fits Elektra perfectly. And so she gets the job. Watching Elektra curse out a group of people who dared to walk in without a reservation, Pray Tell and Keenan can only laugh at what is strikingly obvious: She’s a natural. (Recap continues on Page 2)

With Pray Tell, Damon, and even Elektra ushered into exciting new acts of life, we’re left with Blanca. Cooking dinner, she tries healing Angel’s “broken heart,” talking her through her ugly break-up with Stan while discouraging her from getting back into sex work. Initially it feels like a mild retread of the speech we’ve seen Blanca give dozens of times. But it builds into something deeper and sadder — a confession, a heartbreak, an attempted passing of the baton. Blanca tells Angel she’s HIV-positive — and that she needs her around, to take her place as Evangelista’s Mother when she’s gone. “I need you to take care of this house,” Blanca tells her. “It’s not tomorrow, but it’s sooner than you think.”

Blanca has found starting something new more difficult than the rest of her loved ones; attempts at finding romance stalled, and while she found some closure with her birth family, it wasn’t nearly enough. What “Mother of the Year” affirms is that she has changed lives as a mother. And rightly, there’s a sense of accomplishment behind her as she and her House prepare to compete in the biggest ball of the season — the Princess Ball.

The competition has changed for Evangelista, however — Abundance has all but disbanded, and the House of Ferocity has come together in its place. With Pray Tell already beginning his emceeing duties, we get the dutiful scene of the two houses facing off against one another. But the antagonistic rendering of these Ferocity characters is too sudden to work; we’d previously been offered sympathetic, if sharpened, portraits of Candy and Lulu, but here they’re needlessly cruel, verging on villainous. Candy particularly lobs a series of vicious insults at Blanca, rubbing in the fact that Papi is now with them and mercilessly attacking her appearance. It leaves Blanca in tears.

Sobbing in front of the mirror, Blanca sees a stunningly dressed Elektra approach behind her. It’s Elektra’s turn to do a bit of mothering. In one of the episode’s most touching scenes, Elektra expresses gratitude with shocking — for her, anyway — sincerity. “You taught me what a real mother is,” she says. She offers her services: fixing up Blanca’s makeup, with mascara streaming down alongside the tears, and agreeing to walk with the House of Evangelista. While Elektra’s relatively sympathetic turn feels a bit quick, it does seem earned in this case; a reflection of the power of her bond with Blanca, and of Blanca’s strength as a mother. “You have always been my heart,” Elektra tells her. They walk out together, ready to snag the grand prize from their new, common enemy.

Returning to the floor, Elektra hits back at the House of Ferocity with some truly artful shade. To Lulu: “A foolhardy chunk who makes her living on the pole.” To Candy: “A brainless wonder who thinks the way to get curves is to stick Charmin in her drawers, or to inject cement into her derriere.” And to the both of them: “House of Ferocity, you two are about as fierce as my morning cornflakes … You think you’re on the road to being legends, but you couldn’t make it from here to the door without me pointing the way.” (Oh, and one more: “You’re nothing but bags of rancid, rotting meat.”) Dominique Jackson shows off her quippy talents in all of their scathing glory here. She leaves the House of Ferocity in pieces, luring a few of its members — Papi included — in the process.

So begins the biggest ball sequence of the year, captured by Horder-Payton in all its delicious, excessive glamour. Pray Tell introduces the theme: “House Versus House.” And we get down to business, with each of the Evangelista members putting their all into these runaway walks. (Who among us will be able to forget Ricky’s smoldering bad-boy routine?) The rivalry is intense, but as the sequence reaches its climax, the joy of the entire production overpowers any bad feelings. Pray Tell leads a collective chant of “And Pose! And Pose! And Pose!” and as the camera pans around, capturing the smiles and release and sense of community, a catharsis seeps through. Getting to know these characters over eight, at times devastating, hours, it feels just right to have this moment.

In a squeaker, Evangelista pulls out the win — Blanca getting to take home the big trophy, with Elektra right by her side. There are other trophies to win, many of which the House takes home — including, of course, Diva of the Year, which goes to Elektra because… who else could it go to — and it leaves Ferocity feeling left out. Candy, especially, demands that they win a trophy. And so she rushes into a category that is, erm, not to her strengths, dancing with some mediocre moves before Pray Tell decides to stop the music and chastise her for interrupting. An explosion of violence breaks out, led by Candy. It’s strange that the show doesn’t offer Candy the sympathy it offered Blanca when she was torn down, and given that she’s all but isolated by the episode’s end, it feels regressive of Pose to keep her on the show’s margins, left alternately mocked and despised.

More poignant is the show’s handling of Stan, a delicate character that Evan Peters has played with sensitivity all season long. There’s a brief scene between him and his wife, Patty, but all she does is confirm she wants nothing to do with him, even if she lets him move back into the house. (James Van Der Beek’s Matt, the big weak link of the season, doesn’t even appear here; the less of him and Patty we get going forward, the better for the show.) So he tries, again, to run away with Angel, catching her when she’s on her smoke break as the ball is winding down. He says he’s back to rescue her. But earlier, Blanca had already instilled in Angel a new sense of self-worth — a running theme throughout this finale, from Damon to Elektra to, finally, Angel. “You’re not my first Prince Charming,” Angel tells him. “You’re not real. We were just good ideas in each other’s minds.” It’s a heartbreaking moment, since the connection shared between them was real, but also an empowering one, a definitive step forward for Angel.

Seeing Angel take this big step, watching Pray Tell and Damon and Elektra look toward brighter futures as Pose’s first season comes to a close, the sheer success of Blanca’s mothering comes into focus most clearly in the finale. So of course, it can only end with that final category, announced and awarded by Pray Tell — “Mother of the Year.” He names Blanca as one of the four nominees, and then in an emotional speech, gears up for naming her as the winner. “A family needs a mother who is affirming, caring, loyal, and inspiring,” he says. “This woman is that and much, much, much more. She has saved many a soul lost in darkness, simply by shining her light. I know this to be true, because that is how she saved mine.” He says her name. She’s lifted up by her family, cheered on by the whole ballroom as confetti falls.

There’s still the fact of Blanca’s disease, implicitly informing this triumphant ending. Tragedy is baked into this story. But Pose once more chooses not to despair. However imperfect it’s been, right through to this finale, the series matched Blanca’s fight to choose light over darkness; to make the radical choice of spotlighting joy and love in its panorama of queer lives. Sappy or sugary as that may sound, and it may have been at times, Pose’s first season stayed true to its mission to the end. And as Blanca’s deserved victory shows, that’s something to cheer.

Pose

type
  • TV Show
seasons
  • 2
rating
creator
  • Ryan Murphy
  • Steven Canals
network
  • FX

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