The '90s fight back

By LaToya Ferguson
March 02, 2017 at 11:00 PM EST
ABC/Eike Schroter
S1 E3
C+
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A decade has passed, and we’re in the ‘90s. Cleve (Guy Pearce), Ken (Michael Kenneth Williams), and Richard (Sam Jaeger) have all been afflicted with HIV/AIDS. In true Cleve fashion, he’s leading the charge on making their voices heard in Washington, D.C., and across the country, but this time around, he’s not the de facto “leader” of the movement — there’s not one unified voice. And there might not ever be, as long as the government remains silent.

Ken Jones

After the powerful conclusion to “Part II,” Ken and Richard have made good on their promise to stay together and fight through their HIV/AIDS diagnosis. They still live in the same house together, surrounded by all of their meds but still very much in love with each other. But you can see that Richard is the frailer of the two, no matter how many pancakes he adorably makes them for breakfast. He’s hooked up to an IV; he’s weak; he’s tired. He sick. But Ken still knows how to make him smile, as he takes Richard’s picture — just like Richard took his picture when they first met — over and over again at the kitchen table. And while it’s a happy moment in a miniseries where those are few and far between, as Richard smiles for the camera and for the love of his life, there’s just so much overwhelming emotion there; even with the smiles, there’s still all that sickness and sadness. Congratulations to Sam Jaeger for getting everyone all emotional mere minutes into “Part III.”

Ken, who’s less sick, is still able to work at the teen center. Cecilia (Ivory Aquino), a transgender woman who was introduced in “Part II” when she was still a teen, is in the process of transitioning, but things aren’t going great for her — she had a job as a court interpreter, but she lost her contract after an awkward confrontation with a judge. Ken tries to convince her to talk to her parents and stop living in a flophouse, but Cecilia says her mom learned how to block her number. Before they can discuss it further, Ken gets an emergency call from Richard. Things all move pretty quickly after that, really: As soon as Ken gets home, he finds Richard passed out on top of the stairs and has to get him into an ice bath. That’s “the drill,” so this is far from the first time Richard has had to go through this. Only this time, it’s also the last, as Richard tells Ken, “I’m scared” before he fades away for good.

So once again, Ken suffers through the loss of a loved one. And again, he blames himself — only this time, he eventually takes it out on himself in the worst ways possible.

An indeterminate amount of time after Richard’s death, Ken is hit with an eviction notice on the house, and when he gets home, there are men already there. After living there for 20 years, Ken isn’t even able to properly move out. But in his frustration, shock, and grief over the matter, Ken packs as much as he possibly can (which is little more than a picture of himself and Richard, along with Richard’s camera) before he has to run out to avoid having the cops called on him. Now Ken has to go to court to contest the eviction. As he works on Richard’s panel for the quilt, he considers making one for himself too, but Cleve reminds him he’s not dead yet, and it is far too soon to “surrender” in this war. As for where Ken stays until then, he goes to Cecilia to join her in the flophouse he previously tried to warn her about. As Cleve’s voiceover states, because most of the people in the LGBT fight had been abandoned by their families, going back was never really seen as an option; the door was locked on both sides, even though Ken had been trying to get Cecilia to talk to her own family.

Unfortunately, you can probably guess how the legal proceedings go — though, if it’s any consolation, the judge appears somewhat torn over having to follow the law in this case. It’s one of those little things that show the progress that has happened over all the years When We Rise is spanning. When the judge asks Ken his relationship to Richard, he point-blank tells him they were lovers, but he was also Richard’s caretaker, his confidante, and his companion — he was his everything. As Ken’s lawyer says, that sounds as much like a definition of family as anything, but sadly, that’s not how it works with the law, so the case is dismissed. The only thing Ken has left is to seek the aid of the VA, which he doesn’t want to do and has to be forced into by Cecilia. Of course, this is all during the lead-up to the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, after a campaign of lies from Bill Clinton about how he would help gays in the military, so Ken has to be careful how he approaches this. But really, Ken is at a point where he doesn’t care too much, so as he sits next to Cecilia in his Navy uniform (which is now tragically oversized), snarkily requesting medical attention for his symptoms that are so obviously HIV/AIDS, it’s Cecilia who truly has to fight for him in the meeting. After all, Ken is a Vietnam veteran who served three tours — he deserves the medical attention, no matter the disease.

Ken does get the help he needs from the VA. But in 1997, Ken is in tremendously rough shape; the strain of essentially being back in the closet and being HIV positive has caused him to turn to drugs and alcohol. With Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell fully enacted, his veterans’ HIV/AIDS support group can’t even discuss the very concept of any of the men in the group being gay, for fear they’ll lose their treatment. Not that Ken’s even really looking for treatment at this point; this is just a way to not be homeless, and Cecilia basically has to keep vouching for him in order to keep him in the program. (By the way, on New Year’s 1992, Cecilia was attacked on her way home. It’s a horrific sight, but it ultimately leads to her finally going back to see her parents and her mother accepting her as her daughter, to the point of paying for her gender confirmation surgery. She gets a job at the Health Department, and unlike Ken, her life is on track by 1997.) This version of Ken is completely broken down by life, basically waiting to die and doing everything he possibly can to speed it along. He’s been through detox twice, and the only thing that gets him through the day is using.

And then, in his group, he meets David (Balthazar Getty), a man who watched his whole battalion die right in front of him and now claims to live by a code of not letting anyone get “too close.” And while he’s definitely Ken’s type, David is just as bad for him as the booze and the drugs — especially since he provides Ken with booze and drugs, to the point where Ken ends up in the E.R., sedated for two days. Once he wakes, Cecilia informs him that David is a “closet case,” with a wife and kids, and tries to get Ken some help from some church ladies, but Ken just won’t hear any of it. He goes back to see David and tries to get an answer from him about how a guy with a wife and kids can end up in a support group for people affected by HIV/AIDS, but David can’t really give him a straight answer. “I don’t fall in love with guys,” he says, except for the one time he did. He can’t seem to read the room, either, as he starts to unbuckle his belt for Ken (“you can, if you want”) at the end of their conversation about how they’re two of the few people who know “what it’s like to survive a war and a plague.” Instead, they just spend the rest of the night crying on each other’s shoulders.

David is gone the next day, having been checked out and picked up by his wife. After seemingly making an actual connection in this group, Ken has the rug swept out from under him again, and he packs his things and leaves. He goes straight to a bar, drinking shot after shot after shot. He leaves the bar, the big question of just where he’s going to go looming over head… and thankfully, he goes to the church to get help from those women Cecilia introduced him to, begging them to heal him. Considering the endless terrible places this story could have gone (even though this is based on reality, there’s still suspense), now’s as good a time as any to say, “Thank God.”

NEXT: Cleve Jones

Cleve Jones

Cleve’s wall of names from “Part II” has become a full blown AIDS memorial quilt, one that he and thousands others regularly bring to and display in Washington, D.C., right in front of the White House for the president to see. As he speaks to these thousands and to those watching at home, he reads the names of those who have been lost in the fight, names that we know from watching the first two parts of this miniseries. Marvin. Bobbi. Poor, sweet Scott. “This is a war,” Cleve says. Now, more than ever, that’s apparent — and it’s a war that the commander in chief is afraid to fight. Or should we say commanders in chief? As Cleve points out, Reagan refused invitations to see the AIDS memorial quilt in person, as did Bush after him. In fact, as Bush flies off in his helicopter during the memorial, Cleve leads the crowd in a chant of “SHAME!” at the president (which, of course, really happened — check the B-roll). It’s safe to assume no shame is felt from above.

Most of the people Cleve knew in San Francisco are dead and gone by 1991, and in case government ignorance isn’t bad enough, a New York-based gay activist group (ACT UP) regularly takes shots at Cleve and the San Francisco activists. Their spokesperson, Jason, argues that the cause needs to focus on the living and not a quilt that no one cares about. Jason definitely doesn’t sugarcoat things, and it gets under Cleve’s skin; the president didn’t show up, so maybe he really is a failure. Luckily, Cleve has the love and support of his boyfriend Ricardo (Rafael de la Fuente), who tells him 60,000 people visiting the quilt is pretty much the opposite of “failure.” Cleve and Ricardo have been together since that day they met, after Cleve found out about Marvin’s diagnosis, so they’re pretty much in it to win it now.

But Cleve’s T-cells are dropping, and he refuses to take the drugs Dr. Conant (Dylan Walsh) suggests because he knows they will just ruin him — and he’s far too active to live a life of true sickness now. Dr. Conant then suggest he fights alongside his “ACT UP pals” to at least weaken the load, but Cleve’s even quicker to remind him they’re certainly not “pals.” Basically, Dr. Conant says Cleve definitely needs to start up on meds, but the options aren’t great. And as he keeps making trips to Washington, D.C., that can’t be helping his energy. Cleve’s mother is proud of him and even visits him on one of his D.C. trips on Father’s Day. His dad “couldn’t come.” But Cleve is still in contact with his father, and his parents do eventually come to visit him and Ricardo. Mrs. Jones is ever the positive beam, but Mr. Jones can’t help but interrupt Ricardo to judge Cleve for working too hard on this quilt thing, telling him he’d maybe get his appetite back if he stopped making the trips. Cleve won’t take the disrespect, and he goes into detail about how he and Ricardo first met and hooked up, attempting to make the point that his love is worthy of acknowledgment.

The thing is, after that, Cleve and his dad actually turn a corner. For all of his attempts to give Cleve “gay treatment” and all that crap, Mr. Jones proves to actually care about his son and his needs. First, he brings him marijuana to help with Cleve’s appetite (“a dad likes to see his son eat”), proving that he can adjust his psychiatric approach in these changing times. He then gives Cleve information on a new, not-exactly-approved HIV med called DDC and how to get it first — which involves going to New York and interacting with the guys at ACT UP. “I’m going to make sure your pride doesn’t get in the way of your welfare,” he tells his son, which is the best thing he could possibly do. And Cleve listens, especially since he knows he’ll need more money and volunteers for the next trip to the White House (when Clinton, who went back on all his promises to the gay community, is in office). Cleve talks to the guys at ACT UP who have contact with the pharmaceutical companies and learns that while they’re currently working with a working drug (DDC), there’s still no “legal” access to it. That’s why they’re so angry: “This is genocide.”

While Cleve is gone, Ricardo realizes he now is sick and decides to pack up and make good with his family, promising to be back very soon. If you guessed he’s not coming back very soon, you’re correct: When Cleve gets the DDC meds he needs (after a fainting spell on New Year’s Eve and an amusing reunion with the cop whose squad car he blew up when he was younger), he realizes they actually work and sends them to Ricardo in Texas… but Ricardo has already died. (Actual history says Ricardo killed himself.) Instead, Cleve gets a box of mementos (Guy Pearce’s specialty), including the cross he has in the opening of “Part I” (and the end of “Part III”). The one glimmer of hope left is when the quilt appears again in D.C., and this time, Clinton adviser Richard Socarides (played by Charles Socarides, younger brother of the real Richard Socarides) is able to convince to president and the first lady to go out and see it. By this point, Cleve is willing to quit, even after meeting Jason from ACT UP, who also lost his lover and made a quilt panel, but this helps. Cleve even tells President Clinton that he’s only here because he got access to drugs others couldn’t: “You, sir, can end this.”

By 1997, Cleve’s optimism has pretty much run out. He no longer lives in San Francisco — Palm Springs all the way — and the cause has been sterilized by lobbyists like the Human Rights Campaign, who want to host a gala with President Clinton speaking. The suits at the HRC (and Richard Socarides, who advises Clinton on gay and lesbian issues) try to pick Cleve’s brain, but they don’t seem to get that the only way for Clinton to get on “their” good side is to repeal DOMA and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. And since Richard Socarides is the son of Dr. Charles Socarides (John Rubinstein), the hateful “myth of the happy homosexual” hack from “Part I,” Cleve really has no time for him — until Richard shows up at his place in Palm Springs. Despite Richard’s political optimism and pride over having a seat at the table, Cleve explains he’s not “one of the guys,” he’s “one of the gays.” It’s even worse when it comes to Richard’s relationship with his father. Richard defends his dad, saying he’s not that bad and that he even supports Richard; in fact, Richard lived with his father instead of his mother once his parents got divorced. So basically, Richard disproves his father’s entire theory about gay people (especially dysfunctional family relationships and a reliance on mothers), yet Dr. Socarides has never gone back on his “studies.” That’s because Richard’s not exactly out with his father, though Richard says his father “pretends not to know” and Richard “lets him.” Cleve rightfully points out that Richard needs to come out to his dad to test this theory, and he does.

For a second, it’s almost believable that Richard could be right, given how Cleve’s father finally turned a corner and put his love for his son above any reservations he may have about his sexual orientation. Then you remember how awful Dr. Socarides is, and When We Rise emphasizes it by showing him put a pistol to his own head after his son comes out to him. Of course, the biggest proof of what a blowhard Socarides is comes from Richard pointing out that he knows the gun’s not loaded, and that his dad is just a drama queen, before he walks out on him. But it’s still no surprise that Richard’s initial lack of awareness when it comes to father figures is proven again by Bill Clinton’s HRC speech — Clinton takes out the part (that Richard and Cleve came up with) about apologizing to the gay community, pissing off everyone there and everyone in our story who’s watching. “Presidents don’t apologize” is the lesson he learns, but at what price?

All the while, Cleve lives all alone in the quiet in Palm Springs… until he hears a baby screaming bloody murder and goes to check on it. The baby, Courtney, is lying face down on the floor, sobbing, while her father is passed out on the couch, so Cleve takes her. Once the dad wakes up, Cleve informs him that Courtney has a fever (and her diaper hadn’t been changed in days when Cleve found her), but the guy just leaves and asks Cleve to “hang out for a bit.” Basically, the situation raises every red flag possible, but Cleve forms a connection with Courtney, even getting the baby to smile, which she hadn’t done before because of all the neglect. Courtney’s dad eventually bails, and Cleve — with a new sense of purpose in this chapter of his life — decides to follow through on adopting her. Courtney is his new cause, his new mission, and his mother gives him her blessing: “Fatherhood suits you. Do what you can to protect this.” He does, and he gets thisclose to adopting Courtney… and then it’s all taken from him just as quickly when social services sees his medication. They don’t even listen to the fact that he’s basically as well as you can be with HIV/AIDS; they just snatch the baby and storm off.

So we fast forward to 2006, the start of When We Rise. Cleve has lived a life of pain and suffering. And what does he have to show for it?

NEXT: Roma and Diane

Roma Guy & Diane Jones

Well it looks like Roma (Mary-Louise Parker) and Diane (Rachel Griffiths) have finally figured it out. Actually, to be fair, Diane had it figured out the whole time — it just took Roma some time to catch up. In 1991, the two of them are still together, raising Diane’s daughter Annie (Lydia Boland) and generally being “relationship goals.” Now, if only we could see the transformation from young Roma to adult Roma, because even though she shares a few things with outsider Roma (like the “Roma Guy” label taped to the front door and her inability to think of anything to say to Annie while they wait at the bus stop), this version of Roma is pretty self-confident and in charge. It’s Roma Guy at her fullest potential, and again, When We Rise’s need to spread the wealth means having to miss out on her transformation. At the same time, after watching Roma muck up so much with Diane and deny herself happiness, this is also a much-appreciated change.

Life is good for the two moms, but it’s also about to get a little awkward, as 10-year-old Annie is interested in finding out who her father is. While watching 3 Men and a Baby, Annie sincerely asks, “Do you think that could  be my dad?” about Ted Danson — and while that is basically the plot of the 1993 Ted Danson/Whoopi Goldberg film Made in America, that’s certainly not the case here. But Annie still wants them to check into it, so Roma is tasked with convincing Shoshanna to reveal the source of the sperm. (Keep in mind, Shoshanna specifically went through as many channels as possible in “Part II” to avoid finding out the source.) Shoshanna understandably gives Roma crap for “bow[ing] to pressure from a 10-year-old” girl, especially since the father was promised Annie could only contact him where she turned 18. But Roma fires back, basically threatening to cut Shoshanna’s battered women’s project from the women’s building (as it doesn’t bring it that much money). Damn, girl. She then tells Shoshanna to “trace that sperm back from whence it came,” which is now a Mary-Louise Parker line for the ages. Really, no matter the actress, Roma Guy always gets the best lines here.

But when she’s not threatening her friend/employee, Roma really is the boss at the women’s building: At this point in time, she’s prepping Carole Migden (Melora Hardin) to run for a city supervisor position, and she basically has to work a miracle to get this “lesbian with sharp elbows” elected. “Strategy” is key for Roma, and these days, she has no reservations about immediately going to a “power gay” like Cleve for help. She knows Carole will be a hard sell for gay women and men alike, and Cleve suggests they turn to someone more popular than himself, someone “universally well liked”: someone like Tom Ammiano (Todd Weeks), “the most popular gay politician in San Francisco.” Even though she voted for him before, Roma calls him “kind of a clown,” and she’s not wrong — he’s a stand-up comedian — but it’s the route that needs to be taken to help out the “very aggressive” Carole. So Roma goes for it, even though she’s momentarily confused as to why Cleve isn’t putting up a fight about Roma helping a lesbian fill a gay man’s seat. It’s simple, really: Most of his gay male friends who are dying are being treated by women. They’re all in this together.  “This isn’t about alliances anymore,” explains Cleve. “We’re a family.” (This certainly isn’t the point, but: Tell that to Ken.)

And while there’s been much talk by this point of how in-your-face Carole can be, nothing really exemplifies it more than when she introduces herself to Tom Ammiano as, “Carole Migden, lesbian candidate for city supervisor.” Bless her heart. What looks like it might be a trainwreck because of dueling personalities — Tom really is an absolute ham — ends up being a godsend. Ham or not, Tom is legit, and he and Carole have a good rapport almost immediately. In fact, Carole and Tom’s interactions play like a lost Will & Grace scene, which is unexpected but also amazing. Carole even makes a joke that seems like it’s going to bomb (about how the “skinny gay asses are dropping”)… only to save it with some self-deprecating humor (while hers is “getting wider by the minute”) and have Tom latch on to her for being a “funny lesbian.” Tom & Carole is the When We Rise spin-off we never knew we needed or wanted until this very scene. Carole ends up winning the election, as do quite a few other lesbian women in sweeps (as there are no living gay men to contest them).

Meanwhile, Shoshanna finally gets an address (not a name) for Annie’s father, and the moment of truth is on its way. Annie’s father is… the aforementioned star of Tom & Carole, Tom Ammiano! Roma says it best when she says, “Tom Ammiano? Of all the gays in the Castro?” But on a more serious note, Diane fears Annie only wanted a dad in order to “feel more legit with straight people,” and that’s not going to happen with Tom — unless he pulls a Derrick from Happy Endings and does a Danny Zuko (or Frasier!) impression. (He doesn’t do that. This is still very serious.) But they allow Annie to meet Tom, and the two hit it off immediately. So it just seems the girl wanted a father. Heck, she just wanted all the parents. And now she has them. Hopefully she doesn’t ever lose that adorableness.

Except, she does. She does lose that adorableness. Because she becomes a teenager. Strap in for 1997.

Roma and Diane are a lesbian couple raising a daughter, and that’s just as important to this story about the struggles of the LGBT fight as anything else, even without all the death and destruction of the other story lines. But as with most forms of pop culture, adding a teenager to the mix is just a recipe for the disaster. Adding teenage rebellion — which is what we have here, as Annie (Gideon Adlon) has assumed the stereotypical chola aesthetic of her all-Latina friend group — is just absolute chaos. Especially since When We Rise chooses to make Annie the narrator for 1997. (As Riverdale regularly proves, a teenager’s voiceover technique really isn’t as poignant as you’d hope it would be.) It also focuses less on Roma and Diane’s struggles raising her and more on Annie’s struggles… skipping school?

Annie ends up having to transfer to the local Catholic school, St. Catherine’s. While there are some conceptually interesting (in terms of her role as the daughter of lesbians and a gay man) moments for her her — like the Latina student who assumes she’s a rich daddy’s girl or the white student who threatens to falsely report her for coming on to her — Annie is in that teen stage of being too nonverbal to actually get a point across to her parents. It’s impossible not to be on Roma and Diane’s side here. Also, it’s really not clear if the latter girl is actually trying to come on to Annie in the first place, either. The scene is good in theory, because of the depiction of how teenagers can be so ignorant, but it’s bad in practice.

Annie yells at Roma and Diane for being non-makeup-wearing lesbians who don’t understand high school anymore, but it’s an argument that means nothing when (1) Annie believes makeup should be painted on and (2) she doesn’t actually give any insight as to how high school is different, especially since, while she has her own problems as the daughters of two lesbians, they faced problems because they are lesbians. If When We Rise is trying to show that Annie has it hard because of her circumstances, this is the one story line where it truly fails, both in execution and in focusing on a younger actor when Mary-Louise Parker and Rachel Griffiths are right there. (Diane being afraid she’s ruined Annie for life because of who she is is interesting, but it’s sadly not showcased here.)

And when Diane tells Annie that she’ll only be able to leave St. Catherine’s and go to whatever school she wants if she gets a 3.0 GPA for the semester, only for Annie to end up taking her up on that challenge and succeeding (as she explains in the voiceover), it only leads to more questions. Why exactly is the audience supposed to care that Annie is able to succeed her way out of St. Catherine’s, especially since returning to her life of cultural appropriation and being out of control is supposedly her motivation for doing it? From what we see of St. Catherine’s, while the students may be like those any other high school student, the school itself isn’t presented as a nightmare. Despite the initial interview, when it comes to the parents’ dinner, Annie is apparently a hit, and according to the headmaster nun, she’s a unique student (in a good way). There’s a bit about Diane trying to “straighten” herself up to attend the dinner, though there’s apparently not as much conflict as one would expect, especially as Tom and his partner show up together. When We Rise makes a few “based on true events” decisions that don’t completely make sense, and focusing on Annie in 1997 is one of them.

“Your generation is asleep… What’s it like to be part of the first generation in this country that has no purpose? And what are you gonna do about it?”

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