The FX Network is quickly becoming my go-to for edgy scripted drama. Trust, Feud, American Crime Story (both The People VS OJ Simpson and The Assassination of Gianni Versace), and American Horror Story (seasons 1-7) keep me enthralled. Tonight we add Pose to that list. From the mad genius of Ryan Murphy and Mr. Gwyneth Paltrow, Pose introduces us to the New York ball scene in 1987. For those who aren’t familiar, ballroom culture is an anti-crossdressing protest that grew into highly coordinated (and judged) events. Balls allow self-appointed LGBTQIA families called Houses to duel each other in dance, costume, appearance, and attitude. Most famously captured in Paris Is Burning and The Queen, 80’s Balls were a big deal. The winners wore their fame with pride. Often unwelcome in the greater heteronormative world, balls gave participants the chance to be seen. To be acknowledged. To be a part of a history.
Pose opens on the House of Abundance. They strut. They vogue. They performs for us, their invisible audience. They’re brothers. They’re sisters. And above them all, ruling the roost is an ironfisted fairy godmother. As House Mother, Elektra holds her children in the palm of her hand, occasionally dangling one over the edge to test the others’ devotion. She’s not afraid to steal ideas or costumes. The House of Abundance’s museum burglary is a classic 80’s rom com caper. Walking together as the Royal House of Abundance is their John Hughes moment. “Tens, tens, tens across the board.” The police follow a trail of antique costumes right to the ball floor. Under the harsh glare of expectations, the House of Abundance turn their shackling into spectacle. They’re so fabulous, it’s illegal. “And that is how you do a ball!”
Back in the harsh reality of day to day life, Blanca finds out she has HIV. When the nurse assures her it’s doesn’t have to be a death sentence, she asks, “Doesn’t it though?” She’s latina. Gay. Transgender. The lifesaving options offered at places with names like St Vincent’s aren’t available to her. Nevertheless, she persists. For the first time in her life, Blanca looks to her future. She knows she wants to make a mark, to be remembered. And then it comes to her. She’ll start a House. With goal in mind, Blanca feathers her nest, preparing a home for her unhatched family. She takes a final verbal beatdown from Elektra and walks away from the House of Abundance with her head held high.
Damon has a heartbreakingly common backstory. He tried his best to hide his gayness but once it’s out, so is he. He ends up sleeping on park benches, dreaming of the New School For Dance. Blanca finds him busking for spare change and thinks he’ll be perfect for her House. But Damon has nobler pursuits in mind. He wants to be a real dancer. Blanca takes him to a ball. It’s an explosion of Glamour. Attitude. Fantasy. Damon asks about compensation and Blanca assures him a good name is better than gold. If the ball ideal is passing in straight white culture, winning means you’re eligible for the American dream. And isn’t that the biggest prize, really? Over pie and coffee, Blanca breaks it down. When people are rejected by their mother or father, they search out a replacement. That’s what a House offers. The rest is up to Damon.
Because Ryan Murphy loves to beat a dead horse, Stan Bowes is a new-hire with the Trump organization. His boss, played in all his “greed is good,” Gordon Gekko-ness by grown-up Dawson, does a rail of coke and thanks god for Ronald Reagan. Remember, Ryan Murphy. In celebration of surviving day one, Stan cruises the hooker stroll. Angel gets excited when the window shopper finally makes his move. A hotel room, vs. the usual backseat, makes her feel like a Princess. But when Stan asks her to undress, she cringes. This is usually the point that her dream turns to nightmare. Instead of violence, Stan gives her the boyfriend treatment. Tell me about yourself. What do you want out of life? Everything she lists (home, family, love) he already has, with another woman. When Stan pays her at the end of the date, Angel struggles. She needs the love fantasy as much as the cash. Their passionate kiss makes her think she can have both. The brutal scrubbing Stan gives his teeth afterwards proves it won’t be quite so easy.
Damon quickly finds out he’s not the roughing it type and lands on Blanca’s doorstep. She takes their relationship seriously. She drags him to the New School For Dance. If her baby wants to dance, he’s gonna dance. Even if she has to drag him along by the ear. The next step is finding him a sister. Angel is carried all the way uptown by the power of love. She lands at Trump Tower in the hazy glow of new relationship delusion (shades of Scheana Shay, anyone?). If Stan accepts me, the whole world will. I’m one of them. I’m not Other anymore. Unfortunately, her happiness is fleeting. First, the Pretty Woman Saleslady understudy won’t let her apply for a job. Then Stan tells her, “You’re not somebody I can be with.” By the time Pray Tell, the ferocious ball emcee, reads her to filth (“Halston for JCPenney”) Angel is at rock bottom. Blanca sees a girl that needs a mother. If only they knew where to find one one those…
Blanca is no Elektra, but she is a tough Mother. Her rules: All children must get an education. They must be safe. They must be healthy. And they must be available to walk any (and every) ball. Blanca has a legacy to build. There will be time to sleep when she’s gone. Putting the rule into immediate effect, she announces they’ll be walking in two days. Gasp! “What are we gonna wear?” That minor detail is handled by Pray Tell, the K. Cooper Ray of the ballroom world. He’s a sought-after designer, noted ball emcee and local bon vivant. He not only deserves respect, he’s earned it. And in a society obsessed with fitting in, Pray Tell has crossed the line. He works at Macy’s. “As a cologne spritzer.”
Pray Tell takes Blanca’s House to the park to experience voguing in it’s natural habitat. He introduces Damon (and the storyline) to the concept of House battles. Damon asks what happens to the losing House. Pray Tell gives great side-eye. There is no after for the losers. They’re toast. Their name is mud. With all that foreshadowing, Blanca can’t resist challenging the House of Abundance at their very first ball. The battle is a feast for the eyes. The most junior member of the House of Evangelista, Damon, learns on the dancefloor. Angel is fragile and dangerous at the same time. Blanca has found her power. She’s not afraid of Elektra. Not anymore. But the House of Abundance is a mighty foe. They sweep the boards with 10’s all the way. And just like that, the House of Evangelista is done.
Outside the ball, Angel isn’t ready to concede defeat. “We were robbed.” Blanca is a realist. They weren’t ready. She pushed them too soon. A kid runs up, asking to join. The House of Evangelista look at each other, confused. What part of LOST doesn’t he understand? Lil Papi doesn’t hold their grim social status against them. He hasn’t made a name for himself yet either. He wants to learn, to walk. Plus, he works at a bodega… Free food seals the deal and Blanca sends him home to collect his belongings. Pray Tell, the kindly, wise owl tells Blanca that’s why she needs to keep going. “Houses are homes to all the little boys and girls who never had one.” Now that’s a worthy legacy.
Blanca drags the House of Evangelista to the New School For Dance. Damon is humiliated. He never turned in his application and Blanca is going to fix the situation. She storms the Head of Dance’s office to plead his case. Damon has been discarded by his family, by life. Seemingly out of options, he blames himself. But he’s special. He’s worth it. “Who are you again?” “I’m his mother.” Blanca flies out of the office like a torpedo aimed straight at Damon. She pulls out his dance clothes. This is it. His Flashdance moment. Before he knows it, Damon stands in front of a distracted admission panel. He cycles through a variety of dance fragments. Nothing feels right until he vogues. Suddenly, there’s an energy in the room. He comes alive. It’s honest and vulnerable. The end of the song finds him weeping in the arms of the New School For Dance’s Head of Dance. Blanca saved him from the streets and pushed him to achieve his dream. Not bad for a new Mother.
Stan is out to dinner with his wife, played by Ryan Murphy’s favorite Mara sister. She seems like a sweet girl. She clearly loves him, loves her life. And through no fault of her own, she’ll never be enough for him. As they dance cheek to cheek, Stan imagines Angel across the room. Her face consumes him and his wife is merely an afterthought. “Happy Anniversary, baby.” After his wife falls asleep, Stan celebrates. He finds Angel. She learned her lesson at Trump Tower. She lets him know she understands the parameters of their relationship and they disappear, to play house in a dingy hotel.
Next week: Blanca is blackballed, Damon goes on a date.