FX's Pose, which chronicles the underground ball scene in late '80s and early '90s New York City, might be best known by fans for Elektra's epic reads and its history-making cast. But the show is hardly fluff — it also tackles hefty social issues like transgender civil rights, the stigma of sex work and poverty, and most notably, the complexities of the HIV/AIDS crisis. While some mainstream shows might shy away from "serious" topics in the name of easy primetime viewing, the Pose writers saunter right up to them in a way that's as entertaining as it can be educational. In fact, with Pose's Season 2 time jump to 1990, the glitter and glory of the ballroom scene acts more as setting, allowing for the stories of Blanca (M.J. Rodriguez) and Pray Tell's (Billy Porter) HIV diagnoses, their newfound activism, and the actual scope and layers of the epidemic to take center stage.
Co-executive producer, writer, and director Janet Mock tells reporters at a set visit in May that to really tell the story of how the HIV/AIDS affected the ball scene, the writers decided to bring back Sandra Bernhard's Nurse Judy character as a series regular.
"Just like Blanca brought Damon into the world of ballroom in Season 1, [Judy] is going to bring Pray Tell and Blanca into AIDS activism, into the medical industrial complex, into pharmaceuticals, into AZT, all of this stuff," co-executive producer, writer, and director Janet Mock tells Bustle. "Instead of serving expository monologues about the ball scene, because now people know what that is, we can now break down the structure of late '80s/early '90s AIDS activism and the fight for access to medication for poor people and people of color, too."
If that sounds a little serious, well... it is. The series is intentionally leveling up when it comes to yanking HIV/AIDS out of the shadows and asking viewers to deal with the realities of the crisis, both past and present. "Season 1 was very much Blanca’s Cinderella story, going from the evil step child literally making rice for everyone to becoming the belle of the ball. We got to tell that story, but now we have to go deeper and darker this season," Mock says. If Season 1 made you fall in love with Pose's characters, she adds, "in Season 2 you’re going to have to deal with loving someone, and sometimes losing them.”
There's a lot of loss this season — the premiere opens with Pray Tell and Blanca paying their respects on Hart's Island, a mass cemetery in the Bronx where thousands of people whose bodies weren't claimed by family after dying of complications from AIDS were buried en masse. Their bodies were buried in numbered pine boxes at the southernmost tip of the island, because people at the time still worried that the virus would infect other abandoned corpses or the soil. It's a striking and sad setup for the rest of of Season 2, in which Pray Tell starts attending Act Up meetings and protests and Blanca begins AZT treatment at the relentless urging of Judy.
Every single episode of the season, the core characters still strut their stuff at the balls and have raucous family Friday dinners. But they also mill around a funeral home, comparing notes on how many friends they've lost in the mere days since last one. Blanca, taking on the role of strict mother, scolds the younger kids for skipping a funeral here and there because there are just so many; Pray Tell walks out of a ball after fighting with Elektra about skipping an ACT UP protest.
The dread and the urgency around the crisis is palpable, especially since viewers know that it's been three years since Blanca and Pray were diagnosed in Season 1. Pray Tell refuses to go on AZT due to the very real fears of the side effects at the time, and viewers find out in the premiere that Blanca's viral load is low enough that her diagnosis has shifted from HIV to AIDS. The next funeral quite literally could be for either one of them.
Co-creator Steven Canals admits that the time jump presented some real worries in the writers room about the fates of these beloved characters. "It's not like they've suddenly been cured," he says. Maintaining the joyfulness of the characters' family lives that drew fans in in the first place and depicting the realities of the crisis without being overly optimistic or cheery was a major, intentional undertaking.
In 2019, HIV treatment is so advanced that two thirds of people on medication have suppressed their viral load to undetectable levels, meaning that there is effectively no risk of transmission, according to the Centers for Disease and Prevention. Blanca and Pray Tell, in the midst of the crisis, could never have even fantasized about the present state of HIV prevention and treatment given the "death sentence" it was up until just a few years ago.
But that doesn't mean that survival for the leads is impossible. After all, "making a way out of no way" is what these characters do best, according to Mock. And the many actual long-term HIV survivors are the real life proof of that.
Showing the day-to-day life of HIV positive people was also important to Pose supervising producer and writer Our Lady J and the rest of the writing team, given how much stigma and fear around HIV/AIDS is still ingrained in our culture, and even the Pose viewership. It's still largely considered a "niche" or strictly LGBTQ issue that the masses can ignore, she says. Because of this attention to detail, Pose manages to be one of the very few depictions of HIV/AIDS on TV or even in movies that treats patients with empathy and humanizes them without moralizing about their lifestyles.
"Whether you’re HIV positive or not — sh*t happens. So how do you move through difficulty? And I think that the answer to that is to lean into the love, lean into the family, create family, create change, art, fashion, music," Our Lady J says. And have a little fun, which is why she adds that the balls are especially necessary this season, if only to lighten the mood. "Not just for the ballroom community, but as a part of the show itself, the balls feel like a breath of fresh air if its gets too heavy," she adds.
It's a tricky balance when it comes to portraying the highs of ball culture without glossing over the trauma and tragedy that the people living it endured. But if the category is visibility and stigma-busting when it comes to the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis, Pose Season 2 gets all tens.