When Dyllón Burnside showed up to his first day of work for the third season of Pose in March 2020, he had no idea that soon after filming a couple scenes, the world would shut down due to a breach of safety caused by the coronavirus pandemic. He also had no idea it would be the final season of the series, where he has spent three years playing Ricky, a talented pier kid with a hightop fade and bold dance moves.
“They had reached the point where they told the story they wanted to tell,” Burnside said of the Pose show runners a couple of weeks before the series finale aired on June 6. While he wasn’t blindsided, it still took him a bit of time to process that the show would indeed come to an end. “Tears started streaming down my face,” the actor said of the moment he received a copy of the final script. Then, he got to work so that he and his cast mates could really stick the landing.
In the show’s second season, fans expressed hesitation when it was revealed that Ricky, who had formerly been romantically involved with Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a fellow voguer in the House of Evangelista, would form a relationship with the much older Praytell (Billy Porter). The romance was short-lived, but the series used the arc as an opportunity to explore the threat of HIV/AIDS in the LGBTQ+ ballroom community, when Ricky was diagnosed and could find comfort in knowing that Praytell, also HIV+, could guide him through it.
But in the third season’s finale, it is revealed that Praytell has spent the previous episodes giving the cocktail of medication he was prescribed to Ricky. Unbeknownst to Ricky, Praytell dedicated his final weeks to making the ultimate sacrifice for his friend. “That twist was really hard to swallow, reading it and playing it,” Burnside said. “There was a line: ‘He sacrificed his life so I could live.’ How does one live, knowing that someone has done that, and you’re living because they’re gone? That’s the kind of sacrificial love we read about in the Bible, and we see in religious stories, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in television dramas.”
The series finale gives a glimpse into Ricky’s future, with the show coming to an end in the late ‘90s, when he becomes the father of the House of Evangelista (and gives up a rehearsal spot with one soon-to-be very famous girl group from Houston to get his children ready for the ball). “It continues that tradition of chosen family,” Burnside said. The final moments between Ricky and the children do carry an essence of Praytell—in both Ricky’s mannerisms and language, as well as his choice of outfit. Symbolically, it signals to the audience that Praytell, though gone physically, lives on through those who are left behind.
“Seeing Ricky become the father of the House of Evangelista made me cry like a baby. When I think about his journey, and my journey on this show as an actor, personally and professionally, Ricky is the character who needed the balls the most,” Burnside went on. “He was the most alone, and searching for family.”
Burnside is right—throughout the series, the main characters each had an obvious foil. Blanca has her children and Praytell, while Damon has Blanca to lean on in times of need. Angel and Papi have each other (for life, it seems, as demonstrated by the penultimate episode of season three), Lulu and Candy and Elektra are three of a kind, and even Cubby and Lemar consider each other brothers. “Who does Ricky have?” Burnside asked. “It seemed for a while like it would be Praytell, but that relationship falls apart. Ricky has been searching for acceptance, a home, his people—and still feels isolated. Becoming the father of the House of Evangelista makes sense, because of all of them, he’s the one needs this family—and they need him, too.”
Burnside, who has gained prominence in the last few years for playing Ricky on Pose, has also dedicated these years to his burgeoning music career. His forthcoming single, titled “Heaven,” will be released June 11, roughly a week after he takes a bow on Pose. The song was written in February 2020, before production on season three began, but in hindsight, Burnside can see how the narrative of the song can be tied to his work on the final episodes of Pose. “Like Billy and like Praytell, I grew up in the church,” he said. “I have a lot of traumas that are church related, and that can point back to the ways in which religion has hurt me. For so long, I internalized this idea that my love wasn’t pure, and I don’t believe that anymore.”
The song has a personal meaning for Burnside in his own romantic life: “The connection that I share with my partner allows us to be our higher selves. That’s the most beautiful thing that you can hope for in relationship,” he said.
With Pose now in the rearview mirror, the performer said he feels thankful for the ride, and ready to bring more of his personal feelings into the public realm. “There’s this thing about being Black and being queer that sometimes encourages us to not be honest and authentic. My work over the past three years has rewarded the courageous truths that I shared, and the level of authenticity I have displayed,” he said. “Pose asked me to share more parts of myself than I was ready to share, and I’m grateful for it.”