Pose is many things: entertaining, educational, witty, and glamorous. It’s also never been more clear that in the show’s second season, Pose is Indya Moore‘s runway, and the other characters are just walking behind her. It would be nearly impossible to choose the very best outfit worn by Angel (Moore), because everything looks good on her, or Pray Tell, whose flashy style rivals that of the actor who plays him (Billy Porter).
Before we can dive in to the glitz and glamour of New York’s ballroom scene, we see the reality of the AIDS crisis wreaking havoc in the community. In the season 2 premiere—appropriately titled “Acting Up”—Pose makes a call to action. Blanca and Pray Tell visit Hart Island, a burial site for unclaimed bodies from the morgue or the bodies of individuals whose families did not have enough money to bury them. The woman at the front desk informs Blanca and Pray Tell, who are looking to pay their respects to Kurt, Pray Tell’s former lover who died of AIDS, that individuals who died of HIV/AIDS related illnesses are quarantined. “Why?” Blanca asks. “They’re already dead.” It’s a sobering reminder that queer lives are often discarded and disrespected even in death.
Simultaneously, the year is 1990 and Madonna’s “Vogue” is dominating the radio and MTV. “This song is our ticket to acceptance,” Blanca vehemently insists to her family. But just because your culture makes it to MTV does not mean your culture is exempt from co-option by the mainstream, of course—even today, ballroom still rarely gets the credit it deserves for its influence on pop culture, dance, and music. Pray Tell cynically reminds Blanca of the Disco Demolition Night which took place at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1979, in which White Sox fans (most of them white men) filled the center of the baseball field with disco records and set them ablaze, in what many considered to be an openly homophobic statement of attack against queer people of color.
Elsewhere, in a plot line which clearly uses scenes from Paris Is Burning as its source material, we see Angel entering a modeling competition hosted by Eileen Ford of Ford Models. It’s a career move that could have dangerous consequences, as the drama plays out in a Mahogany-style photo shoot montage.
Downtown, after attending his 210th funeral, Pray Tell joins Nurse Judy Kubrak (Sandra Bernhard) at his first-ever ACT UP meeting. Initially suspicious, he quickly becomes radicalized enough to participate in a lie-in at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, inspired by the real-life peaceful protest that took place on December 10, 1989 in New York called “Stop the Church.” One hundred and eleven activists were arrested after they walked into a Sunday morning mass to protest the Catholic Church’s anti-gay policies and the institution’s spread of false information about HIV/AIDS and abortion. Onscreen, we see Pray Tell, Blanca, Angel, Damon, and Papi participate in the peaceful demonstration, lying down to represent the neglected HIV/AIDS victims. But a few key faces are missing.
Where was Elektra Abundance? She has her excuses: she needed to rehearse and she didn’t want a mug shot. But that’s all hogwash to Pray Tell, who reminds her that the balls take place in the evening, and mass was in the morning. All of the children of the House of Evangelista made sacrifices in their personal lives to attend both. So why couldn’t Elektra make it to church on Sunday?
It is not until later in the episode, however, when we see a ball competition that demands French Revolution runway realness from its participants. “Poverty and abundance, personified” is what Pray Tell wants to see on that makeshift catwalk. Elektra, who abandoned the House of Abundance for the opposing House of Evangelista near the end of the first season, turns up in an 18th century-inspired pink gown with an exposed hoop skirt, complete with a white rococo wig à la Marie Antoinette. The ballroom theatrics would not be complete without an exaggerated performance, and Elektra places her head in a makeshift guillotine that appears to decapitate her, much like the ill-fated Queen of France.
If there is one look that represents the central tension of this episode, it’s this one. This sartorial statement from Elektra serves as a lesson for how even within this community of queer and trans people of color, not everyone sees eye to eye. There’s a generational disparity, a disparity between those who can “pass” for cisgender and those who can’t, a disparity of riches. If you weren’t asleep at the wheel during your high school world history class, or if you listen to our esteemed emcee outline the nature of the category, you’ll remember that Marie Antoinette became a symbol of excess and inaccessibility. She was a woman so out of touch from the people she reigned over, and things did not end well for her.
Elektra expects to be praised for her glamorous and dramatic efforts at the ball, but it’s not until Pray Tell reads her for filth in front of the entire room that she realizes that skipping out on an ACT UP protest for her community so that she can show up to the ball dressed as one of France’s most insensitive rulers is not exactly in line with the main tenets of family. Can Elektra have her cake and eat it, too? Or will her own insensitivity cast her out? She expresses no remorse for not setting a good example, and she wants more trophies, so she flips a table and dumps the House of Evangelista to rule over Candy and Lulu again.
“We have much to fight back against, children,” Pray Tell reminds his family at the ball. Fittingly, the episode is bookended with a conclusion that highlights ACT UP’s slogan: Silence = Death.