Imagine knowing you’re going to die. How would you live?
It’s the question at the heart of “Pose:” What do you do when there’s a ticking clock above your head?
The second season of the Ryan Murphy-led FX show opens in the dark reality of the early ‘90s — the grimmest time in the AIDS epidemic, when there was no respite to its rising death toll.
Blanca (MJ Rodriguez) and Pray Tell (Billy Porter) have come face-to-face with the disease, both within themselves and in others. They shuttle from funeral to funeral. But no one outside their community seems to care.
“You want to know why they want us dead?” says Pray Tell. “Because we’re black and we’re brown and we’re queer. They don’t give a s–t about us so we’d better start caring for ourselves. Show up for your lives.”
So they try not to die. Not from AIDS and not from a sidewalk attack by someone who doesn’t like the way they look.
The scenes depicting the characters’ weekly undergrounds balls — competitions over who is best costumed — are loud and colorful and beautiful. The scenes in the hospital and at the almost weekly funerals are drab and mournful. For every trophy given out at the balls, there is a death. For every costume category at the balls, there is a diagnosis.
“How do you survive? How do you find hope and family when everyone around you is dying?” asked Murphy, who brought Steven Canals’ series to life with Brad Falchuk, his regular producing partner.
Everyone handles it differently.
Blanca throws herself into leaving a legacy in the house she founded with other characters on the show.
Elektra (Dominique Jackson) surrounds herself with wealth and beauty — and this season, some whips and chains. Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain) goes to school and Ricky (Dyllon Burnside) goes on tour.
Angel (Indya Moore) tries a new career and Lulu (Hailie Sahar) and Candy (Angelica Ross) try to find a new home.
There’s no point, “Pose” tells you, in waiting to die.
“There’s radicalness in normalcy,” said Swain.
“That’s what life is,” Burnside said. “It’s big s–t and little s–t. Big things and little things. There’s no way to say what’s normal. For Ricky and Damon and Papi, AIDS and HIV was normal … That was every day.”
With five transgender actors as series regulars, “Pose” makes history in front of the camera and behind it, with producers Our Lady J and Janet Mock, who is also the first trans woman of color ever hired as a TV series writer.
“I’m able to help create reflections and images that I never had access to growing up,” Mock said.
“I always wanted to do a story about a community under siege,” said Murphy.