The second season of Pose, set squarely in the midst of New York's AIDS epidemic of the '80s and '90s, has as its backdrop one of the most apocalyptic moments in American LGBTQ history. But it also somehow manages to be the home of the most heartwarming, uplifting depictions of gay and trans characters on TV. On the show—which now has six Emmy nominations—characters grapple with worsening illnesses, the murder of a trans woman in their community, and major career setbacks. Yet the show stayed true to its DNA in Tuesday night's finale, managing to still inject a happy ending when protagonist Blanca Evangelista makes a triumphant return to the ballroom after a big health scare. The show is a masterclass in creating joy out of dark circumstances, and its stars are well aware of how revolutionary that is.
"Oftentimes when cis people are telling trans people's stories they anchor us in just the pure trauma of our lives," Pose writer, producer, and director Janet Mock told VICE. "But we're always conscious of the victorious moments as we're breaking our story in the writer's room. [...] Despite these characters going through dramatic situations, it's always about coming back to the ways that they take care of each other and make a way out of no way."
Perhaps the biggest breath of fresh air in the second season is its ninth episode, set in the Hamptons, where the audience is allowed to revel in the sight of the show's trans women (Blanca Evangelista, Angel Evangelista, Elektra Abundance and Lulu Ferocity) partying in a mansion house wearing photoshoot-ready bikinis. "Filming that episode was kind of a surreal experience," MJ Rodriguez, who plays Blanca Evangelista, told VICE. "After everything they've been through in the earlier episodes, it felt good to see them come together and enjoy their lives."
The episode becomes even more of a fairy tale when Blanca finds a new love interest on the beach. Despite the real threat that he could attack her if he took issue with her being a trans woman, she takes a leap of faith and it works out for the best. "The beautiful part of that episode is that she didn't have to explain herself and he's truly interested in her for her," Rodriguez said. "We're hoping to influence other men to make that a common thing because it shouldn't be a surprise to any trans woman to find love or affection." Mock pointed out that representing trans women's real love lives has to include both dangerous or scary moments as well as tender moments of finding genuine love. "What's important to me in particular as the only trans woman of color in a productorial role is showing the moments when instead of someone slapping you, they held you up or embraced you," Mock said.
The triumphant moments in Pose are also a vehicle for creators to share real-life lessons about overcoming obstacles. Billy Porter's ballroom emcee character Pray Tell struggles with suicidal thoughts in the second season when his HIV seems to get worse, leading to powerful scenes where audiences get an inside look at the thought processes that kept him alive. Porter told VICE that he was channeling his own experiences from New York's AIDS epidemic in the '80s. "I'm one of the people who had to remain hopeful and try to hold onto something when I was going to a funeral a week for three years," Porter said. "I represent an actual person like Pray Tell. It's very possible that Pray Tell could live. But that's an active choice. You gotta want to choose it." Porter suggested that optimism is really the reason the show hits home with so many audiences. "Pose is about the resilience of the human spirit. That's why people connect to it. It's aspirational. It's useful."
The show's creators also make a point of sharing their characters' professional triumphs. Janet Mock pointed out the parallels between herself and Angel (played by Indya Moore), who struggles to launch a modeling career while keeping her identity as a trans woman a secret. "I've lived the way Angel was living for many years as a journalist, and then there was a point when I thought, 'I'm tired of being afraid of my story; I want to own all of it,'" Mock explained. In classic Pose fashion, when Angel gets rejected by brands who find out she's transgender, her boyfriend Papi rallies to help her find modeling gigs where she can be open about her identity, launching his own inclusive managing business called Fidelity. "The idea of Fidelity, telling the truth and letting the chips fall where they may, is a new formula we can share, a new story we can tell," Mock said. "In my life, I've caught so many breaks. Without those breaks, I wouldn't be here today doing the work that I'm doing and existing in the way that I'm able to. And I don't think we see that enough."
The show also depicts the internal resilience in the ballroom community. The community's return to the mainstream spotlight after several cycles of mainstream popularity and obscurity is another success story of the show. "I think we're so beyond that cycle repeating itself now," Rodriguez said. "I think Pose in general has broken that as far as the mainstream goes. [...] And trans people in the world today have superseded history repeating itself. I think people are really seeing our value now as people." Porter added, "I do feel like the conversation (about ballroom) has cracked open in a deeper way because we are the people telling the story now. [...] There's a need to reclaim what has been appropriated and the world is interested in seeing it."
Through highlighting the winning moments during a difficult time period, Pose rewrites history, giving its characters the rare honor of happy endings while embedding a useful and timeless message. Mock captured it perfectly when describing a key lesson of the second season: "Yes, the world might [push you down] constantly. You might be clocked and exposed and someone might take it upon themselves to tell your story," she said. "But you can take back your narrative. And you can use those things that everyone has said is going to hold you back and not give you a way in. You can use it as your power."
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.