Co-created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Steven Canals, and set around the birth the modern American LGBTQ rights movement, Pose has proven to be a compelling look at the intersection of ball culture, the 1980s HIV and AIDS epidemic, and the politics that would define an entire generation.
The series is regularly praised for both its groundbreaking casting and its diverse production team. (The show features the largest cast of transgender actors as series regulars and a significant number of LGBTQ production team members at every level.)
But its strengths equally lie in its approach to storytelling: an honest, but sensitive tackling of challenging subjects and an authentic look at the history of a community fighting to be safe and seen.
This past Sunday, the series added yet another item to its growing list of progressive footprints. Activist, author and Pose writer and producer Janet Mock became the first black trans woman to direct a TV episode.
TV Fanatic spoke to Mock about her directorial debut, how she approached handling one of the season's most delicate episodes, and where we can expect the series to go from here.
["Love Is The Message"] is the first time we see a more musical aspect to [Pose], and it doesn't happen at the ball or the dance school. It happens in a wing of a hospital.
Can you talk about shooting that scene and why the creative team chose to make that the first time we hear the lovely voices of your cast members?
I wanted to make sure the audience earned that moment. That they would have seen Pray Tell and Blanca through five episodes by then.
They would know them, and feel them, and love them, so when they use a different part of their instruments as actors, it really felt like it was this cathartic, deeply emotional moment.
Everyone knows that Billy Porter is a national treasure and has a voice of gold. I think a lot of people don't know that about MJ Rodriguez. So the fact that she does it, it comes off as a complete surprise.
She does a song that's so deeply rooted in and had so much emotionality in terms of home. It’s one that I fought for and that I really wanted in this particular script.
I think also about them doing it as a service, as proctors of service to all those that we are memorializing, who've passed from HIV/AIDS and are still struggling with that.
Then, those who are actually in that particular AIDS ward with Costas, we wanted to give them a sense of joy and something to look forward to, and a piece of entertainment.
The show is billed as a dance musical in the frame of the 1980's Fame, so we didn't really expect that people would sing, but how could we not when we have instruments like Billy Porters' and MJ Rodriguez. We had to use them. It just was necessary.
In “Love Is The Message,” Costas finally passes. Can you talk about offering viewers such an intimate look at the process of people living with HIV and AIDS dying ... without actually showing us the death?
What as both a writer and a director are you hoping to impart to viewers by featuring scenes that don't put the dead, but instead their loss, on display?
I think that for me it comes through my own perspective of wanting to, with this particular episode, memorialize those who we lost, but also those who have lost a lot by being left behind.
I think that there is a sense of terror that's there. There's that moment in Costas' last scene with Pray Tell ... where Costas' is like, "I see it in your eyes. I see that fear." And [Pray] knows and he's looking at himself at the same time as his beloved.
I think that we've already seen their ending, right there, and I don't think that we need to see more. It's the same thing with Helena in Pose Season 1 Episode 3, our Christmas episode, where she's already seen [her student] at his end.
Does the audience need to see a funeral? We didn't really think so. Also, our episodes are way too long already, so I think just in terms of economy of time, we didn't think that it was a necessary thing.
It's not that we dismiss Costas or [Helena's student]. It’s that their purposes were served in terms of the characters. What they propelled for Pray Tell, specifically, is to live.
The choice to live, the choice to move on, the choice to play a new song, and to continue on in a space where he is choosing to live.
In the episode you wrote, “The Fever,” there were discussions about the transmission of HIV. We’re dealing with Reagan-era politics here, so do you and the rest of the creative team plan to explore how HIV was able to spread so quickly and so widely beyond sexual transmission?
I think that we go deeper into certain characters [and] different worlds that we have in New York City. One that we can't ignore is the crack epidemic, and the consequences of that, and of course, there's also heroin and all these other spaces. So we do explore more of that.
Like in Episode 4, Angelica Ross takes center stage, where at first we just think that she's a side character. So we are going to continue to do that, where we deepen that world, and I think in deepening that world, we'll be able to explore different themes and different topics that we've long wanted.
What's so great about having that ensemble cast, from Angel Bismark Curiel, Hailie Sahar, and Dyllon Burnside, is that we get to explore so many other pieces of that.
There's worlds like where [Lulu] works. She works in a strip club, but we've never seen her in a strip club yet. What is that like for a trans woman to be in that space?
So, I think there will be space for that without, again, our big thing is "How do we do it and show it without having to explain so much about it?"
We will be exploring a bit of that, but I don't think there's too much of it in Season 1 since we just wrapped two weeks ago.
The first real conversation that we have between Patty and Angel happens in this episode. It’s a confrontation, but it's less of an outward and more subtle altercation.
At various points, it's a brief exploration of what it means to be a woman in a man's world. What did you want to convey to viewers, particularly women – all women – about womanhood in that scene?
I have so much empathy for Patty in this moment because on our show, it's one – beyond what happens in Pose Season 1 Episode 5 – where she kind of enters into Angel's world. She's truly leaving her world and entering into one that's completely foreign.
She goes from the House of Evangelista to the ballroom where she meets Angel on the curb, and they go to the diner, which is also Angel's diner. It's where all of our diner scenes are shot.
In that sense, we've placed Angel at home, and the outsider looking in – the outsider engaging with those on the margins – is Patty, right?
I think that what I wanted to convey, number one was the levels at which Patty has to deal with disclosure. She's not only dealing with the fact that her husband is having an affair.
He's having an affair with a brown woman. He's having an affair with a sex worker. He's having an affair with a transsexual.
So there's layers of complication there that instill fear and terror for her own health and safety. I did not wanna dismiss that in terms of Kate Mara's portrayal of that. We had a deep conversation about how to play the scene, in that we knew it was sensitive.
I think, too, I'm never trying to have our characters discuss their realness or having to say – needing to say – that they're real. We already know that they're real because they're centered in the world and it's through their perspective. For me, the idea of womanhood is not one that needs to be justified.
I think that what it shows by placing the two together is that they're both women grappling with their own sense of identity, and in a relationship with a man who's not treating either of them right.
And so, what will you decide to do from there? Are you gonna stay in this relationship, or are you not? Are you gonna stay in this marriage, or are you not? It’s all the same kind of questions that we all have to grapple with when it comes to sharing our bodies with those around us.
Most of the characters on Pose are already aware of who they are and how they identify. But in "Love is a Message,” we see Stan confronting his own questioning. Would you describe Stan's journey in Pose Season 1 as a coming out journey?
I think Stan is very much confused. I think that like all of us, he comes into a world that has told him who he should be and what they expect of him.
He talked with Angel about going to the adult porn store and picking up a magazine and seeing a trans woman's body for the first time and being thrilled by that. He's confused by his body's reaction to it ... and so his journey is very much a journey of someone discovering what this means.
In Pose Season 1 Episode 4, there are two different men. One who's very sure of himself, played by Christopher Meloni. He's sure in his masculinity; he's sure in his sexuality; he knows exactly what he wants.
Stan does not know. He's wobbly; he's not a big spirit; he's younger; he's still dealing with society's expectations of him. He's still reaching and wanting to "pose" in order to fit into that straight, cisgender, white, rich man world.
Which Blanca talks about in the pilot to Damon – about realness and about the performing of that in the ball scene. So for me, what was important was that Stan's character does not know.
He's uncertain, he's unsure, and he's with a woman who's completely sure and completely knows what she wants, and who she wants, and who she is.
I don't know if it's a coming out, cause I think he still doesn't have language. I think a lot of men attracted to trans women today still don't have language to describe this because we also have never celebrated trans women's bodies as they are.
There's just a gap in that, and so we hope to offer those affirmative images.
One of the most powerful scenes is where Angel revealed her body for the first time. It's not a point of trauma, she's not victimized because of it.
She's given a compliment, and that I think will do decades of healing [towards] what has been done to trans women's bodies from the Crying Game all the way through the rest of the representation that we've seen.
You can catch the remaining episodes when you watch Pose online or as it airs on Sunday at 9/8c on FX.
Abbey White is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter.