After nine episodes full of heartbreak and hope, exploring the struggles and triumphs of the LGBTQ ball scene in early '90s New York — including the impact of Madonna's "Vogue" and fatal attacks against trans women of color, among other topics — the Janet Mock-directed finale, "In My Heels," returned its focus to Blanca Evangelista's HIV diagnosis, which had advanced to AIDS, as revealed by Nurse Judy Sandra Bernhard in the season premiere of FX's groundbreaking drama.
"We love taking our audience on an emotional roller coaster, and I think we've accomplished that," Steven Canals tells The Hollywood Reporter of Tuesday night's concluding episode, which he wrote alongside fellow co-creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. "For us, it was about closing out a critical narrative that was the launching pad for the season. It felt important to us."
Following a medical setback in the spring of 1991, nine months after season two's penultimate episode took place, Mj Rodriguez's typically optimistic character, Blanca, reflects on her mortality and her role as mother to the now-dissipated House of Evangelista. But, after reuniting with her children, dancer Damon Ryan Jamaal Swain — who has gone on to become an international choreographer — and the newly engaged couple, model Angel Indya Moore and hustler-turned-businessman Lil Papi Angel Bismark Curiel, Blanca rediscovers her passion to perform and her will to leave a legacy behind.
"We also had to circle back because we have very sharp viewers and their question would inevitably be, 'What is going to happen with Blanca and her heh?'" adds Canals. "Now that we've addressed it, we can start telling new stories and begin new threads for season three."
Below, the writer-producer-director talks more with THR about the highs and lows depicted in season two of Pose, while also sharing his vision for the future of the Emmy-nominated series.
Pose scored an early season three renewal — unlike last year, when it came after the season had already aired. How did a more certain future help you craft the season two finale?
With the second season, we've proven — or hopefully established with our audience — that our approach is always going to be family first. It's always going to be about heart, connection, empathy and love. And you see that at the end of the second season. Maybe it's not in the way that one would have expected. Most people, probably, if they hear, "Oh, the second season ends on a happy note," you would assume that probably means the House of Evangelista comes back together again. And it does, but it's not in the way that we've seen it before.
The first season also ended on a very uplifting note. Was that purposeful in case the show hadn't been renewed?
It was purposeful, but it didn't have anything to do with us not knowing about a second season. Though we didn't know if we were coming back, we, as a writers' room, never write from a place of fear. The reason we ended the first season on a happy note was because that was the story that we were telling during the first season. We didn't shy away from the grittiness and the reality of what it meant to be an LGBTQ person of color living in New York in the '80s. With that said, the show is aspirational, it's hopeful, it's about family and it's about resilience. And it would have felt disingenuous for us to tell this family drama, where at the end, we left you with a cliffhanger or a pit in your stomach.
The finale for season two featured a time jump to May 1991, after spending most of the season in 1990 when Madonna's "Vogue" was released. Will there be another time jump in season three?
I've thought a little bit about it. Right now, we're on our hiatus. As a writers' room, when we pick back up, that's when we'll dive into that discussion. Truth be told, between seasons one and two, Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Janet Mock, Our Lady J and I had an email thread and we were constantly sending each other links to articles that we found and things that we thought would be interesting to explore during season two. We had a text chain where whenever we saw something fascinating, we made sure to share it. I'm certain that will happen for season three, that during this hiatus, we'll continue to share ideas with one another so that when we get back together in the room for season three, all of us will be on the same page and ready to go. But the short answer to your question is no, we haven't necessarily planted a flag yet as to whether or not we'll stick with a direct pickup from the finale or if we'll time-jump again.
The song "Vogue" almost acted as a secondary character in season two. Is there another event or theme that you'd like to center season three on?
There are two pretty big events that we've talked about in the writers' room. We're obviously not there yet, but it feels like we're working toward those moments. One of them is the AIDS Quilt, which was put out on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.. That's one event that we've talked about and then the other is obviously the HIV/AIDS medication cocktail that came around 1996. Again, that's '96 and I doubt we'd do such a dramatic time jump between seasons two and three.
"Vogue" came out the same year as Jennie Livingston's ballroom doc Paris Is Burning, which I know has inspired your work on Pose — and Livingston, herself, even directed episode 207, "Blow." Though the ballroom community was most likely talking about Paris Is Burning in 1990, the characters on Pose never mentioned it in season two. Was that intentional?
That's a great question. When we were first developing Pose, we did have conversations about Paris Is Burning and there was a version of the show where we had characters who were from the film. We were going to have Pepper LaBeija and Dorian Corey be characters on the show. Part of the reason we decided not to do that is that we would then be beholden to the truth. We still are, frankly, but the truth of a person's life is tough because there's always going to be some creative license. So, we felt it would make more sense to honor those folks' lives and tell a story about ballroom and what it meant to survive in New York in the '80s and '90s instead. When we went into season two, we were very aware of the fact that our show is in conversation with Paris Is Burning. We obviously wanted to pay homage to all the individuals who are in Paris Is Burning and Jennie's landmark work. For example, Elektra's narrative in the third episode with hiding the body in the closet is directly inspired by Dorian Corey's experience. There were ways that we gave a nod to the documentary without having to directly address it in the show.
The season two finale ends with Blanca seemingly interested in adopting two new house children, Quincy and Chilly, played by KJ Aikens and Gia Parr, respectively. Was this to set up a House of Evangelista 2.0 for season three?
That's how it feels, right? This is the next era for the House of Evangelista. The reality is — and it's all in the setup of who Blanca is in the pilot — that Blanca has a deep desire to leave a legacy behind. Blanca being a mother is such a large part of what Pose is about, and certainly, I would argue, the largest part of her character arc. The show is about motherhood and what it means to mother and to be mothered. Obviously, the last bit of the season we saw the dissolution of the House of Evangelista. Now, Blanca needs to figure out what her role is and who she is when her other kids have moved on. How does her mothering continue to evolve? Even if, moving forward, Quincy and Chilly aren't specifically her children or aren't in a revamped House of Evangelista, what we wanted the audience to take away from that moment is that Blanca isn't done being a mom and that it's a core part of who she is as a woman.
So, is it too early to say whether Aikens and Parr will return for season three as series regulars?
At this point, yes.
Pose made stars out of Mj Rodriguez and Indya Moore, and Billy Porter's portrayal of Pray Tell earned him an Emmy nom. By possibly expanding the House of Evangelista, are you looking for new talent to "discover" or give a platform to?
Absolutely. The opportunity to do that even extends beyond Pose. I'm going to speak for all of us and say every single one of us in that writers' room recognizes just how life-changing Pose has been — for us, the cast and the audience. Every single one of us, beyond Pose and moving forward and thinking about other projects, will always consider centering people who often aren't centered. Speaking for myself as a queer person of color, holding those identities, I know that my work will in some way always resonate with those communities — with the LGBTQ community and hopefully with black and brown folks — because those are the boxes that I check. I grew up not feeling seen and I know how critical representation is, especially for young people growing up and, in this climate, in particular, where we are consistently having to fight to be seen and heard, and for people to know that our lives and our voices matter. I know that my work will always uplift the communities that matter the most to me.
What would you like to explore more of in season three?
I definitely would love to see Blanca find love. Something that I would really love for us to explore in season three would be Blanca in a relationship and how that affects the relationships she has with her kids. For example, Lil Papi is so protective of Blanca. How is he going to interact with Blanca having a lover? And if this lover moves into her home and, presumably, if there is a House of Evangelista 2.0 — whatever that looks like, whatever shape that takes — how are they now interacting with Blanca having this live-in lover? Those are some of the things that I think would be really fun and interesting to explore moving forward.
After leaving the Evangelista nest, how will Damon, Angel and Lil Papi fit into Blanca's new world?
What's important for the audience to remember is that Damon, Angel and Lil Papi will always be Evangelistas. They'll always be Blanca's children. They'll always have a special relationship with her. And I don't even know that we could say definitively that they won't ever be back in Blanca's house — literally and figuratively. If we're thinking about actual ballroom, folks sort of go off and do other things with their lives and then they return. So, it's realistic for us to consider that Damon would go off to Europe to choreograph and then eventually rejoin the house a couple years later and bring all those new skills with him. We'll see once we get into talking about the story for season three.
Ryan Murphy recently said that Pose will ultimately end in 1996 when, as you mentioned, breakthroughs in HIV/AIDS medication were made. Can you tell me about the conversations you had with him about that? Why does that feel like a perfect place to put a period on Pose?
We always conceived the show to be grounded in what is happening culturally and socio-politically for this particular community that is living in New York City. And, so, our approach was never that we were telling a story about ballroom, it was never a story specifically about the plight of LGBTQ people of color. It was always a story about navigating living in New York as a queer or trans person of color, specifically in the '80s or the '90s. Looking at that whole arc and how we start that whole story — Blanca finding out that she's HIV-positive and now having to navigate the world as a positive trans woman — the HIV/AIDS cocktail seemed like a great destination. For us, narratively, it feels like the story we've been telling has been working toward that moment of relief. So many lives were saved. The government's response to people living with HIV/AIDS and the response from the medical community was so problematic for so long. That moment felt like such a victory for everyone. And, finally, the community went from just surviving to once again thriving. In terms of the greater story, we've been looking toward that moment of salvation. But now that we're two seasons in, we might get there and ask ourselves, "Is this really where we want to end the show? Or do we have more story to tell?" We've certainly done that with other arcs throughout the show. What's important is that we're open and flexible.
How does this loose idea for an ending impact the way you'll outline future seasons? Does it add pressure or is it more helpful?
I don't know if I would say it adds pressure. To be honest with you, that sense of pressure has always been there, and it's always been something that we've been hyper aware of. We have two of our main characters — Blanca and Pray Tell, who are living as HIV-positive people — and the audience has now fallen in love with those characters. And for us, as storytellers, we don't want to lose those characters and we certainly don't want to lose Mj and Billy as performers. But we also recognize that we have a responsibility to tell the truth. How realistic is it going to be to the audience if our characters are never affected by their statuses? You see that play out in the finale that it happens — people get ill. We've been continuously cautious about how we use that narratively.
How many seasons do you see Pose going for?
When I was pitching Pose, I always envisioned that it would be a five-season show. With that said, could it be a four-season? Could it be a six-season? Sure. It could be more or less. What's really important for all of us — and maybe more specifically for Ryan, Brad and I — is that we felt we told the story that we intended to tell. Once we've hit that point, we'll know that it's time to end it. The thing that we don't want to do is continue to tell stories beyond the story that we intended to tell because a lot of shows do that. And then what winds up happening is that the work suffers, and the audience can mostly always feel it. There's a lack of narrative drive or there isn't that same passion for the narrative. I don't know how much longer it will take for us to get to the conclusion of the story. But we, in the writers' room, will certainly know once we've reached the end and so will our audience.