Creator Steven Canals takes us through the end and legacy of the groundbreaking FX show.
This post contains spoilers for the series finale of Pose.
The groundbreaking FX series Pose—even as it documented tragedy—has always been primarily interested in the joy of the Black, brown, trans, and queer ballroom community. That’s overwhelmingly evident in a moment from the finale: The kind heroine Blanca (Mj Rodriguez), officially a nurse now, struts down a Soho street wearing a glittering pink top. She is joined by Elektra (Dominique Jackson), a successful businesswoman with mob connections; Angel (Indya Moore), a model, whose glorious wedding was the centerpiece of the penultimate episode; and Lulu (Hailie Sahar), who has overcome addiction to become an accountant. They all look fabulous as Faith Evans’ “Love Like This” soundtracks their walk. It’s a moment that’s intentionally reminiscent of Sex and City, a reference that will become explicit when the ladies sit down to lunch. But that HBO show presented the New York of the late 1990s through a white, cis lens that was downright hostile to trans women when they appeared in its universe, and Pose reclaims the streets of the city from Sex and the City‘s limited gaze.
Pose ended its three season, history-making run by saying farewell to one of its most beloved characters, Billy Porter’s Pray Tell; celebrating its beating heart, Blanca; and offering a magnificent Diana Ross lip sync. Thrillist got on the phone with co-creator Steven Canals, who directed the finale, so he could walk us through the series’ emotional goodbye.
Thrillist: How did you think about structuring both the season and the finale specifically?
Steven Canals: I think that what was really important when it came to thinking about the show overall, and more specifically the end—and to get even more specific Blanca’s story wrapping up— is that I wanted the show to still have that sense of hope. The word that we said ad nauseam while breaking the very first season of the show was we wanted the show to be “aspirational.” And so thinking about that and thinking about the end, we wanted our audience to walk away with a sense of not just that Blanca and her kids were going to be all right, but that for our audience that happens to be primarily Black and brown and queer and trans, that they know that what we’re saying is, “You are also going to be all right.” That if you follow our show and you look at it as a model for how you can live your life, then basically this is the checklist of things you need. Go out and find your community, find the people who are going to support you, create your own chosen family. Have hopes and dreams and be resilient and stand firm in your truth and always walk authentically. If you do all of those things, you’re going to be OK. That doesn’t mean you won’t have bumps along the way, but you’re going to be all right. And I think that was what was so critically important for me to get across to the audience at the end.
That brings me to something that I wanted to ask you about: the Sex and the City moment in the finale. Why did you want to acknowledge the existence of that series in this final moment?
In the room, we had a lot of conversations about the relationship between the women on the show. The Sex and the City scene was something that [series creator] Ryan Murphy pitched in the room, but it came on the heels of something that [executive producer] Janet Mock had mentioned. I directed the second episode of the season, and there’s a scene after Blanca has gone on a date with Christopher for the first time to meet his parents and the women are all in the ballroom green room getting ready. It’s Blanca and Elektra and Angel. And I just remember while shooting it, it was just really lovely to see the women together and to have them talking about supporting one another. I was at the monitor directing the scene and Janet was on set producing. And I just remember she pulled me aside and she was like, “I wish that we had more scenes like this. It’s so important to see these trans women showing up for each other in this way of sisters and just loving and supporting each other.” That was something that came up a lot in our writers’ room.
So when we were breaking the finale, Janet brought that up again and was like, “I just think it’s really important that we center the women again in that way where it’s just them and we see them just being girlfriends.” And so in the process of that, Ryan brought up, “It’s very Sex and the City.” And we realized, because we were already jumping ahead to ’98, we were like, “Oh, that would have been that era when the show had just come out and everyone was going to cocktail bars.” So we were like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” I think our show has always been subversive in a way that we’re taking the lens that’s always been firmly planted in one direction, and just shifting the lens 15 degrees to say, “There’s a whole other group of people who are having a very similar experience—you’ve just never centered that. You’ve never bothered to take the time to pay attention to that.”
I’m saying this as a fan of Sex and the City. While I enjoy it, it’s a very white, very cis, very straight show. And I think here, we have an opportunity for our characters in all of their complexities as Black trans women, as Afro-Latin trans women, as queer people to really sort of re-conceptualize or reconfigure what that looks like. In reality, it’s really not that different. It’s interesting, it’s very referential, right? Because obviously they’re not doing anything that you haven’t seen before, and yet it feels fresh and new and different because we’ve never seen these conversations and we’ve never seen that kind of community from these women before.
It also feeds into the idea that you were talking about Pose being an aspirational show. Sex and the City is sort of the ultimate aspirational show.
That was the thing that was the most interesting and the most fun for me is, particularly, filming that [shot] beforehand where they’re walking down the street. I think Our Lady J happened to scribe those moments. Hold on, actually, I have this script right here in front of me. Literally, this is what it says: “Exterior: New York street, day. Blanca, all dressed up, struts down the street. Elektra, looking amazing as usual, folds in next to her, followed by Angel and Lulu also done up for ladies lunch. It’s a full on Sex and the City moment, you might even hear the theme song.” For me, there were so many possibilities for what that moment could be. And the thing that I loved was that I have the ability in this moment not only to just center these women and to make them look amazing and have them feeling good about themselves, but to also reconfigure what that moment would have looked like had it taken place on Sex and the City. So again, they’re in Soho and they’re in this really fabulous, glitzy part of New York, but there’s the graffiti on the wall, and you have Faith Evans playing. There’s a grit to the moment with them that I was excited to sort of capture, while also having them look super fabulous.
Pray Tell’s death felt inevitable for much of the season, but what were your thoughts behind having this twist where you think he’s getting better, but then you realize he died because he’s giving his meds to Ricky?
I’ll say first, from the writing perspective, something that always deeply resonated for me when I was working on my MFA in screenwriting at UCLA is that you can’t have your hero have a victory without there being some form of sacrifice. Narratively, I’m always thinking about that. But I think more specifically, in the case of emotionally me thinking about Pray Tell’s journey and more specifically his passing, I wanted to honor the lives of all of the individuals who were on the frontline fighting for not only queer people and trans people’s rights, but anyone who was living with HIV/AIDS. It’s something that Janet said that so deeply resonated with me during the first season. I remember she gave a talk and her saying, “We are our own heroes,” and how deeply that resonated with me. I wanted to continue to honor that.
So Pray’s sacrifice, while heartbreaking, is also a reminder that we have always been the only ones to show up for each other and for ourselves. That, in the face of having no support from the government, in the face of having no access to medical resources, Pray made the ultimate sacrifice to save Ricky, to save a young person who really hasn’t had an opportunity to fully start his life because he was born queer, because he was born Black in this country, that’s put him at a deficit. Pray is saying, “There’s so much more life for you to live and I want you to live it. And so I’m going to make this the ultimate sacrifice, which is my own wellbeing, so that you can go off and accomplish and feel all the things that I feel now.” It isn’t by chance that in that conversation between Pray Tell and Blanca, in the green room before they prepped for their performance, he’s telling her, “I’ve done everything. I’ve lived my life.” It’s the beauty of that moment when he’s stripping himself of the makeup in his home, it’s like, “There’s nothing left for me to do. I’ve got my community. Everything I want to accomplish I’ve done. I feel good about that. And here’s this young man who hasn’t had that opportunity yet.” And those are the choices that our community had to make in the ’80s and in the ’90s in the height of the epidemic that no one else would ever know because it’s not written in a book somewhere. So it was really important to me to honor and highlight that experience and that sacrifice because it isn’t unique or specific to Pray Tell.
What was it like filming the moment where Pray takes off his makeup to “I Say a Little Prayer”?
What was really key for me was that that moment felt quiet and intimate. As a filmmaker, I’ve always loved those very verité moments, where it feels like you’re almost intruding on a really private moment. It didn’t feel like the kind of scene that needed lots of camera work. When you have a performer as incredible as a Billy Porter, you just need to just turn the camera on and just let them do their thing. It didn’t need a lot of bells and whistles. To be honest, my reference—it’s funny because I actually played it for Billy just before we started shooting the scene—was the video for Annie Lennox’s “Why.” I’ve always been obsessed with that video since it first came out. There’s just the visual of her being in front of this mirror and just being one with herself, and there’s like this beautiful intimacy that exists with oneself when you’re looking at your own reflection, which, truth be told, we so rarely do. We don’t really actually see ourselves all that often, right? For the most part we tend to be looking out into the world and looking at other people. And so I just really wanted to center and honor that moment for Pray Tell, of finally really seeing himself and then stripping everything away, and leaving nothing but just his bare skin and how beautiful and how emotional that is for a person to truly see themselves, possibly for the first time.
I have to ask about Blanca and Pray’s incredible Diana Ross rendition. Why that song and specifically that version of that song?
The filming of it was so ridiculously exciting and fun—I have a behind-the-scenes video of me sitting at video village watching the first take, and how excited I think we all were by it. It was just incredible because we had the actual rain coming from the ceiling in our ballroom set. It was really breathtaking. Our show has always centered divas, and I love the fact that I get to use Pose as a way to honor all of the incredible vocalists and musicians who I’ve always loved—from Chaka Khan and Anita Baker to Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston and Toni Braxton. Within the room, we talk about Diana Ross and we love her. I think we had been looking for a way to honor Miss Ross. Cut to: We’re breaking the finale, we’re in the writers’ room, and we were discussing what this final moment should be between Pray Tell and Blanca. Obviously we’ve seen them duet in the first and second seasons. I think we all were like, “Well, we’ve seen them sing before, and I don’t know that anything is ever really going to trump that moment of them singing ‘Home’ together in Season 1.”
I don’t remember who initially pitched it, but the idea was we could have them lip sync something because we’ve never seen them perform in the ballroom.Our wheels started turning and Ryan was like, “Well, if we do that it has to be a duet, and it has to be a really great duet. What would that be?” Because we had Pray and Blanca perform “Home,” which Diana Ross sings in The Wiz, Janet was like, “Just doing a callback to that, why don’t we have them do ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’?” We were like, “Oh cool, it could be the Diana Ross version.” Immediately, they said that and I gasped out loud. I was like, “Can we do it as a nod to her Central Park performance?” As a little boy, I was obsessed with her, and I was hyper-aware of that performance. She also had an HBO special that was released in the mid-’80s that I had on VHS tape that I wore out watching over and over again. And so I was like, “Oh my God, can we do a nod to [that] performance where it starts raining on them?” And Ryan just laughed out loud and he was like, “That is perfect. Let’s do that.”
Each season has ended with an amazing ball moment for Blanca. Now she gets legendary status while also introducing the new House of Evangelist. What was the thinking behind cementing everything up with another triumphant moment for Blanca?
Well, that’s such a huge, important moment for anyone who’s part of the ballroom community to get legendary or icon status. And so it felt right, it felt so full circle to get to a place where she would not only get that because she’s earned it and deserves it, but also I think a way to show that ballroom is something that the late Grandfather Hector of House Xtravaganza said to me during our first season, which is, “Ballroom is family.” And so, as you see in the Sex and the City scene when all the women are talking about how they’ve been disconnected from ballroom for several years, at the end of the day, you don’t walk away from family, right? Family is a part of who you are. It made you who you are. And so whether it’s chosen or birth, that all roads always lead back to family.
To me, that’s really what that moment of her receiving legendary status was all about: She is the supreme overall mother and that was their way of honoring her and reminding her and the audience of that. She’s always going to be there as the guide, as the compass for all of these characters. And whether it’s our characters who we’ve been with for the past three seasons or this new crop of kids who are now her grandkids, she’s always going to be the person who centers and grounds everyone. And that’s what ballroom is.
It’s also in that moment the very final scene, having her step into the Pray Tell role.
I really loved that moment. I love that scene. I really loved that visual of Blanca walking off into New York. It represents that the world keeps spinning, life goes on, and everything is cyclical, as we’ve come to learn. That was such an important theme for the season overall. When you look at the parallels between HIV/AIDS and then COVID-19 and this current global pandemic, it’s like we always seem to circle around and these cycles continue. But I think the moment specifically of Blanca on the street talking to this new up-and-coming house mother who’s in the same position that Blanca was in years earlier [represents] that this is the way that the community continues to show up for each other. I think it’s another version of Pray Tell’s sacrifice for Ricky. This is what the community does, they always are going to show up for each other and be present, and this was her paying it forward. In the way Pray Tell didn’t owe Blanca that support and that advice in the pilot, similarly Blanca doesn’t owe that either, but she offers up that support anyway to say, “You’re going to be OK. And if I can do it, you can do it too.”
Music is so crucial to the show, and you end with the Whitney Houston song “My Love is Your Love.” What were the conversations around what was going to be your final music cue?
There were a couple of ideas around what that final track should be. All credit goes to our EP Alexis Martin Woodall, who called me after seeing my director’s cut and was like, “Steven, I have the perfect song to go in there.” And she didn’t even tell me what the song was, she was just like, “I’m just going to put it in, I’m going to edit it in and then I want you to rewatch the scene.” Then I watched it and was like, “Oh, that’s perfect.” And I think that what made it so poignant and beautiful is that it’s full circle with our pilot, which ended with Whitney Houston “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” and this triumphant moment of Damon getting into school. Whitney has always been an important part of our show obviously, and so to end the show with her singing and that song in particular felt really important, and it felt poignant and a nice way to wrap up. It bookended the beginning of the series.
So much of Pose is about legacy and what you leave behind, and I wanted to ask you: What do you think the legacy of Pose will be?
What I hope the legacy of the show is, is that queer and trans people recognize that they are special and beautiful and deserve to be respected and deserve to be heard and deserve to be loved. I know that there are so many folks who are sad and conflicted about the show ending, but what I love so much is that the show gets to continue to exist, right? So we’ll always have these three seasons. And I know that queer and trans people and young Black and brown people and people who are living with HIV will continue to find the show. I hope that that’s the enduring legacy of the series, is that we continue to be a balm for people out in the world. So that anytime we as individuals, we as a community are faced with negativity or we are faced with hardships that we know, Oh, I’m good. I deserve to be here. I am not a mistake. Everything has happened for a reason. And I think on an emotional level for me, that’s what’s most important, is that young queer and trans people, young Black and brown people, people living with HIV continue to walk in the world with their heads held high saying, “I deserve to be here. I deserve to use my voice unapologetically. That all of the things that my able-bodied, straight, white, cis male, whatever the identity counterparts get to have, that I am as deserving of those things.”