“I’ve Got The Power” blasts over the speakers of a Bronx soundstage in early. Countless Black and brown faces practice complicated dance moves as a disco ball spins above them. Golden Globe nominee Billy Porter, clad in a fabulous hat and a jacket adorned with domino designs, stands on the stage above them. 1990s dance wear, '80s shoulder pads, and many Prince homages can be spotted across the sea of bodies. It’s difficult to remember you haven’t been transported to May 1990, when this scene is placed — that you’re actually visiting the set of Pose season 2 in 2019.
But, then the man of the hour appears, breaking the time warp spell. It’s executive producer/writer/FX king Ryan Murphy, who’s wearing a gown-length hoodie and knit cap. Murphy is there to unspool his vision for this production, the fourth episode of the new season. As the super producer goes through everyone’s marching (dancing?) orders for the ball scene at hand, a once boisterous room is silent and laser-focused. Once Murphy is finished speaking, Porter, who plays ball emcee Pray Tell, purrs, “I’m ready, baby.”
Pose is off to the races. And, after speaking the cast and crew behind the series on that fair spring day, it’s clear the proudly queer series, returning June 11, doesn’t plan on letting go of its ultra glam intensity all season. As Ryan Jamaal Swain, who plays beloved upstart Damon Richards, promises during the visit, “We’re taking you on a ride.”
Keep reading for a full guide to the wild adventure that is Pose season 2, which picks up three years after the season 1 finale. Strap in, because everything from S&M clubs to the possible ending of Pose — straight from Ryan Murphy’s mouth — is ahead.
Welcome to the Hellfire Club
“So this is our Hellfire Club, where one of our characters will be working,” production designer Jamie Walker McCall says casually, motioning to an anything-but-casual set. She is describing a winding space filled with little private rooms made for any pain-as-pleasure fantasies a customer may desire. “I was trying to create this wet, hot, really tempting place to go into. But you’re kinda scared,” Walker McCall explains. “Over here, we have our school teacher fantasy. We have a golden shower room.”
While the designer couldn’t spill which Pose character would be working at the kinky establishment — the trailer below suggests it'll be Dominque Jackson's Elektra in all her ponytailed glory — McCall could confirm the space pops up in a few early episodes of season 2. Although the biggest room of the set, which stands as the domain of Pose's central Hellfire employee, is massive, it isn’t destined for group play just yet.
“I mean they might write for more, but right now, it was only built for two people,” McCall explains with a shrug in her voice.
The Hellfire Club’s Big Introduction
“We pulled together some amazing inspiration boards for that,” Barry Lee Moe, the head of Pose’s hair department, explains for the Hellfire looks. “The one look that was the iconic entering Hellfire one was this kind of epic hairstyle that took two hours to do and three people because we needed lots of hands and you’ll see why.”
No wonder Moe and makeup department head Sherri Berman Laurence light up at just the mention of the S&M club, saying in gleeful unison, “That was fun!”
The “Vogue” of it all
“The first episode is the moment [Madonna's] 'Vogue' comes out,” writer/producer Our Lady J confirms after the Pose crew began teasing as much last summer. What we didn’t know until now is just how much work Ryan Murphy put in to make that happen.
“Ryan fought very hard and talked with Madonna directly about getting ‘Vogue’ this season because he knew we needed it,” producer/writer/director Janet Mock says. “And she was very generous and let us have multiple uses of the song.”
Blanca’s “Vogue” journey
Pose didn’t need “Vogue” to simply set the time of the story. Instead, the song serves as a symbol of hope for the drama’s many marginalized characters. No one finds more meaning in the song than leading lady Blanca Rodriguez (Mj Rodriguez), a trans woman dealing with a three-year HIV diagnosis.
“With this limited time that Blanca has left, how can she now push [her family] towards greatness?,” Mock, who had just wrapped directing the season’s third episode the night prior, asks. “Especially when you have something like a cultural figure like Madonna in the mainstream paying attention to your little world that for so long was in the dark and in the shadows. So now, she feels it’s more possible and, 'Are those trophies enough anymore?'”
Blanca’s portrayer, MJ Rodriguez, sounds proud of her character’s growth, adding, “Now, as a mother, she’s growing up, and she’s like, ‘Okay, no more time for being a child anymore. I gotta be a grown-ass woman. I have to make sure I take care of these three kids in an apartment and other sisters who I have outside of here.’ She’s establishing her womanhood and her adult life.”
The dark side of the “Vogue” craze
Although Pose may start the season high on Madonna, it doesn’t sound like those good vibes will sustain its heroes for long.
“Madonna, the most famous woman in the world, does that song ,and suddenly they think, ‘Oh this is our moment. We’re going to be seen and loved and invited in,’” co-creator Ryan Murphy says before turning the cold hard truth of the early 90s. “Just as quickly, [“Vogue”] fades from the charts and New Kids On The Block are the new thing.”
So what happens when the bottom falls out on Pose?
What about romance?
Blanca deserves love, but her portrayer isn’t sure if that’s around the bend any time soon. “Listen, I wish and hope and pray that that does happen in season 2. We don’t know as of yet. We’re just still gettin’ through,” Mj Rodgriuez admits.
At least young lovebirds Damon (Swain) and Ricky (Dyllon Burnside) are still figuring out their relationship three years later. “Ricky is discovering this newfound joy of dance and this new dream, which is all wrapped up in his relationship to Damon,” Burnside says. “We’ll get to see what the beauty and the complications of having a long distance relationship is like.”
The music doesn’t end with Madonna
Although so much of Pose season 2 seems built around “Vogue,” there is more to new episodes than a single Madonna song. “There’s an entire episode where we just do the [Billboard] Top 10. It’s a huge musical dance episode,” Janet Mock teases. “It’s gonna be great.”
Hailie Sahar, who plays house mother Lulu and also appears in Freeform's Good Trouble, is hoping this Pose season gets even more musical. When asked if she was planning to sing after a lengthy solo career, Sahar says, “In my personal projects, definitely. And for this, hopefully.”
AIDS — and the government’s non-response to the disease — is one of Pose’s greatest villains. This season, we’ll see the show’s main characters fight back more than ever.
“We dive deep into AIDS activism — into protest. There are powerful moments there ... that I’m so excited for people to see, and it’s in our first episode,” Mock, who is prepping to direct the season’s seventh episode, previews. “And it continues to track through.”
Sandra Bernhart’s AIDS activist Nurse Judy, whom we met last season and was upped to a series regular role this time around, will help bring even more activism to the Pose world.
The future of Pose
All stories need an ending, and co-creator Ryan Murphy already has Pose’s in mind. Mercifully, it’s years away.
“I always wanted the show to end right around 1995 to 1996 because that’s the year that the HIV medications came out and worked and stopped the plague,” the writer explains. “I wanted to do a story about a community under siege and how do you survive and how do you find joy and hope and family when everyone around you is dying?”
The majesty of Pose was the answer.
Live. Work. Pose. (For the balls)
“One of the most difficult parts about writing this show is coming up with more categories at the balls. Because we try to stay true to what the categories would have been,” Our Lady J admits, before pointing to a gigantic carousel dress, which you can see on Dominique Jackson above. “Oh that’s my new favorite dress … That happens in the first episode.”
Can she spill the category? “I can’t. They’re really fun though.” Or, as star Jackson promises herself, “In ballroom? You haven’t seen anything yet, darlings.”