The series finale of the groundbreaking drama Pose aired Sunday night, and it featured one of the most poignant protests organized by ACT UP against the failure of the U.S. government to respond to the HIV epidemic in the earlier years.
The finale sees Blanca Rodriguez-Evangelista, played by Mj Rodriguez, and other characters join ACT UP protests against the inaccessibility of antiretroviral drugs.
Toward the end of the finale, the characters join in another ACT UP rally — this one inspired by ACT UP’s famed Ashes Action protest.
In the Pose finale, Blanca and Pray Tell were able to get into a clinical trial for a series of medications for managing HIV — commonly known as "the cocktail." Pray Tell, played by Emmy-Award-winner Billy Porter, died after giving Ricky, played Dyllón Burnside, his HIV medication instead of taking it himself. Pray had been telling Ricky he’d been able to get more than his allotted amount.
After one last ball, Pray died in his sleep — Ricky finding him in the morning.
“We as queer and trans people, as Black and Brown people, have always had to show up for each other, which is ultimately what Pray Tell’s sacrifice for Ricky is all about,” Pose co-creator Steven Canals told Deadline of the death. “It’s as much about HIV/AIDS and how HIV impacted the community and eviscerated the community, as much as it is about how we, as queer and trans people of color, are constantly having to show up for one another. That sacrifice was about showing our deep connections to one another.”
Before passing, Pray Tell had told his family he wanted his body cremated with the ashes to be parcelled off to his loved ones. In the show, Blanca and the others decide to scatter those ashes as well as the ashes of others lost to the epidemic, on the lawn of New York City's mayor, a scene inspired by ACT UP.
In 1992 and 1996, ACT UP asked those who lost someone to AIDS to bring their loved one's cremated remains to Washington, D.C., and throw them onto the White House lawn.
The Ashes Actions were organized around AIDS Memorial Quilt displays for greater impact —the quilts were also featured in the series finale.
The 1992 action had been inspired by David Robinson, who wanted to send the ashes of his partner Warren, to then-President George H. W. Bush.
"He had said, as he was getting sicker, that I should do some kind of political funeral with his body," Robinson told Vice.
When Robinson told ACT UP what he had planned, organizers decided to follow through with Warren’s request.
"We weren't going to do anything symbolic," Robinson said. "The point was these are the actual ashes. This is the literal physical result of the Bush administration's AIDS policies."
According to an account from Eric Sawyer, who was a part of the action, they organized it on a three-day weekend. The assembled group marched the length of the Quilt chanting things including, “Bringing the dead to your door/We won’t take it anymore!” and “Out of the quilt and into the streets/Join us, join us!” Once they made it to the gate, they reached through and poured the ashes over it. Afterward, a few of the assembled activists gave speeches. No one was arrested.
This is only the latest time Pose has sourced real-life moments to inspire onscreen events. In the season two premiere, they recreated an ACT UP protest, where activists staged a die-in at St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. They also recreated a notable condom caper (which originally happened to Jessie Helms, the Mitch McConnell of the '80s) and resurfaced conversations about HIV medication redistribution.