Review: HBO Max’s “Veneno”

So, this was the week of TV, movie and music roulette here in the A&E section. Most of the staff writers and columnists in the section did a sort of secret santa shuffle in which we recommended each other a piece of art or entertainment (hey, that’s the name of the section!), and then we’d have to review it for this week’s paper. My former CORE student (freshmen, ask an upperclassman on that terminology) and fashion icon, sophomore Erin O’Brien, recommended that I watch at least the pilot episode of “Veneno,” a Spanish television series on HBO Max. Long story short, I ended up watching the entire season in one night. 

At first, I was a little hesitant. It’s prestige TV, based on a true story about the lived experiences of trans sex workers in Madrid, specifically one, Cristina, better known as “La Veneno.” From the get-go, I wasn’t expecting feel-good material. Television, like the world, likes to exploit queer and trans characters for their trauma or sob stories. But this show, “Veneno,” explores every facet of these women’s lives from the tragic to the joyous. 

The pilot switches between 1996 and 2006, which is a recurring theme, as most of the episodes include flashbacks from different points in Cristina’s life. It is in these two years that a young person sees La Veneno on TV and then meets her in real life, respectively. This character, who we eventually know as Valeria, is a young trans girl who comes out when finally meeting Cristina — a figure of beauty and power she’s idolized her entire life. From here, the series takes off, exploring Cristina’s life and experiences as Valeria writes a book about her. This framing device allows for Cristina to be the center of the story but to always have someone to ground the story in the present and from an outside perspective with Valeria’s character. Through flashbacks and via what Cristina tells Valeria, we come to learn that she isn’t the perfect goddess she once appeared to be. Cristina has been showered in fame and notoriety but is lacking in the one thing she really wants and the one thing that really matters to her: love.   

As someone who craves LGBTQ+ representation, there was a scene in particular from the pilot that I can’t stop thinking about. A character is describing the women who congregate in a certain park for sex work, and as each of them are introduced, the camera cuts to them and gives them what I can only describe as hero shots. These beautiful, tall, trans sex workers are portrayed in all their power and glory — not unlike a Marvel movie hero would be. It is something I had never seen in my life — maybe because I’m cis — but maybe because TV just hasn’t done anything like this before. 

These women are portrayed as movers and shakers in their world, people with both economic and sexual agency. They may not have many more choices than this, but it gives them their own type of power. What makes this even better is that the next scene has them all in their pajamas on a couch, mentoring Valeria and telling her stories of struggle and success. There’s really nothing more real than that. 

This show is about what it means to be human, and that shouldn’t be revolutionary, but it is because the humans in question are trans sex workers. It’s a glimpse into a life that the media once fawned over but then overlooked when it didn’t suit them anymore. In spite of this, Cristina, La Veneno, went from token to trailblazer, with her head high and her tits out.