The penultimate episode of Transparent’s second season forced most of its characters together at a women’s music festival, tying together the wounded Pfefferman women with the culmination of the season’s Holocaust flashback story—in the model of post-Wire prestige dramas, the finale is all fallout. This year, the penultimate episode finds the characters still scattered, starting to wrap up a season in which the members of the Pfefferman family barely interact with each other, caught up in their own problems, their own satellite stories. It’s not a good look.
Thus far, the third season of Transparent has been pretty sluggish, and doesn’t have enough of a thematic core for this episode to start gelling everything into a full season. Though “intersectionality” was touted as the central idea of this run of episodes, its presence is limited to the season opener and a few goofy scenes where Ali and the academics in her social circle pay lip service to the word without anyone even trying to practically understand what it means. (More on that in a bit.) Rather than last season’s tense collision course, everyone is on what feels like an extended detour—and no one so much as Josh, who literally flees to the middle of the country to avoid dealing with his own loneliness.
After briefly hinting at his disconnection from his job, and from the music that seemingly made him happy (what do we think happened to Fussy Puss? did he just scare them away at the end of last season?), Josh has been spiraling in response to the death of Rita—first attaching himself to Shay as a quick fling, then to Colton through feinting at being a Christian. Jay Duplass, one of the more underrated members of the cast, does really excellent work in this episode, looking just the slightest bit downcast as he tries to push himself through the cheery motions of being a Midwestern Christian. (Think of the Curb Your Enthusiasm episode where Larry tries to become a WASP, but sadder and more desperate.)
I should say here, since I didn’t get to talk about it in episode two, that I think killing off Rita was a cruel, arbitrary decision from the writers’ room, used solely to give Josh something to do this season. Think of the way she basically appears in one scene before her death solely as a way of setting it up, rather than checking in on the manipulative, needy, complex person the show had created. (This is essentially the same thing that happens with Shay, who lectures Josh on not treating her as a disposable fetish object before being quickly dispatched by the show.) That’s important, because the entire Josh-Colton story is already on thin ice here.
The moment where Josh and Colton bond over her ashes is very sweet, and one of the highlights of the season—mostly because the camera, and the actors’ decisions, position the characters more as brothers than as father and son. Alex MacNicoll, in particular, is better than he’s ever been on this show, initiating an honest conversation (with Ali weirdly standing in the background) that’s painful, but necessary. Colton, comfortable in his own skin as a member of his family and as a fledgling leader in his church, has to be firm with his biological father about what he wants and what, he thinks, will make both of them happy in the long run. Josh is a sad, adrift puppy: the Pfeffermans can, increasingly, only do painful and unnecessary.
Speaking of unnecessary: It’s been nice to see this season return Maura to a central place in the narrative, but her plot this year feels anxious and concerned about how to handle her as a character going forward. Anjelica Huston is on the show, but Maura’s relationship with Vicki hasn’t moved much beyond the moving sketch of it we got at the end of last season. Shay moved into Josh’s orbit. Maura is, increasingly, alone.
The decision to cast Jeffrey Tambor as Maura had at least some factors mitigating the obvious drawbacks of casting a cis actor to play a trans woman—certainly, I was swayed by those arguments—but at best they won the show a measure of leeway, they’ve lost some measure of power as cis actors increasingly see playing trans women as a way to buy awards. Jill Soloway can point out that we’re in a “post-Tangerine world” and express regret at casting Tambor, but that doesn’t mean anything if the show is going to keep chugging along without grappling with its new context.
The hand of the writers’ room makes itself apparent again, in the scene where Maura finds out that problems with her heart will prevent her from getting gender confirmation surgery. The doctor tells her “Just because you can’t have this surgery doesn’t mean you can’t have a happy life,” but Maura was never going to have a happy life anyway. Thankfully, Davina is much more levelheaded about everything, and tells Maura she’s just being a “baby trans.” She’ll get through it, right? Out of desperation, Maura and Davina go to the club, and Maura hooks up with a guy who basically looks like Robert Durst. The desperation extends to her entire plot this season: Where does Maura go from here? Where does the show go?
Ali offers a possible option when she tries to sell Leslie on a project based on the visions she’s been having at the dentist’s office, culminating in an idea of “intersectionality as the Holy Other.” This sounds like it could be great art, or total garbage (it’s unclear which). Gaby Hoffmann is great at communicating Ali’s weird enthusiasm for this dumb, dumb idea. She’s passionate, but Leslie (clothed in a suit that marks her as a little too close to an authority figure) pushes back, mostly because what she’s saying doesn’t make any sense. (In particular, worshipping identities that are othered by white heteropatriarchy still centers cis, straight, white male identity as the “objective” center of the universe.) It’s an indication of some of the cracks in Ali and Leslie’s relationship, which isn’t so much because of Leslie, or even because of Ali’s commitment to Josh (leading her to go to Kansas), it’s just because Ali seems bored.
Boredom also seems like the reason Buzzy and Shelly suddenly break up in this episode, with the revelation that he’s been mooching off his girlfriend because—spoiler alert—the guy who looks like a deadbeat extra from the Crabcatcher episodes of 30 Rock turns to, in fact, be something of a deadbeat. When Shelly pushes him on his constant need to borrow money, he turns paternalistic and lies his ass off in an attempt to stay with Shelly. Richard Masur’s acting is great, as always, containing shades of the olksy, surprisingly wise, Margaritaville Buzzy who gave Josh such good advice last season—but the change comes out of nowhere, and is abrupt enough that it’s hard for Masur to keep a handle on everything happening with the character. (Tell me if I’m missing something, but there’s very little in this season that genuinely lays groundwork for this change.) Thankfully, Judith Light is also on point here—Shelly is great at being wounded, and her firm stance on Buzzy’s lying is still cathartic, quick as it is.
Indeed, Shelly would do well to listen to the advice Sarah gets from Damian, the dude who is now living in Pony’s apartment: “It’s really not that hard for a woman to find someone to treat her like shit for free.” It turns out that Pony left Los Angeles to move to Boulder and help run her brother’s candle shop, which makes sense. Sarah has a lot of rage building up this season, stemming from her rejection by the temple and the oddity of her current arrangement with Len, and it all comes out in a meltdown after she discovers that Nacho the turtle apparently vanished. Framed by jerky camera movements and screaming at her children, Sarah is probably scarier here than she’s ever been on the show, though the effect is undercut somewhat by Rob Huebel screaming “I don’t want rage in this house!” Len later attempts to replace Pony himself, which is both kind of sweet and leads to the best moment of the episode, when Amy Landecker’s eyes move just a touch after Len says “I know you better than anybody in the whole world.” Len says he was “just joking,” but Sarah might need a stranger to have the type of pleasurable control she seeks from a dom. The type of control (and intimacy) that Len offers is too real.
Sarah’s frustrating with the Jewish community, and the pain she’s feeling after her split with Raquel, takes us back to the very start of the episode, in which the rabbi silently slips into a Mikvah, in the sort of gorgeously shot, mostly silent sequence that used to make the strongest cases for Transparent’s commitment to a concept of spirituality. If you’re unfamiliar with Mikvahs, they’re ritual baths used for a variety of cleansing purposes in Judaism. There are some regressive aspects of Mikvahs (one of their primary purposes is for women to regain “purity” after getting their periods), but for Raquel, they become a representation of ritual, an element of the history of Judaism that she can’t ignore just because it’s inconvenient for her. After all, she’s a rabbi and this is the life she’s chosen.
There’s obviously some overlap between respect for tradition and allowing genuinely harmful, corrosive practices to continue (much of modern Judaism is about navigating this tension), but the anger at the root of Raquel’s blowup at Sarah still remains: You can’t decide to be a part of a community and only cherry pick the parts of it that make you feel good about yourself. Any meaningful connection is going to require a semblance of sacrifice, and an acknowledgment that there might be something worth giving up part of yourself to, something that’s bigger than you. None of the Pfeffermans are willing to do that, and, where the show used to poke holes in their self-involvement, it increasingly sides with them in their refusal. This episode pays lip service to the idea that staying true to your values might require making hard choices, but I’m not confident Transparent is capable of understanding the consequences.
- “Off The Grid” is written by Bridget Bedard and Stephanie Kornick and directed by So Yong Kim.
- Ali, in Kansas: “I’m sweating in weird places.”
- I strongly identify with Josh’s amazement at the way people in the Midwest casually wave to strangers, after several months in which I considered moving to Milwaukee.
- As you can maybe tell, I really did not care for this season. I’m hoping it turns out to be an extended first half of a story, allowing the fourth season to make good on all of the chaos and groundwork laid in these ten episodes. But I’m not super optimistic about it.