Screenshot: Amazon Prime Video

That Transparent often works best when the Pfeffermans are all together is practically an established fact, one bolstered by a stellar third episode this season. Such concentrated Pfefferman-ness should be off-putting, but rarely ever is, and not just because of the great core cast. We’re not necessarily inured to their narcissism and self-delusion; these qualities are just more tolerable (not to mention amusing) when there’s a complete lack of self-awareness, and an abundance of Shelly, who’s really grown on me this season. She’s absent from “Just The Facts,” presumably to work on her blocking, but there’s lots of one-on-one time with the other family members, who, for the most part, indulge in all their worst practices.

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“To Sardines And Back” gave us more of what we love about the show while gathering everyone we love to hate. It also, amid the lighter moments and great lines about leathers and inside jobs, represented a turning point for Maura, who’s decided to move forward with gender confirmation surgery. Her announcement was made in typical Maura fashion, at once showy and casually slipped into the rest of the birthday dinner conversation. The news registered briefly as a shock, for which Vicki, as has been pointed out, didn’t so much want a private conversation as a heads-up that this was something Maura was seriously considering. Vicki might have dug Maura’s new shapewear, but the blurting out of what was nonetheless a well considered decision just didn’t sit well.

Screenshot: Amazon

But Maura is following through by looking into the next steps for the procedure(s), visiting Dr. Lloyd Braun—I mean, Dr. Benoit Segal (Matt McCoy)—for a preview. The appointment starts off on a high for Maura, who’s delighted by the tweaked and rejuvenated visage Dr. Segal presents her with.

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But to her dismay, getting the surgeries requires a note from a psychologist. “I have to ask another person for permission?” Maura softly asks, both perplexed and somewhat devastated. Jeffrey Tambor faltering ever so briefly in the delivery of the line perfectly captures the affront to Maura’s dignity here. The idea that someone else needs to sign off on her decision is offensive to her, but she also seems to be coming to a greater realization of what she’s planning to do. As the doctor explains, obtaining the note is mostly about protecting the hospital from malpractice claims, but it also gives Maura more time to think this through.

Maura’s excitement does remain strong enough to request a print-out of her potential new look to show off to Vicki and Davina the first chance she gets. Their chat occurs in the audience of a The Facts Of Life Live! drag show, which is surprisingly well done, in case NBC is looking for more musical ideas. “Tootie’s” pouting about being treated like a kid echoes Maura’s concern over clearing her decision with someone else, but it also picks up the thread that she’s experiencing another adolescence. Davina and her date exclaim over the photo, and the latter gives Maura advice on how to procure the necessary note that doesn’t go over well with Vicki. When she questions Maura about her feelings about her penis, it’s another chance to pump the brakes. Maura’s head is swirling with choices, ones she’s mostly made on her own, but in this moment, she has to ask Vicki if they would “be okay” (either with or without the surgery, it’s not clear). And she doesn’t receive the most encouraging response.

Screenshot: Amazon Prime Video

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Another couple has trouble envisioning their future together, as Leslie confronts Ali about her tendency to dissociate, which Ali of course considers just “zoning out.” There’s the same push and pull there always is with the youngest Pfefferman. She begs her lover to stay with her, which Leslie does, but with just a little too much enthusiasm for Ali, who has just whined about the fact that Leslie’s progressive attitude towards relationships means she’s never really jealous. Ali fingering a TA does elicit a response, but it’s not the one she’s looking for—instead, Leslie tells her there’s a “disconnect” between Ali’s mind and everything else, between what Ali wants and what she actually does. She doesn’t light into Ali the way most of us would about intent over impact; Leslie’s responding in part to Ali saying that the reason she didn’t stop touching the TA until she orgasmed and didn’t tell Leslie she was being too rough was because that would have been “rude.”

Ali does seem weirdly hung up on niceties here, especially considering the way she greets Josh in the morning with a recently sexed Leslie standing there, pants-less just like everyone else. It’s not rude per se to say hey to your brother first thing in the morning, but it’s definitely icky. This is another instance of the show pushing viewers’ comfort levels, but it’s also expanding on Josh and Ali’s ever more intimate dynamic. Josh is especially needy right now because of his break-up, but even if he weren’t, he’d still come looking for Ali. Transparent’s been scattering these moments throughout the first half of the season, which are clearly building toward something. Brother and sister might think they’re settling into a new domestic arrangement, but they’ve just hit another level of co-dependence. And yet, these are all still just moments for Ali—she doesn’t appear to have a solid arc. There’s always been something almost careless about the way the show treats Ali, which might just be a reflection of the character. But Gaby Hoffman’s just doing too good a job to get the short stick again.

Screenshot: Amazon Prime Video

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Again, Josh and Ali’s closeness isn’t lost on Sarah, who complained last episode that Ali ”stole” him from her, reminding us of Sarah’s proprietary feelings. Her anger quickly faded last episode, but she works herself into a fine lather here after doing the unadvisable and introducing herself to Len’s new girlfriend. No one knows what Sarah’s after in this scene, not even Sarah, who just wants to know “why Len?” Una’s response that it’s not a daddy thing, it’s a “Len thing” is such a Len thing to say. That just infuriates Sarah, who then needs to switch up her dom-sub relationship with Pony. Sarah being in the driver’s seat/dom’s heels goes about as well as expected, i.e., she ends up actually frightening Pony with her repressed rage. So Sarah shifts to her other mode of being superficially constructive and tries to launch her own temple, far from the prying eyes of Laura Milton-Kaufberger.

Raquel’s temperate response made me look up whether there are saints in Judaism, but Sarah’s latest vacillations didn’t inspire much. She’s usually spinning her wheels, though she occasionally manages to set them on the ground to veer wildly in the wrong direction. That’s the other mode we’re used to seeing her in, which, less than halfway through the season, isn’t cause for alarm yet. We can’t really expect much growth, and certainly not from one episode to the next, but Sarah’s storyline here feels a bit like a copy and paste job: “Sarah throws herself into a new project when her life goes to shit again (and literally).”

But the Pfefferman who’s hit hardest this episode is the one with the least screen time. After Ali confirms to Leslie that Josh just kind of hangs around the house all day, we expect to see him planting the tomato and basil he talked about earlier. No such luck, though, as Josh goes to see Rita to help her download a video of Colton preaching. There’s a brittleness to her cheeriness, an additional millisecond between pauses as she tells him she’s on a new medication and prods him to remark on her clean home. The moment she plays the song he composed for them could go left very quickly, its earnestness reminding him of just how young he was. But Josh just takes the opportunity to forgive Rita. Maybe he’s spurred on by her loneliness or distance from their son, or maybe he’s just ready. Whatever the case, she seems genuinely grateful, just not for long. Later, as Rita makes her way through the mall, the perfunctoriness of her actions don’t so much as hint at the extraordinarily desperate measure she’s about to take. And Josh, curled up on his couch with his guitar, has no idea what’s coming either.

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Stray observations

  • This one was kind of a doozy, in the end. I suppose keeping half the characters in a kind of stasis was offset by the blow Josh was dealt.
  • “I don’t want to do a post-game on our fucking.” Don’t you mean a peer evaluation, Ali?
  • “I don’t have a psychologist.” “That is the least Jewish thing you’ve ever said.”
  • “Persona au gratin,” I like. “Tacos Con Torah” is just bad, though. But Sarah clearly expecting that there are “travel Arks” or “Torah boxes” made that whole exchange for me.
  • Poor Raquel—her patience is slipping, as it should. At the same time, who could resist Sarah’s “golden votive lighting” pitch?

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