Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Jill Soloway on the Transparent Musicale Finale and the meaning of “Joyocaust”

Photo: Paul Archuleta/WireImage/Getty Images; Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Transparent Musicale Finale isn’t necessarily the ending that creator Jill Soloway envisioned for the Amazon series, but it doesn’t feel out of tune with the show’s outsize personalities and emotional pyrotechnics. The episode, which debuted September 27, is an often affecting, somewhat exasperating swan song for the series whose early acclaim helped Amazon Studios find its footing in the streaming wars.

Transparent’s fourth season was hardly its best, but offscreen troubles, like the sexual harassment allegations against then-series lead Jeffrey Tambor and his subsequent exit, probably contributed more to its precipitous end. In a recent interview with The A.V. Club, Soloway acknowledged how Tambor’s behavior and departure affected the future of the show, but they also saw the Musicale Finale as a way to regroup after tragedy and send the Pfefferman family—who remain as frustrating, self-involved, and funny as ever—off with style. Read on for Soloway’s thoughts on character growth, culture shifts (including the heartening increase of trans actors in trans and cis roles), and just what on earth a “Joyocaust” is.

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The A.V. Club: How would you describe your feelings on the eve of what is, for now, the closing night of the show?

Jill Soloway: It feels melancholy because I have so much love for this family and for this show, and just for the transformation that happened in the world around the show. But I also feel really hopeful because the musical has the potential of being a place where people can celebrate, sing, and dance and feel joy together. It just feels like there’s a lot of hope, that it’s more of a transition than an ending.

AVC: Watching the Musicale Finale, it very much feels like you are going out on your own terms.

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JS: Yeah. I like that. Yeah, I mean I think that a lot of people, if they went through what we went through, that feeling would be like, “Oh, we had four great seasons,” and they’d wave goodbye, back away slowly, and be grateful, you know? But for us, we have to recognize that Maura is an incredibly important trans woman, and that she must be celebrated even if particular aspects of our production came under scrutiny. Maura [the character] must be celebrated. The rising, purposeful centering of a trans woman and her story and how much she changed the world is always going to be a celebration to us. And so even though it’s a funeral and even though it’s an ending, it is on our terms to be able to just come from the place of joy, that this show existed and that we got the chance to make this musical.

AVC: In a sense, it is a logical next step—music became as much a part of the storytelling as the show went on.

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JS: Yeah, at the end of season three with Shelly on the boat, performing “Hand In My Pocket,” then in season four, Jesus Christ Superstar made its way into our show. The fact is that Faith [Soloway, their sibling] and I have always been writing musicals and always wanted to make musicals. It just, I think, has been emanating through the seasons and now we finally get to explode in this way.

AVC: There was always this struggle on the show between individualism and the idea of family, which we saw through these really self-involved people who have to rethink their relationships with each other. I saw Lulu Wang’s The Farewell recently before rewatching the Transparent finale, and it made me think about how different those concepts are across cultures. For everything else it’s done, Transparent has very much been about exploring your family roots.

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JS: That’s been a really beautiful thing. I think because of my sister and I learning about my parents’ trans identity, it helped us to understand some of the fractures that had occurred in our family and be connected even when you don’t really know who the people really are. You know, so for us, our parents coming out made us really want to speak about the idea of coming out and the smashing of secrets when it’s safe to do so as a way to say, “You know, I love you no matter what and would you still love me if...?” And the answer is “yes.” That’s our hope for the positive energies of Transparent as a TV show. It’s our promise to not look away. There’s that circling-up feeling, not only of circling up your community and circling as a video up to dance and celebrate, but also circling up amongst your family and saying, “Okay, I’m here. We’re all here. We’re all here for each other no matter who you are.”

AVC: There are several really big numbers, but let’s talk about Ari’s “bart mitzvah” for a moment. How soon into writing the finale did you decide that had to be a part of it? Because Ari never missed a chance to bring up that canceled bat mitzvah.

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JS: I wouldn’t say that we knew that right away. We had to really ask ourselves what was like a good, fair, deep ending for each and every person would be. And for Ari’s, we wanted to go to that place of what Judaism meant to them. And sort of first thing that went wrong was that bat mitzvah, and we knew that we wanted Ari to be interested in becoming a rabbi, or maybe even be a rabbi, but you know, you can’t really kind of start on that journey until you start with this, “Okay, I am a Jew or I am an adult too.”

AVC: One of the most surprising developments in the finale is that Josh and Raquel reconcile, or at the very least, they agree to try again. What do you think has changed about them to give them a better shot this time around?

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JS: You know, when we thought that Transparent would be maybe like multiple seasons—I always thought we were going to at least go like six seasons or seven seasons—I thought that we were slowly but surely going to find a way for them to reasonably be back together and for Josh to really earn his way back into Raquel’s heart. I think after all is said and done, Josh has grown up; he’s recognized that it’s time for him to grow up. That’s what I feel when I see him, is that he grew up, he’s turning into a man really for the first time and Raquel is still there for him. But because we only had two hours, the song that they sing together, “Crazy People,” was a really beautiful way of addressing a kind of timeless love and a timeless connection. You know, a lot happens during that song! At first, Raquel’s still not sure and by the end of the song they’re almost having a kind of like impromptu wedding ceremony in front of the Torah in that little temple. So that for me, I think was a great way to be able to just add a lot to a relationship and do so with the song and with dance and with choreography and with singing.

AVC: At [the Television Critics Association press tour] this summer, you spoke of the trans liberation movement, and how the show became a part of that. In TV and movies, at least, it does feel like there has been a significant shift since Transparent began; a show like Pose, which has a trans-led cast, was just nominated for an Emmy. How has that change unfolded for you?

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JS: Before the show premiered, I don’t think that we even were able to see that there would be such things as female gaze in popular television. I remember shooting the pilot and then seeing Orange Is the New Black come out, and calling Jenji Kohan and saying, “Do you realize how epic this is? That you’ve got this amazing show, which is like just about all women?” And the same with Transparent—it was a show mostly about women. Before that, I had been going on meetings where people at networks would say, “Please put strong, admirable, relatable men in your show. Otherwise we won’t be able to get anybody to watch it.” There was just that sense in the pop-culture world of what people think other people want to see. And we’re talking only six years ago.

There’s been this revolution around female, non-binary, and non cis-male voices on TV, shows like Girls, Broad City, and now Fleabag—you had this different kind of person, who was quote-unquote unlikable, you know, kind of Jewish, kind of female, kind of slutty protagonist. That idea grew and expanded in the past five years. And I think women and non-binary people and queer people were like, “Oh my God, here we come. We’re able to say what we want, make what we want, have it shown to the world.” And then we all got smacked by patriarchy. We all felt that kind of wind knocked out of us with Trump’s election. And I think there was this a huge kind of blowback from the world saying like, “Not so fast, female gaze. Not so fast, feminism.” Then there was another development, with so many people standing back up after Trump’s election, and saying “Me too” and “Time’s up.” We were a part of that as a show, but then there was the incredible irony of us fighting for that voice and then having issues of harassment come to our own set. It has been this Olympic-level trial—we had setbacks as like, a society, but then we [the cast and creator] had personal setbacks. So then it was about coming back to this place where we can kind of stand up and hold our heads up again, and just return to having this sweet show, a family show. But we are back, and we’re still saying “let’s show trans-ness, let’s normalize trans-ness.”

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Six years later, there has been so much more trans liberation, but also much more pain, so many direct attacks coming from the government. It’s not like this moment of like, “Yea, we won.” It’s more that we’re like pulling ourselves back up and getting ready for a lifetime where people who aren’t white cis-men of a certain class are saying, “You know, I want my voice heard, too. I want my stories told, I want my song sung, I want the right to create, I want the right to an audience. You know, we are literally just getting started.”

AVC: Speaking of that kind of momentum, do you feel like you have to jump right back in with a new idea so that you don’t lose out on it?

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JS: Right now, we do find ourselves having this cultural power, which is not quite the same as political power, but we see the need for intersectional feminism and for other voices to be centered. Then you look at our government and at the ways in which this administration is trying to use otherizing as a way to, you know, stoke fear. It feels like a calling to me. Sometimes, I feel like more of an activist whose art is television and film because I’m kind of always thinking about what’s the kind of biggest way to exploit and explode expectations, exploit cultural power. Take this moment, be able to be loud and proud and continue to not only do it for myself, but to set examples for more people to ask for more access to audiences. It does feel endless, then it feels necessary, and it feels like I’ll probably be doing it until the day I die.

AVC: Shakina Nayfack, who plays Ava, is just such a wonderful find. She really jumps right into this tight-knit cast and doesn’t miss a beat. I do wonder, as Ava takes on the role of Maura in the musical within the musicale, was that a way to kind of address or make amends for having a cis man in the role of Maura on the show in the first place? 

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JS: It wasn’t specifically and intentionally ordered like that. Obviously we understood that having a cis man playing Maura was problematic. But when people said to me, like when we lost Jeffrey [Tambor], then people said, “Well maybe now a trans woman can play Maura.” As an artist, I was like, I do not know how I can figure that one out because I can’t imagine just like, “The role of so-and-so is now being played by...,” you know, like they used to do on Bewitched. So I found that to be a puzzle when I was kind of getting the pushback saying, “Now you can give the role to a trans woman.”

But what ended up happening is that while the show was on hiatus, we all started to gather around my sister Faith’s songwriting. She had a residency at Joe’s Pub with some really, really fine Broadway musical singers and actors. The people that you see in the movie—Erik Liberman, Jo Lampert, Lesli Margherita, and Shakina Nayfack—were people who are performing as part of Faith’s Joe’s Pub residency here in New York. And then, we came up with the idea of, “What if Shelly kind of processed all of this through her own particular family that she had recast?” And then we kind of realized this is a really beautiful way to have an avatar for Maura without specifically recasting Maura. I think of Ava as more of an avatar; here is a trans woman who was able to transition at the age she wanted to instead of having to wait until her sixties or seventies, and to have that person be able to gaze into Shelly’s eyes and say, “I love you.” And also just show a trans woman who can have that matriarchal power, and have that person played by a trans woman. You know, we just feel so unbelievably grateful that we were able to find Shakina—or rather, that Shakina found us.

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AVC: The closing number is “Joyocaust,” which I don’t think was a term before the show! What does that mean to the Pfeffermans, to you, and to Transparent as the show ends?

JS: It’s about celebrating with friends and circling up with like minded people and ritual and you know, spirituality and knowing that we’re going to make it, you know? Our own dances amongst our people that keep us feeling powerful. It’s kind of a big deal to us to just want that in a culture—letting yourself be earnest, letting yourself be happy. I think most people are feeling like they want to just like throw the whole thing on a fire, and they want to fight back against the expectations of this moment in time: the anger and the politics and the kind of Idiocracy reality that we’re all living in. I think of the earnestness in this movie as a response to that, to say, “Yeah, I still want to find things I care about. I still want to prioritize the circle that is my tribe.”

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