It’s easy to see why women fall for Josh. Aside from the fact that Jay Duplass is the top Duplass brother at the moment—I will fight you on this—the character, in his best moments, is sweetly hangdog. When he’s flirting, he gets a glint in his eye that begs, “Love me.” Shea is the latest to be captivated by that, but she gets a taste of the real Josh very quickly, when is ignorance overrides his attraction. And she deservedly gives him hell for it. Like the season opener, “The Open Road” shows a trans experience vastly different from Maura’s. By leaving the Pfeffermans’ bubble it demonstrates just how small-minded they can be, despite their liberal proclivities.
The episode belongs to Trace Lysette, who long stood on the sidelines of the action. The seeds of a Shea and Josh romance were planted in the third episode of the season, during Maura’s birthday party. But why does Josh come to her when he needs someone to accompany him to give Colton his mother’s ashes? You could spend forever psychoanalyzing him. On one hand Shea bares a resemblance to both Raquel and young Rita. Or, if you want to get Freudian, you could argue he’s drawn to her because she’s trans like the parent who wasn’t there for him in his youth. (Too much? Perhaps.) Shea, however, is simply into him, and it’s easy to root for their coupling in the early part of their trip. Their initial small talk is honest, but still very surface level. Shea confesses that most of the men who frequent the strip club where she works are “just sad guys with cocaine problems.” Josh likens that to the music industry. When they’re stopped grabbing food at a cafe somewhere in Texas, he grabs his guitar and decides to participate in an open mic. He sings a mournful tune—one that he wrote for Rita. Shea melts. As he performs, the camera pans to images of the desolate surroundings. The sadness of the environment matches the sorrow of his dirge, but it is alien to the privileged Pfeffermans. For Josh this is a playground, figuratively. Then it turns into one quite literally.
As Shea and Josh continue on their journey Shea opens up even more. She discusses how difficult it is to date while trans, and the conflicting opinions she heard about whether she should get bottom surgery. She reveals that one mentor told her not to, because a “chick with a dick is always paid.” Josh is clueless, and responds awkwardly: “But that’s assuming that you’re going to be like a sex worker like forever,” he suggests. He brings up having a family. Shea drops the subject, and the conversation comes to a screeching halt. But the awkwardness is cut short when they run across an abandoned water park and decided to break in. They run around wildly, racing each other. It’s shot gloriously. The sun is blazing, and for some moments they are unfettered by adult concerns, acting like two hyperactive teens, hormones raging. That is, until Josh opens his mouth and he sounds as stupid and naive as man men are in adolescence. It dawns on him that if he has sex with her he wouldn’t get her pregnant, and sees that as a “positive.” She’s agog and, rightfully, offended, but he makes up for it by kissing her sweetly. They’re romp continues, but real world concerns once again arise. Josh attempts to undress Shea, but she stops him to disclose that she’s HIV positive. Once again he retreats into immaturity, especially when she suggests that PrEP is an option if they want to explore something long term. He bristles, and she fights back: “Why the fuck did you bring me here?” To her, he’s a possible boyfriend. To him, she’s less than a fling. “I’m not your fucking adventure,” she cries. “I’m a person.” It’s a blistering protest, and a groundbreaking moment for both Lysette and the series. Also, it’s a refreshing instance in which a Pfefferman gets called out for his or her bullshit. Speaking of which…
I wish the episode only focused on Josh and Shea. To be honest, it took revisiting it some months later to remember anything else does happen. Indeed, Ali—now dissatisfied with Leslie—goes on a vision quest to make sense of Rita’s death. In typically Ali fashion, her actions are largely performative. She takes a trip to the site of Rita’s suicide and then heads to the dentist, where gets hopped up on nitrous and plays a spiritual game of Wheel Of Fortune alongside Rita and Raquel. God—or rather, Goddess—has taken on the Vanna White role in her hallucination, and she looks like Ali’s doctor. The answers on the board include: “There Is No Binary” and “The Sacred Feminine.” It’s a trippy, hilarious sequence, that’s rooted in a perhaps unhealthy obsession with her brother. Ali, in lieu of dealing with her own messy romance, is trying to solve Josh’s problems. But Josh is doing fine fucking up all by himself.
- If the Ali stuff feels tacked on, the C-storyline about Shelly’s relationship with Buzzy seems really out of place in this episode. It’s evidently set up, but it doesn’t belong in this soulful installment.
- Please don’t think I’m saying that To Shell And Back is anything less than a goddamn treat.