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The characters of Transparent do that thing they used to do

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Why did Sarah leave Tammy? Was their entire relationship a “moment,” an attempt to get out of what she felt was a stifling marriage, or some measure of routine? Does the thought of any sort of routine or commitment to a person give Sarah, the ostensibly “responsible” Pfefferman, hives? Was she just enthralled by Tammy’s considerable personal charisma, to the point where she overlooked a decent number of yellow flags (and equally loud and alarming interior decorating choices)? There isn’t an exact answer to that question, and there likely won’t be one. What’s important, for now, is that Sarah made a decision not to commit, and how she has to face the consequences.


It’s a good thing, too, because Amy Landecker is just fabulous in this episode. Sarah’s story this year looks like it’s going to go to some dark places, even more so than in the first season, and Landecker is totally game. That’s a long way of saying that, when we start this episode, Sarah looks awful. She’s totally disheveled, doesn’t seem to have been sleeping, and just generally looks like a wraith that accidentally floated into a custody hearing with Rob Huebel. (Hey Rob Huebel! Glad you’re back, dude. Just don’t ruin our Shabbos dinner again.) Len seems to be living the life with his girlfriend Melanie—and who could blame him? We care about Sarah, but to him (and I suspect, to quite a few viewers) she’s a deeply capricious, cruel person.

And still we care—I care, at least—because Landecker is just such a powerhouse this episode, going through pretty much every possible response to a breakup. She’s totally ashen and vacant in the first shot, then becomes a lush, falling around protesting that she can’t take care of everyone, then finally is fixed in horror when Tammy shows up at the party (more on that later). There’s still humor in her misery though, partly because of the specifically Sarah ways she messes it up (failing to BCC everyone on the email she sent explaining the end of the marriage), and partly because it provides an opportunity for some much-needed family bonding. “It really is horrendous,” she admits, finally acknowledging Tammy’s terrifying taste in decoration. “How did I not see this?”

“You had your foggy fuck goggles on too tight,” Ali chides her in response, and we get a taste of the sort of lived-in sibling comfort that largely eluded the premiere in favor of (earned) dramatics. The relationships between the Pfefferman children (especially Josh and Ali) provided the anchor for the first half of last season, and it’s nice to see them continue to function as a bedrock on which the show can build more intricate plots. Moments like the non-fight they have over Sarah’s wedding cake are quiet, low-stakes, and just a ton of fun. (Repeated, muted bickering is almost always good for this show, especially when it also entails mockery.)


And, in some of the best scenes of the episode, Ali gets a lot of mockery from one of the few characters we didn’t see in the premiere: Syd, her estranged best friend, who had been pining after Ali for most of their lives. Ali goes to Syd’s new warehouse apartment (because of course that’s where she lives now) to make amends (“stop by”), and gets mercilessly teased for her terrible new haircut, a scene that is important not only because it’s setting up what looks to be a huge chunk of Ali’s story for the season, but also because it serves as a reminder that Carrie Brownstein is an excellent actress outside Portlandia. When Ali asks if Syd is done making fun of her, the way Brownstein responds with the word “never”—soft, yearning, playful—might make that single word the most shiver-inducing, painful, romantic thing anyone has ever said on the show. While the inevitable relationship between them is likely doomed, these scenes (particularly the one at the end when Ali shows up looking to drown her problems in alcohol) mostly make me worried for Syd.

It’s a good thing the Syd stuff is so good, because Ali (or, at least, the material surrounding her) is kind of infuriating for most of the rest of the episode. When her astronomy professor talks about how starlight is the past, it’s the peak of Transparent’s tendency to be a little, uh, hokey. It’s the kind of material that sort of makes sense as thematic table-setting, both because it helps make sense of why Ali is the focus of the brief glimpse of our new flashback story and because this is the kind of thing that happens at this point in a season of television. But it requires a level of tonal deftness and precision that is nearly impossible to maintain indefinitely—sometimes not even Jill Soloway (who directs this episode) can pull it off. Besides, season one of the show was so effective at teaching us how to watch it that we don’t really need this kind of hand-holding, though there are others we might enjoy. (Did you guys like that segue?)


“Flickety-flickety thump-thump,” indeed. Everything with Shelly and Maura in this episode is simply delightful, from Shelley’s beauty tips and disdain for her neighbors (that damn Rosalie Rollman) to her defense of the storage unit holding all of her ex-husband’s stuff after Maura’s building got bought and turned into condos. (I want a spin-off about the security guards at the condo so badly.) Judith Light is, as always, absolutely fantastic, but she’s especially good capturing Shelly’s growing emotional bond with the ex she had kept at a distance for so long. “I like you and the box right here,” she says, and it has the whole weight of an obstinate, tough old Jewish woman behind it. “Nobody makes me laugh like you,” she says, and it carries with it the sense that Shelly has lived a little bit and knows who and what she likes.

And then there’s the sex scene, where Maura does that thing she used to do when she was married to Shelly. You don’t see a lot of frankness with the sexuality of older people on TV—and when you do, it’s the kind of thing where the mere fact that old people have bodies, and that those bodies function in much the same way younger people’s bodies function is made out to be something like a “message.” There’s no such didactic treatment here, and no opportunity to pat yourself on the back simply for acknowledging that the elderly can be horny. Here, the moment is just another moment, a look at two people who are reconnecting emotionally and physically—or, at least, one of them is. Shelly clearly wants Maura around, Maura seems a bit distant, staring down at her ex-wife with a sort of grim, intoxicating knowledge of her power. It almost looks like she’s drowning Shelly in the bathtub, and in a sense, she is.


“I hear you’re lesbians now?” Ali says, rudely, when they show up to the party. Maura and Shelly are largely beyond designations like that, now, with their rich, personal history, but Colton and Josh haven’t quite made it there. The young, built kid is going to stay in Los Angeles for a while, apparently, causing Raquel to throttle her apprehension. (Remember: It would have been very, very easy for the writers to get rid of Colton. He’s here for a reason, or several.) Colton’s earnestness is the most important thing about him, since he doesn’t really fit in otherwise. He calls Raquel “Rabbi,” which is kind of hilarious, and tries to bond with Maura over looking up “trans” on YouTube. And he stays in Los Angeles because of Rita, which sets off all kinds of alarm bells while still rousing Raquel’s maternal instinct and desire to protect Colton. For Josh, that snaps a vision of a family into place—it’s what he thinks he wants, and it brings the ownership of the house back into play. Remember when that was the big conflict of the show? It feels like so long ago.


Not so long ago: The use of the house for Josh’s music industry “pool thing” (does any episode of this show go by without someone trying to throw a party?), where he unveils Fussypuss (the new, terribly-named band featuring refugees from Glitterish and Bianca). Margaux (with an “x”) sings “Dirty Love” as part of an extended sequence with… kind of lumpy pacing. Like at the wedding, there’s a bunch of stuff happening, but in this case most of it isn’t nearly as interesting. The best thing about it, really, is the brief sight of Maura on the playground, the spot that both evokes childhood for the obvious reasons and is the site of most of the kids’ powwows in the first season, placing past and present uncomfortably on top of each other. In entering that space alone, Maura continues to more fully become a character on their level. Until Tammy shows up, totally off the wagon.


If Amy Landecker is doing a great job portraying Sarah as a kind of smoldering ash pile or slow-working, gray poison, then Melora Hardin deserves as much credit for turning Tammy into an open wound. “I am a beautiful soul, and you are all monsters,” she proclaims. but the thing about Transparent is that everyone is both a beautiful soul and a monster at the same time—an attitude that is, somehow, exemplified by Sarah and Tammy’s wedding cake. When Sarah and Ali and Josh quibble over the cake, it’s a weird object, a material symbol of a chapter in their lives they all want to get over, and also a cake. (Ali thinks its symbolic associations will make it tastier for the party, Josh thinks it’s a breach of chill decorum.) But when Tammy shows up, the cake becomes a representation, a reminder of the memories of the time they’d invested in trying to find a perfect piece of their matrimony—they “fell in love with this one,” she says—and the Pfeffermans’ triumphant, callous treatment of it is a pretty clear analogue to Sarah’s treatment of Tammy. Sarah has crushed Tammy’s “soul of a warrior,” and we don’t know if it will spring back to life.

“I am in pain.”

The rawness of Tammy’s emotion here, delivered wonderfully by Melora Hardin, elevates what could otherwise be kind of a rote scene. To be a bit cynical about it for a moment: The thematic purpose of this scene is very, very obvious. Tammy is a reminder that the Pfefferman’s actions hurt people, and not just each other. As strong as the family unit is, the poison it contains sometimes leaks out. But the ending shot of “Kina Hora” makes that painfully clear, and it’s hammered home the moment Tammy shows up looking almost as bad as Sarah. The scene as it plays out doesn’t subvert that much—it hammers the point home until it’s a little difficult to look away—but, unlike, say, Ali’s astronomy class, it feels necessary and important for it to be this big and this unabashedly earnest. (Along with many other elements of the show, this willingness to stake out emotional territory and then refuse to look away reminds me of Leslie Jamison’s defense of the saccharine, an argument that you might not buy entirely, but that will almost certainly help you make sense of Transparent.) And somehow, it’s throwing the wedding cake in the pool that shocks everyone.


And, after the cake is in the pool, everything basically goes back to normal (or a slightly different version of normal). Syd and Ali are hanging out again. Josh and Raquel are even more committed to their family. Sarah’s life continues to be in shambles, but at least she’s bonding with her mother who is, again, neglected by Maura. And Maura continues to be more interested in herself than in anyone else. The scene that closes the episode, in which Maura meets Davina and Shea at a club, watches them flirt with soldiers, then dances with her own reflection to “Chandelier,” is the kind of thing that could easily fall into the sort of goofiness that characterizes the astronomy scene. Cutting off an episode of dramedic television in 2015 with a character proudly dancing on their own is a little… played out, in theory.

But Soloway and Tambor’s command of the moment is powerful and total. It certainly helps that, rather than using the solitary dancing trope as a way to validate the strength of friendships, Maura is explicitly enamored with herself, continuing to discover who she is well past middle age. It’s sad that she’s been forced to continue this journey so late, but there’s also something quite optimistic about the way she can learn about herself this late in life, and discover new things that make her feel like dancing. Maura might struggle with being part of a family, but at least she’s in love with herself.


Stray observations

  • “You just wanted to say “shuttlecock.”” Ali, describing the writer’s room process.
  • Today in classic Josh Pfefferman: describing Sarah’s violation of email etiquette as “unprofesh.”
  • “Like we all need duck and goose shit everywhere.” Never change, Shelly.
  • The script for this episode is credited Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster (who you can also catch playing Tig Notaro’s brother in the pilot for One Mississippi).
  • Today’s music, non-Sia edition. Are we having an LCD Soundsystem-on-TV moment? There was the episode of You’re The Worst literally titled “LCD Soundsystem” and that stormy episode of The Affair.

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