There’s a lot of loaded dialogue in “If I Were A Bell,” but nothing detonates quite like the episode’s sign-off. Between clandestine kisses, Young Mort (as the credits identify the flashback character played by Jimmy Ambrose) asks Young Shelly (Molly Bernard, perfectly cast) a question that will define their relationship: “Can you keep a secret?” In the moment, he’s talking about the supply-closet rendezvous that’s taking place at a gallery opening for his fiancée (Sarah Yarkin as Young Debra). But nothing in Transparent is truly about the moment. The choices the Pfeffermans make, the actions they take, and the circumstances that are beyond their control ripple from past to present to future. And those ripples always contain secrets.
Written by Our Lady J and helmed by American Honey director Andrea Arnold, “If I Were A Bell” depicts the frequently damaging, occasionally rousing effect secrets had on Maura and Shelly’s early lives. For Maura, it was about stifling whom she knew she was, finding catharsis in the relative safety of her grandfather’s bomb shelter. For Shelly, this meant being silent about what’s implied to be molestation. Whatever else draws these two people together, they’re united in a shared ability to swallow pain, emotions, and truth—until such time when they can no longer stomach it, and everything they’ve been hiding comes spewing forth, in the form of Transparent’s present-day storylines. For Maura, that’s been the main thread of the show’s first three seasons. For Shelly, we’re only just starting to see that process. (Though we get a spectacularly bracing view of it in the third-season finale.)
There’s a throwback haze over Transparent’s depiction of Los Angeles circa 1958, but if there’s any nostalgia here, it’s of the “pain from an old wound” sort. The Holocaust and the Cold War are regular topics of conversation in Boyle Heights and Brentwood, and all the euphemisms in the world can’t keep these shadows from blotting out the clear blue skies. Haim’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) resentment of his grandson is one part closed-mindedness, another part concern about Maura meeting the same fate as Gittel. Both families fled to the United States to escape persecution, and they won’t let the younger generation forget about what was sacrificed in Europe and what has been (supposedly) gained in the U.S. Such talk must be a regular thing with the Lipkinds, since the only words Younger Shelly speaks after Mr. Strenger assaults her are “It’s not the Holocaust!” If there’s anything “If I Were A Bell” wants to get across about its period setting, it’s in this exclamation or Haim’s breakfast-table story problems about emergency rations. “What an extremely fucked-up time it is to be alive!” these scenes seem to say.
But it’s not the times we should be concerned with—it’s the people living in them. Rather than making us see these flashback characters as reflections of people we know from the rest of the show, Transparent invests in them fully as characters. The parallels between Rose and Ali drawn by the casting of Emily Robinson as both character’s younger selves extends to Gaby Hoffmann playing Rose circa 1958. The distance and abandonment that has so strained Maura’s relationship with her mother plays out before our eyes, heavily suggested to be the results of a depression brought on by Gittel’s death. The scenes are meatier than anything Hoffmann gets in the present day of season three—the look she gives over her shoulder as Rose walks out the front door is particularly affecting. It’s an episode of strong performances—including Michaela Watkins as an increasingly resigned Yetta and Bernard’s uncanny mimicry of Judith Light-as-Shelly—none tugging at the heartstrings as mightily as Sophia Grace Gianna’s depiction of Younger Maura.
In daydream sequences, we see Younger Maura as she sees herself, building ant colonies or spinning her way into the season-three intro sequence. These are joyful reprieves from the repression and paranoia that hang over “If I Were A Bell,” but none are as significant as Gianna’s confident strides out of the Eisenhower era and into the episode’s late-’60s bookend. It’s a complicated scene, one that left me harmonizing contradicting thoughts, feelings, and allegiances. As “If I Were A Bell” plays out, Maura and her secrets are repeatedly betrayed by her family: First her grandfather, then her mother, and finally, in a gutting revelation doubling as a playground taunt, her sister. Maura has been wronged one too many times, and Gianna makes her anger so real, but it’s hard not to feel uneasy about her eye-for-an-eye/emotional-wound-for-a-physical-wound retaliation. As Maura throws her head back and The Velvet Underground strikes up the opening chords of “There She Goes Again” Transparent leaves us in the awkward position of cheering for a child who’s just left her sister bloodied and injured in the schoolyard.
But this is also Maura showing us her true self without the aid of a daydream fantasy. If we are to accept the confidence in that walk—such a change from the sullen outfielder trudging to the bomb shelter—then we also have to accept that it comes with the cost of all the other stones that Maura will lob at other people’s heads for the rest of their lives. This is a Maura without anything to hide, a handheld camera following her as she walks out of the shadows and into the light.
That Transparent can craft that level of characterization for a school-age character is remarkable. That it can do so in the span of a half-hour, with what is essentially a new character (albeit a version of a character we’ve gotten to know quite well) is even more so. There’s no reason to keep it a secret: “If I Were A Bell” is the sound of Transparent going ding-dong-ding-dong-ding.
- It bears repeating: “There She Goes Again” fits the attitude of that transition from the ’50s to the ’60s so, so well.
- Back when season three premiered, I bristled at the revelation that Shelly was molested by Mr. Stenger, lamenting TV’s reliance of sexual assault as a plot device and/or background information. But what I wasn’t thinking about (until I read a few other critics’ takes, Alan Sepinwall’s in particular) is that this another detail that ripples into the future, as the Pfeffermans will eventually take similar actions to downplay and bury Josh’s relationship with Rita. The specifics differ, but the response doesn’t.
- Haim and Yetta predict the federal investigation into TV quiz shows: “I assume this is rigged, right?” “Without question.”
- Don’t look too closely at that 1958 turntable: There’s time-traveler technology in the cartridge.
- Tomorrow: The show goes back to Kansas, and Eric Thurm works out some of his misgivings about season three.