This is pretty much the Platonic form of Transparent, right?
What other show could even dream of pulling off an entire episode set at a crunchy, smoke-filled music festival full of second-wave feminist extremists, fake shamans, a thriving BDSM community, and tons of comfortably naked women of (almost) all shapes and sizes? What other show would start an episode with the loudly sung line, “Let’s go into the forest, and menstruate on a stick”? The Pfeffermans wander around, filled with wonder and bewilderment that such a space could exist. A woman with a beard (performer and writer Jennifer Miller) gleefully says, “Welcome home, ladies.”
I compared “Oscillate” to “Best New Girl” because of its extended look at the season’s flashback story, but “Man On The Land” feels a lot more like the true spiritual successor to that earlier, equally astonishing episode. Both have a sense of a sort of creeping freedom, in conjunction with a certain sense of claustrophobia (physical here, temporal in “Best New Girl”). Both feel a bit detached from “reality” (whatever that means). Both are among the best directorial work by Jill Soloway. And, of course, both share a setting that seems like it will liberate Maura, before revealing its own internal prejudices and hypocritical transmisogyny. We’ll get to that later, but for now, it’s worth remembering how sad the turn in “Best New Girl” really is. In both cases, Maura enters a new space, starry-eyed, and is let down in the worst way imaginable. Because at first, the festival really does appear to be a paradise.
As Indigo Girls perform “Hammer And A Nail,” Sarah, Ali, and Maura dance together gleefully, and freely, the closest they’ve ever been as a mother and daughters. (It is, possibly, among the most emotionally sincere, pure moments anyone in this family has ever had with each other.) They casually smoke a joint. Considering everything they’ve been through over the course of the season (maybe not Ali), it’s a joy to see them so happy. (The camerawork is phenomenal, but it’s quality lies precisely in how quick it is, and how much it captures the free-flowing movement of the Pfefferman bodies, which is my way of apologizing for not being able to get a good screen cap.) As always happens on this show, though, the grace period comes to an end. Maura complains about the nut loaf they’re eating, Sarah begrudgingly answers her, weary of parental concerns, and Ali’s eye wanders away from the family because there are tons of naked women around and she’s horny as shit. Back to normal, everyone.
After this opening sequence, the Pfefferman women spend most of “Man On The Land” apart, trying to make their own way and stake out their own niche in the community created by the festival. It’s a nice way of both giving them separate stories (and allowing fringe and new characters to take up the space that Josh and Shelly, among others, would have otherwise occupied), and even if it deprives us of full familial interaction for a lot of the episode, it does allow us to watch each of these Pfefferman women try to find what they’ve been looking for. Ali has the easiest time doing this, because she’s mostly come to see Leslie and get laid, and succeeds in doing both of those things.
As much as Ali is nervous about meeting Leslie in what seems like it should be her home turf, it’s clear that the older woman is also a little out of her element at the festival by now—or, at least, she’s having a very different experience. From the moment that Leslie finishes the reading, even the score is practically screaming that they’re going to bone, and the rest of the episode feels a bit like a waiting game. Still, Leslie’s reading is a good way of seeing a bit of her own humanity, and her insecurities beyond the calm, confident, extremely cool exterior. (Rather than any of the pornographic material we saw earlier, she stands in front of what seems like a very old photo of herself, and straight-up asks to tag along with Ali while she looks for Maura.) Ali, meanwhile, is like a kid in a candy store, getting naked at the first possible opportunity and staring around at all of the people on display. Ali, here and always, is in love with possibility and newness, and she’s found a lovely spot for it here.
That’s not so far off from what Sarah wants, really. Sarah says she wants to “find some awe, find some fucking awe out here,” and after a season spent trying to drown her unhappiness with quick fixes and pot, she needs it. (One of my favorite things about this season is that Sarah’s growing awareness that she lacks a spiritual self has played out in asides and in the background of other conversations.) She encounters a mom from her school named Jocelyn (Melanie Hutsell), who turns out to be a lesbian. (She left her husband for another kid’s mom.) And in what will presumably be her final encounter with the world of the school, Sarah tries to find kinship with Jocelyn, proclaiming that she’s glad to no longer be the only outcast. This is the entire problem—even someone with the exact same life circumstances as Sarah still isn’t as self-pitying. The eldest Pfefferman child is forced to hear the most important lesson of the show: “Nobody cares what you do. I mean, I know you think they care, but they don’t.”
Still, Sarah is incapable of believing this is possible—perhaps because, in addition to wanting to publicly assuage her guilt, she also genuinely wants to believe her life is of such important. And so she puts on what Jocelyn calls the “hurt feelings, like poopy face that you’re walking around with.”
Yeah, that face.
After connecting with someone else doesn’t work out to her liking, Sarah tries to go to the “intention circle” hosted by Shaman Crying Bear, a woman with a thick Brooklyn accent who also hosts a “drumming away racism” group. The layers and layers of what you might call “white feminism” on display here are startling—a New Yorker wearing a Native American headdress at a music festival while loudly proclaiming how much she totally hates racism feels like the kind of thing you would encounter at Coachella, not at an ostensibly “enlightened” space to get away from oppression. And yet, here we are.
The word “appropriation” is occasionally overused in cultural discourse nowadays, but it feels pretty uncontroversial to call this an absurd instance of appropriation, taking the exoticized “spiritual” connotations of Native American culture and using them as a minor form of therapy for (mostly) white women. I don’t have the best background in untangling the intersectional problem presented here, but I’m curious what other people think. Is the script mocking Shaman Crying Bear? Is she being given a pass because of the seemingly empathetic, earnest approach she’s taking to working through her feelings? Is this just another side effect of the way that an oppressed community of women still becomes exclusionary as it calcifies over time? Or is there something else entirely going on here that justifies and explains what’s happening, something that I just don’t quite get? The scene is funny enough and weird enough that it works on pretty much any of those levels, and invites an even deeper exploration of serious ideas surrounding the intersection of feminism and anti-racism. This sort of treatment of potentially dry academic disputes is one of the reasons I love “Man On The Land.”
Certainly, the conflicts don’t feel dry to Maura: they’re painfully real. While trying to buy feathered earrings (“All the birds of prey start at 50,” the naked woman in a hammock says), Maura meets Vicky, played by Anjelica Huston, who has finally, finally shown up. (I knew she had been cast in this season, and was so annoyed that she hadn’t made an appearance until now.) Thankfully, Vicky is a friendly face and a warm, inviting presence, because she has to be the one who informs Maura that trans women aren’t allowed at the festival.
Poor Maura. One of the great things about this season of the show has been the way it hasn’t really addressed Maura’s gender identity the way you would expect a Stonewall-esque version of the story to, instead just keeping it in mind as something that’s a part of who Maura is (and who her friends are), without forcing her to continue encountering all of the same obstacles. This is, I think, the first time we’ve seen her really confronted with transphobia this season, and it comes at the hands of an ostensibly enlightened group of women. (“Womyn?” “Wimmin?”)
At the moment she learns about this policy, the festival becomes scary instead of welcoming, and all of the flesh we’ve seen becomes a reminder that Maura still doesn’t quite belong. It becomes a weapon to be used against her. The ensuing series of shots from Maura’s point of view, of women looking at her and apparently snickering, are like an inverted version of Ali’s bowling alley epiphany from “New World Coming.” Where Ali’s discovery of women there meant a new world of erotic possibility and a wide range of fresh relationships, here it forces Maura into a confrontation with the conspicuousness of her difference, and with bigotry, and into a posture of paranoia. Any one of these women could be the one who points at her, screams, and shouts “man on the land.”
The conflicting emotions throughout this part of the episode are remarkable. Sarah’s story is arousing and exciting—by this point in the episode, she’s discovered the BDSM community at the festival, and is preparing to explore the power imbalances and role play that entail being a part of that community. It makes sense that Sarah has wound up here, in a safe space where she can still be punished, and where she can act out the erotic fantasies Steve couldn’t fulfill. But then we cut to Maura, and each glimpse of her is sad and scary. She’s lost, possibly without a way of finding her daughters, knowing that she doesn’t belong in an even more aggressive, oppressive way than usual. The cuts between the two create a nearly-unbearable tension, the sort of open wound you can’t help but prod with your finger. And Ali continues searching, like a child, eventually finding a new makeshift family of older radical feminists.
Leslie and the rest of her friends have a pensive, moving conversation about life here. It’s good to hear someone on a (more or less) successful TV show describe herself as having a “chosen family,” an idea that underlies most sitcoms (think Friends or How I Met Your Mother without ever seriously challenging the supremacy of biological families in the way that lots of great thinkers have). They’re “free,” Leslie claims. (Except for those darned extremist second-wavers—my kingdom for an entire episode of Leslie and her friends bickering with other women wielding copies of The Feminine Mystique and brandishing their NOW membership cards.) Ali is, of course, captivated, and totally endorses this mode of thinking, even though she already knows that Maura isn’t welcome at the festival, a conflict that explodes when Maura finds Ali and Leslie, and points out the absurdity of the policy.
The campfire scene of Maura’s confrontation with Leslie is easily the most didactic Transparent has ever felt, the most like outtakes from a freshman gender studies course. Not that that’s a bad thing—it’s a “very special episode” conversation where the topic is specific and special, rather than boring. For the most part, the conversation is actually more or less civil, far from a given considering the subject matter. “I just feel that I have the right to be here too, as a transgender woman,” Maura says, rightly staking her claim to womanhood against the transphobia of many older members of the community. But the script is careful not to let the aging radical feminists be cardboard villains—they have a perspective and set of life experiences that explain why they think the way they do. Without having to dig into the specifics, the assembled women make it starkly clear that they might have very compelling reasons to find even the perceived presence of men triggering. And they point out, rightly, that Maura may have been suffering as Mort, but she still benefited from presenting as a man. This might be the lesson Maura has been trying to learn all season. As Leslie puts it, “Your pain and your privilege are separate.”
When Maura yells “man on the land,” she’s expressing her continued pain, that even with her substantial class advantages, her history as a successful man, and above all her blinding myopia, she is still in pain, and has to let it out. It’s a testament to how much Jeffrey Tambor has disappeared into Maura, and to how effectively Soloway and the rest of the crew have established her as a character, that I genuinely forgot that she still might encounter transphobia, or that she isn’t simply a woman. Thank god for Vicky, who picks her up on the way out of the festival and spirits her away, back to the real world—but with, hopefully, a companion. While her daughter half-heartedly looks for her moppa (“Ali’s a big girl,” says the older woman making her decisions for her), Maura might not be wrong to feel totally alone. And while Ali is similarly alone, she has the benefit of the mystical—she encounters her own great-grandmother.
This is the best moment of the episode, the climactic ending of the flashback story, and the place where it intersects with the present. As we knew they would, the Nazis show up. Identical men, in identical uniforms, enacted identical rage. They take the books, round up the people of the institute, set fire to the books and the people. Ali watches everything burn as Gittel is arrested, and she and Rose clasp hands in pain. (It is all too easy to imagine what happens to Gittel after this—Rose likely never saw her again.) They both stare across the years, reminded again and again of what they have lost. The past is, in some respects, doomed to repeat itself (the parallels between the present moment and Weimar Germany are honestly starting to get a bit scary). Each moment of love and happiness is followed by rupture. But in Maura’s relationship with Vicky, Sarah’s release through discipline, and even Ali’s night with Leslie, Transparent seems to suggest that there is a possibility for change, even with so much inherited trauma and pain. Human patterns will repeat themselves, but it just might be on terms that are a bit more humane.
- “You can’t go wrong with owl.”
- Jeffrey Tambor lost at the Golden Globes, which feels important, I guess?
- “Man On The Land” is written by Ali Liebegott and directed by Jill Soloway, who e also has a cameo playing Celeste, who’s being disciplined when Sarah first sees the dominatrix.
- Other cameos include: Sia, Peaches, Indigo Girls (who actually protested against excluding trans women from the Michigan Womyn’s Music), Alice Boman, queer porn star Jiz Lee, Our Lady J, and Eileen Myles.
- “Bingo, here we go with the hysterectomies.”