Thanks to “Elizah” and “When The Battle Is Over,” we’ve caught up with Maura, Shelly, and the Pfefferman kids, the latter of whom are pretty much where we left them, which is right where they belong as long as they remain Pfeffermans, if that makes sense. Ali’s still grating on people, but now she can add clumsy attempts at intersectionality to her repertoire. Sarah’s trying to find a niche, any niche, even if it’s in temple. And Josh—well, he’s still dealing with his own shit, which mostly means finding ways to avoid it.
The first two episodes were miles above mere table-setting, obviously, and yet that’s just the action that Ali and Josh perform at the beginning of “To Sardines And Back”. That is, in the present. The episode actually opens with what’s basically a heart-wrenching short film about the travails of Nacho the tortoise, who watched from on high as his family moved on without him. Just imagine that poor little tortoise moving in the walls of the Pfefferman home, subsisting on Josh’s baseball cards and whatever weed or junk food Sarah or Ali stashed in a vent. He was like a little green John McClane, except that Hans Gruber had nothing on the Pfeffermans.
I’m far from the only person who was so taken with Nacho, as evinced by this hashtag and TV editor Erik Adams’ Stray Observations post following his binge watch of the complete season earlier this year. And we’re not all that misguided in our attentions. Nacho’s seclusion and journey are symbolic of Maura’s, both in the past and present. When Nacho meets his new family, Maura (then known as Mort) has already retreated to a corner of Pfefferman home to try to cope with her feelings. The withdrawal was just one of many, as Shelly notes when the family gathers to celebrate Maura’s 70th birthday. That’s what necessitates all the rearranging—or “rejiggering”—of the dining room furniture by Ali and Josh, who are still playing house, a fact that’s not lost on Sarah (or Maura).
Rounding up all the Pfeffermans (not to mention their lovers and children) can be a daunting task in the series, but Jill Soloway easily and lovingly arranges her characters here. “To Sardines And Back” is, fittingly enough, a family affair behind the scenes as well—Soloway directed the episode from a script by her sister Faith, who already had a couple of writing credits on the show. But here they’re also joined by their mother, Elaine, a real-life author who plays a judgmental member of the MidCity Temple Board, the very same group that refuses to allow Sarah into its ranks.
That off-camera cohesion could be what helps nudge “To Sardines” into the upper echelon of Transparent episodes for me—well, that and the deft use of some of the simplest metaphors to convey Maura’s inner struggles and the family’s history. The return of a childhood pet and game (Sardines is the inverse of hide-and-seek, which I did not know) could prompt regression in any of the family members, but Soloway’s character configurations don’t allow them much comfort for long. It’s not by any means an overwrought entry, though—even when Maura’s giving her birthday speech, there isn’t really a “look at me” moment that demands everyone’s attention. Even with everyone running and hiding from each other, admissions come freely and without much hand-wringing.
Take Maura, who, after finally speaking up about the “Moppa” situation—she’d rather be called “Mom” or “Grandma” going forward—tells her family she’s looking into gender confirmation surgery. The younger children are led out of the room by Len for a game of sardines as all of the adult children take a breath and take in their parent’s request. There’s a brief, tense moment when Shelly incorrectly describes the procedure as a “sex change.” Davina corrects her, graciously yet firmly. It’s not an intentional misstep, but it comes not long after Shelly diminishes how fraught transitioning can be by comparing the experience to her “coming out of her shell” in various ways, by hanging out with Buzzy and joining Twitter. If only she’d stuck to complaining about not having a place to put her “leathers.”
But once Shelly knows what Maura wants, she doesn’t seem willing to share her role as mother. Judith Light’s stricken expression as Maura casually makes the request is just heartbreaking, coming in the middle of an otherwise raucous evening as it does, and conveys just how reluctant Shelly is. Not to mention that Maura’s revelation probably makes Shelly rethink her enthusiasm about the similarity of their hairdos in one of the preceding scenes.
It’s not clear what kind of response Maura was hoping for from her family, chosen or not. Everyone appears to take the news in stride, except for Vicki, who has misgivings. Mostly, she seems to think it was a conversation to be had in private, although such a thing could never really happen with the Pfeffermans. And especially not for Maura, who grappled with these feelings for so long that it’s just time to live out loud. But that notion is a bit at odds with some of her actions in this episode, though, as she retreats as soon as she gets the chance. Is she sulking, or just falling into old patterns? (Maura does repeatedly tell everyone “I’m not playing.”) The kids have certainly picked up their old behaviors, banding together to sniff out the one family member hiding from them, who in the present is alternately one of Sarah’s kids, Len (who’s now dating a spin instructor, to Sarah’s chagrin), or gorgeous newcomer Shea.
Eventually, they all find Maura, even though she played a smart game by just staying put (saying she’d been in her shell would put too fine a point on it). Then, as if by magic, Nacho comes back into their lives, too. Let’s just hope that doesn’t mean more withdrawing from Maura.
- Hello again, and welcome once more to our rotating lineup of Transparent reviewers! I’m on deck today and tomorrow, when I’ll be sure to have the review up earlier.
- I will probably never stop referring to the Pfefferman siblings as kids, regardless of their maturity, because I am used to referring that way to even my 46-year-old brother.
- Ali’s nitrous-induced hallucination co-starred Caitlyn Jenner, so it’s bound to come up again.
- This episode is one of my overall favorites, and not just because of all the snappy dialogue. There isn’t an emotional wallop here so much as a bear hug—rather than a strike at the beginning or end, there’s this continuous pressure, reminding me of everything I love about this show.
- If Sarah ever gets around to starting a restaurant, and I think she will, she should definitely have “persona au gratin” on the menu.
- “There’s a blanket?” ”There’s a blanket and headphones.” Ali’s dentist sounds like a dream.
- “Resting Bitchface said I have a dark energy.”
- “I want to be part of your tribe.” “Try ’swarm’.”