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Transparent lets Pfeffermans try out new families

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One of the most consistent criticisms of Transparent I’ve seen is that the show, along with other recent high-profile pieces of pop culture like I Am Cait, has done a lot to raise the profile of trans people—but only within a relatively limited aesthetic. Its characters are wealthy, white, generally more acceptable to mainstream Americans—the queer person you can bring home to mom, and it’s largely been cis, mostly-straight allies telling those stories. In this case, that’s doubly true, both because Jeffrey Tambor is playing Maura, and because Jill Soloway has caused her own share of controversy. The products of this kind of whitewashing of queer people are often artistically bad as well as politically. And more than that, bringing them into the cultural mainstream removes the intentionally dangerous, radical connotations of queerness, and contributes to an occasionally troubling aestheticization of struggle—the coolness of social justice. This is a long preamble to asking: Did you find Maura trying to say “Yas, queen” funny, or annoying?

After being enormously popularized by Broad City’s Ilana Glazer, yelling “Yas, queen” has become an easy way to signify a sort of allegiance, like wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt, throwing up the Run The Jewels hand sign, or having a Reservoir Dogs poster in your freshman dorm room. At a certain point, the ubiquity of these symbols lead to overkill, and while overkill in the service of a good cause isn’t bad (it buys into that same dangerous, self-involved aestheticization to say “Okay, this whole fighting oppression thing was cool for a while, but I’m bored of it now”), it does wear on the soul a bit to hear the same slogans repeatedly ceaselessly, and unthinkingly. As Davina says, “Okay, can we not do this anymore?” But Shea is, hopefully, right. “She’ll get there.”


Just because we’re out of the first season of the show, and just because she’s no longer the central character, doesn’t mean that Maura isn’t still navigating her femininity. The brief scene at her new support group features a conversation about sex and dating treated with a lightness that allows each of the women to be their own person, with sexual needs and desires and attitudes outside a single demographic label. Maura has come a long way, but she still struggles—as evidenced by her questioning Shea’s “pussy pussy,” she’s starting to think about whether she’s interested in the more permanent, physiological ways of being a woman, as well as new manifestations of her sexual desire. Maura is also reminded of her less-positive attributes (and less feminist past) when she’s confronted with Leslie, a chill lesbian poet played by Cherry Jones who tried for years to gain access to the halls of academic power, only to be stymied by the unthinking pussyhound Mort.

Leslie’s introduction is pretty excellent, occupying most of the frame by herself whenever she’s on-screen, allowing Jones’ charisma and smoky voice to establish the character as an immediately magnet presence. It also introduces an interesting perspective on talking about the show’s treatment of sexuality—it should be “women’s studies,” Leslie says, rather than the new “gender studies.” You could also imagine her arguing against “political correctness,” whatever that is. It’s a good scene for Jones, and perhaps a better one for the still-oblivious Maura, but it’s not a great moment for Ali’s plot, if only because it just tears past the boundaries of suspension of disbelief on the show. I’ll buy a lot of weird stuff happening—flashbacks, ghost appearances, marriages afflicted with spontaneous combustion, giant fights that somehow don’t quite leave a lasting emotional mark on the combatants, weird, erotic sequences with authority figures from high school that aren’t as abusive as they should be—but getting into a highly selective graduate program after dithering around for a decade and not finishing undergrad until 33? Get out of here.

Another similarly, perhaps even more complicated situation relying on a TV trick: Raquel’s attempted proposal to Josh. The entire premise here is just fascinating. Yes, women proposing has been done on TV before (looking at you, Monica Geller). Yes, it feels kind of lame to have that be a big deal on a show with way more interesting things to say about gender, and one that might even be a little skeptical of marriage as an institution (or should be, at least). Getting into the weeds of “who should propose” after their bizarre conversation treating marriage like an errand shouldn’t be that interesting. And still, even with all of these reasons to be concerned about the development, when I realized what Raquel was doing, I threw off my headphones, started screaming “KATHRYN FREAKING HAHN,” and jumped around my kitchen making inhuman noises until I was overcome by the twin impulses to comfortably sit back down and anxiously find out what would happen next.


Jay Duplass’ acting doesn’t get a lot of praise, both because Josh is kind of a boring character in comparison to his siblings and parents, and because Duplass is surrounded by so many unbelievable acting talent. But he does a great job here portraying how irritating Josh is (it’s deeply frustrating that Raquel has to apologize to him for proposing, an act indicative of some measure of love) while also expressing a sort-of legitimate grievance—Raquel did bring it up as something Josh needed to do, and he said he would do it. He’s a problem child who is trying to grow up, and everyone is more than a little suspicious of his ability to do so. It’s a difficult position to be in, knowing that no one in your life believes in your ability to do anything—and that that’s your fault. In that light, Josh feels a little less terrible, and a little more deserving of our kindness. (Also, remember, he was molested and has never, ever dealt with the emotional consequences.) As long as he continues to treat Raquel well, because, bro, I could not handle it if Kathryn Hahn not on this show any more.

I suppose he would still have Colton, who really comes into his own as a character in this episode, through his scenes with both Josh and Fussypuss. Colton is, indeed, a total babe, and reveals to his father that he has ”known, in the Biblical sense,” several different girls. Josh continues to need to bluster for people, hitting banners and pointing out where “shit went down, dawg,” but Colton, a teenager, is far more secure in his own skin, and his own accomplishments. He gets along quite well with Fussypuss as the innocent subject of their teasing (or one of them), and all of them together make an easygoing, weird, goofy work family. I like it. (Also: The pride with which Josh says he’s Colton’s biological father, which takes a very uncomfortable situation and allows the character to at least try to own it.)


Something I don’t like: That Ali is certainly going to break Syd’s heart. The scene at the lesbian bar/bowling alley when they finally, inevitably, hook up is a little knotty, and I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. The erotic sequence of Ali looking at all of the women in the bar before getting increasingly flirtatious with her friend (while reading an actual Eileen Myles poem), is a bit of a sticking point for me. Without getting into an unnecessarily complex argument about whether a “female gaze” is even possible (I’m inclined to think that it isn’t, though [UPDATE] I also don’t think I am versed enough in the subject to say definitively one way or the other), it’s enough to say that Marielle Heller’s direction puts us in Ali’s head as she discovers (or rediscovers) erotic possibility in women that she hasn’t experienced for some time. It’s striking to see that potential depicted in a way that isn’t predatory or objectifying, it’s striking to see it from a woman’s perspective, and it’s even more striking to have that feel like a revelation, rather than the default approach to the world (as we might see if this were filmed with, say, Josh in mind). Take a look at the way each of the women she encounters looks at her, until, finally, she sees Syd:


Syd doesn’t even look directly at her! For Ali, it seems like her friend is just an easily usable object of female desire—a way of exploring this possibility in a “safe space” without having to do anything scary or make a new emotional investment. And all the while, even as they’re in bed, Carrie Brownstein’s face is super at conveying how hopelessly in love she is with Ali, how amazed she is that their coupling has actually happened, and how painful it will be when the relationship ends in disaster.


At least Syd is happy in the moment. Sarah continues to get no breaks at all, not just in her non-relationships with Tammy and Len, but in similarly fractured attempts to get along with her kids. She tries to volunteer for the Nitty-Gritty Committee, a parent support network (or organization of free labor) at the school where everyone treats her like a pariah, but the committee is headed by Barb, one of Tammy’s exes. Played by the fabulous Tig Notaro, Barb feels like a voice of too much reason; you’d want to be friends with her in the real world, but Transparent runs on hotheadedness and emotion, and talking about triggers and boundaries makes her a tough person for Sarah to relate to. It’s unclear if Sarah is trying to hit on Barb or just wants to commiserate about Tammy, but it’s clear she has zero chance of doing either—not just because of the complication of Ms. Cashman, but also because it turns out Barb is friends with Len.

The ensuing scene at Len’s house when Sarah goes to “pick up her yoga mat” is one of the most painful the series has ever done, and it somehow only involves one person. She shows up like a ghost, haunting the nice family Len has put together with the kids—who are vaguely accusatory and suspicious when their mother shows up—and Melanie. Sarah’s shadowy qualities continue, helped by the extent to which Amy Landecker throws herself into the role (Len explicitly calls her a ghost).


Then, after picking up the mat, Sarah rifles through Melanie’s bag, trying to do… what, exactly? Figure out why Len is attracted Melanie? Sarah is the source of the problem. (I’ll admit, at first I thought this was Ella’s bag, and Sarah was snooping to see if her daughter was more evidently happy with her dad.) She stares at some makeup, then, in a fit of rages, shuts it—ruining the carpet—before fleeing the house. It’s basically Curb Your Enthusiasm levels of painful, and I’m anxiously waiting to see what Len will do when he discovers what his ex has done this time.


But there’s hope for Sarah yet, maybe. Her last appearance in the episode is an enigmatic flashback, or maybe a sex dream, or maybe both, featuring the disciplinarian Josh fondly remembers while enrolling Colton in school. Was Sarah abused by Mr. Ironside? Is she just attracted to that kind of macho authority of the sort Len occasionally evinces, and that Tammy oozes out of her body? This is the kind of thing that might not receive any payoff, but the juxtaposition of the past with the present is a standard Transparent device, used for the first time with someone who isn’t Ali. (Or it’s a fantasy made concrete.)


The conclusion to draw is this: In her misery, Sarah is maybe getting in touch with something bigger, and opening herself up to something that will enrich her life in the long run. Her solitude is just the saddest version of what’s happened to the four characters in this episode—each is trying to find comfort in a sort of family that isn’t their own, whether it’s Maura’s group, Josh’s band (and his possible family with Colton and Raquel), or Ali’s new role in the lesbian community. All of these characters will, hopefully, find the things they’re looking for. They just have to survive first.

Stray observations

  • “New World Coming” is written by Faith Soloway and directed by Marielle Heller.
  • “If we did not grow up in a patriarchy.” (“If we did not grow up in a patriarchy.”)
  • “Look, I’m sorry if my boundary is your trigger.” “I don’t know what that means.”
  • “I got lists, Joshie.” Kathryn Hahn, never leave this show, please. (Remember when Raquel said “I’m a namer” last season?)
  • “Diamond mohel” is a little forced, but I’m into it. (Also in that scene—Bianca hitting on Colton?)
  • Leslie is, of course, based on Eileen Myles, who Jill Soloway is now dating?!

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