“Looking Up”

“It’s almost the end.” Time for a family meeting. It’s pretty amazing that it’s been eight episodes and we still haven’t seen the entire Pfefferman clan in the same place at the same time (even in 1994!). So the penultimate episode of the season finally gives us an opportunity to see what their family dynamic is like now, how they all act when they’re forced into one space (without being able to blame anyone for anything behind their back). And the thing that brings them all together is a death that no one really wants to talk about, naturally.

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Ed has been a fringe presence for the entire season thus far—the closest he’s come to the spotlight is an episode about his absence. “Looking Up” doesn’t change that too much, though the cold open does include an impressive shot of Lawrence Pressman sleeping that does more to communicate Ed’s humanity than anything we’ve seen. Instead, he hovers around the fringes, an easy way for Ali to signal her superiority to the rest of the family and an albatross for Shelly, who’s been taking care of him for years with little to no help. (We never get Ed’s opinion—in fact, he doesn’t speak in the present timeline, so it’s impossible to tell whether or not these are actually his wishes or whether Shelly is trying to let herself off the hook, though the latter might be a little dark even for this show.) Shelly admitting to Maura that she’s thought about how to euthanize her husband by saying “Sometimes I do some googling” encapsulates the way these people, and Transparent, approach serious issues. It’s painfully small, but that’s because Shelly is incapable of speaking the name of the big thing out loud.

She needs Maura for that, which helps provide the last piece of the show’s portrait of the Pfeffermans, and the last piece of the flashback puzzle—Maura coming clean to Shelly (sort of). The relationship between Maura and Shelly is fascinating, and far more complicated than we might have expected at the beginning of the season (when it was safe to assume they were acrimoniously divorced). We find out in flashback that Shelly decided to leave Mort on somewhat reasonable terms after he tells her about Camp Camellia—not necessarily the most positive response, but also a totally understandable one, especially in 1994. Mort hasn’t exactly treated Shelly well, and for her this is the last straw. Besides, their rapport now is tender, based upon the forced intimacy of all their time together, and a shared understanding and trust. That these divorced people would have maybe the healthiest relationship of any two of the Pfeffermans says something about how messed-up everyone else is.

That’s exemplified by two moments: First, when Shelly asks whether she and Maura got gay married before it was cool, and then when she starts correctly gendering Maura after her ex-husband softly, forcefully repeats that she’s a woman. There’s real power in the way we only just begin to understand the shared history at work here, and Shelly practically comes across as a final boss in Maura’s attempts to get other people to recognize her real gender identity. Forget the women in the bathroom at the mall or her old work colleague, Shelly is the person who arguably knows her the best in the world (with the possible exception of that asshole Mark), and when she begins to refer to Maura as “she” after being only being prompted a couple of times, it’s a silent but enormously powerful victory—a statement from Transparent that everyone has come around to accepting Maura the way she is. That source of conflict for the series has run aground.

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The fuller picture of Maura and Shelly’s marriage gets a parallel in Len and Sarah’s tentative reconciliation over weed (which returns to being a positive force in the character’s lives). As much as I’ve ragged on him (and the character) in these reviews, Rob Huebel finally manages to make Len sympathetic, and give us a deeper sense for who he is and why he and Sarah were married in the first place. In fact, Huebel manages to accomplish this with two lines: asking “Who was that?” and perfectly relaying his guilt and confusion over his angry response to the Shabbat dinner, then slyly pulling out his G Pen when he and Sarah start talking about smoking. He’s a little smug, but in a way that’s actually pretty reminiscent of Tammy. So the annoying straight cis white guy becomes one of the more pleasant characters in episode nine. Well done, show.

It helps that Sarah and Tammy aren’t doing so well at home in the wake of Tammy’s total revision of the house and the incident with Josh and Bianca. The revelation that Tammy used to be a coke addict as she forces Sarah to flush her weed makes so much sense. Suddenly everything about Tammy’s calcified, practically impenetrable ego, her aggression, and Hardin’s physicality in the role snaps into place—Tammy is basically a recovering Wall Street bro with a vagina and a flair for interior design. Her ever-so-slightly unhinged delivery of “A drug is a drug and I’m sober” fits right into an addict mentality (obviously weed isn’t the same thing as coke, not by a long shot), and it helps paint a picture of why Tammy is so controlling. She needs walls, and I’d wager there’s some bad, bad shit in her past that justifies her keeping those walls up, some of which we might even find out about in season two.

The division between Sarah and her past and present partners also helps give her even more definition than she already had. Sarah cares about people’s feelings—whether or not Len wanted to “throw it in” his assistant actually matters to her (unsurprisingly, she’d control other people’s feelings toward her and toward her father if she could). Len, on the other hand, is interested in actions—he didn’t do it, until she gave him the go-ahead, so it’s not a big deal. What does Tammy care about? Appearances, what people can see and talk to her about. Not only is she an interior designer, think back to how hard it was for Sarah to get her to line her actions up with her love for Sarah because it would upset her visible stability. Len is starting to seem pretty attractive. Sarah wants people to vocalize their feelings and compliment her like an insecure child (but about her tits), and Len is willing to oblige.

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Unsurprisingly, her brother is also a big child—Josh waits at the synagogue like a chastised little boy, hoping that if he just hangs around long enough Raquel will take him back, because he’s decided for some reason that he’s deeply in love with her after one or two dates (depending on who’s counting). There are shades of the romcom trope of the dude who won’t take no for an answer, but Transparent at least acknowledges how weird it is in this case. Josh explicitly likens Raquel to a combined mother/romantic figure (he literally apologizes to her by saying “You took care of me”), which in all fairness to him is unsurprising considering the way Rita filled that dual role for much of his adolescence. Josh is probably the most messed up member of the family now, but it’d be nice if Raquel actually managed to knock some sense into him.

As cleanly as their conversation in the synagogue cuts to the quick of what’s wrong with their fling, the fight Raquel and Josh have over Bianca walks into Josh’s place rings false—you’d think this would be the kind of thing Josh would have told Raquel, and it’s just an unnecessary strain on them. On the other hand, Bianca has fully come into her own as a fringe member of the case (on about the same level as Syd). She’s a bit of a shit-stirrer—at this point I think it’s fair to say she mostly likes to make people uncomfortable, rather than actually being close to sleeping with Josh at any point—and self-sufficient enough to get away with doing her own thing without making demands on everyone else in her life. Her self-imposed distance from the Pfeffermans, and ability to antagonize them, makes her a fascinating character, and I hope she gets a little more to do in the second season.

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One thing I’ll say for this fight, and subsequent boning—unsubscribing from an email list has never been so romantic (except for everyone time someone successfully unsubscribes from an email list, which is a small miracle). For all that their relationship has been treated as emotionally powerful and intimate over the course of the series, the moment they finally have sex is shot clinically, without much eroticism (and quickly, too). He’s in, he comes and that’s it. They’re having a good time (that’s nice!) but after all of the signals Transparent has been throwing out that we should take them seriously, and considering how much Soloway normally likes making all of the sex positive, the unsexiness of their sex is a big red flag.

Meanwhile, Ali gets confronted with the weirdness of her own relationship with sex. Syd’s description of Ali as a “vaginal learner” is really excellent, clever writing, framing Ali in a way that ties together quite a few different parts of her personality. She’s a little over-sexed, sure, but she’s also deeply curious and empathetic, interested in the world around her and the way other things make their way in that world, and the connection between these things is a nice way of suggesting that the likeable and horrible things about the Pfeffermans might be inextricably bound up. I didn’t think Josh and Syd sleeping together was going to be important, just another thing sliding into our voyeuristic cabinet of Pfefferman family secrets, but the way it comes back here is fantastic, primarily because of Carrie Brownstein. She’s great in this scene—even something like the way her voice warbles when she admits to having feelings for Ali (and then tries to make Ali feel guilty for not having noticed). Syd is one of the more likeable characters on the show, even when she’s making a conscious decision to hurt her friend and crush.

Ali somehow manages to make this about herself, responding to a huge revelation from her best friend by asking why Syd would have slept with Josh if she was really into Ali—there might have been a brief moment of maturity earlier in the season, but Ali takes this information and slides into acting like a petulant teenager with her siblings. That revelation about Syd and Josh, and the renewed childish behavior of the Pfeffermans in general, boil over in the big scene at Shelly’s house. Everything that happens here in the backstretch of the episode manages to be both seemingly effortless and carefully emotionally plotted, as the atmosphere of the room turns on a dime several times, ranging from tense to outright angry to cheerful. The cast never makes it seem like a stretch, blending into a realistic (and realistically mean-spirited) family.

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The family unit comes close to imploding here with the full brunt of the parents’ anger at the children—they don’t have anyone else, because family is the people who you have to spend time with no when no one else will. (Maybe Maura would be better off as a full member of the trans community). But the darkness at the heart of Transparent is that they don’t have to—Josh calls, but he isn’t around for Shelly when she needs someone to be there. The children are all off in their own worlds, and that’s partially because their parents built walls and kept secrets, hiding their own lives and struggles. Maura’s miffed reaction to seeing her children is an aggressive simmer, some of Tambor’s most pointed (and, frankly, masculine) acting, managing to hide all of the hurt that Maura must be feeling. Here, she’s in her own as an authoritative parent, but one who’s also been let down by her children. What’s functionally been a rebirth for Maura has caused her to be, to some extent, a child again, leading her to need approval from her own children, and mostly failing to get it.

But that all gets buried under Shelly and Sarah’s elation at the knowledge that Josh is sleeping with Raquel (an embarrassing moment that might be the most painfully accurate part of the show for me) and their talk about who’s going to be hosting the shiva (we’ll get to that in the next episode) before Ed is even dead. As horrifying as this seems, it ties in with Shelly’s unwillingness to acknowledge Ed’s demise, and it’s actually indicative of the attitude Jewish people are supposed to have during mourning (not that the Pfeffermans would know that). The purpose of the shiva is to remember the deceased as they were in life, and to be surrounded by a community of living people to help the bereaved. (Every shiva I’ve ever been to, including those for members of my own family, feels the slightest bit like a party.) For all the Pfeffermans have been through, they’re ready to celebrate something.

As good as this scene is, though, I think “Best New Girl” might have altered my understanding of what I want out of this show. Because the family drama is great, yes, but the sequence of Ed dying is much more powerful, and far closer to what my dream version of Transparent would be like (in addition to also somehow airing forever). For the third time in a row, an episode of Transparent ends with a visually ambiguous, intentionally frustrating scene. But I’m not complaining. Are we watching Ed get out of bed and use the last of his strength to go to the water? A representation of his experience as he succumbs to Shelly’s drugs? Again, again—it doesn’t matter (or at least, it doesn’t matter what I think). He’s surrounded by what he loves, which is the simple stuff: the water, the geese, and the sky (there’s the titular looking up). And everything is just gorgeous. Nisha Ganatra manages to shoot the sequence so that, in particular, all of the lights practically pop out, leading Ed on.

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And while that happens, we’re left with an emotional sock to the gut in our first (and only) glimpse of the living Ed, the Ed who isn’t (solely) a punch line to a joke or even a source of sadness for Ali. The Ed who entertains Ali and keeps the kids occupied with his ridiculous Jewish humor and embarrasses everyone but only because he wants to be the butt of the joke if only it will make everyone smile. The Ed who’s just there to make Shelly happy. It’s kind of cruel for Transparent to give us an episode full of these characters at their most vulnerable, angry, and unpleasant and then reveal we could have had a sweet, corny dad to make everything better this whole time—a different way all of these characters could have been, if they’d taken after their open, kind stepfather. It’s a mean joke, but not too mean.

Stray observations:

  • The “trip to visit your friend at college when you get abandoned to have sex and have to hang out with the roommate the whole time” happened to me. I was the roommate.
  • I think we all know why this episode is so groundbreaking—it’s a radical depiction of G Pens on television.
  • “I just ate the tushie. Mmmm… delicious.” Make your own Kevin Gates jokes, please.
  • “I’m just here to make you happy.” RIP Ed.

“Why Do We Cover The Mirrors?”

It’s not particularly shocking to claim that art can change the way we think about the world—that it can be ethically powerful. No matter how you try to describe it specifically (for example, Stanley Cavell argues that fiction is “about” human relationships), being exposed to certain sorts of stories, and certain sorts of fictional people, has the ability to change us. Otherwise, why would we consume art in the first place? If that’s true, I’d argue that television—and in particular, the form in which most television currently exists (what scholar Jason Mittell calls “complex television”)—is the most power and influential form of literature that we’ve yet developed. We spend more time with the characters, in a more visceral setting, and follow them for longer. They have a profound ability to penetrate our consciousness and change the way we see the world. How much more do you remember, or know, about Tony Soprano and Liz Lemon than the protagonist of the last novel you read?

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This deserves a lot more ink, but I go on a big philosophical rant (the last one for the season, thankfully) because Transparent has done maybe the best job of any show I’ve seen at pinpointing what it wants you to get out of it. Of course, this is more of a precision targeting. I get that this show isn’t for everyone. But, to my mind, the Pfeffermans are simply acting out more exaggerated, more tangible versions of the same emotional beats we all go through in our ordinary lives, even if we’re busy with other stuff too. We all wish we could have another life (Sarah), feel directionless (Ali), and experience potentially inappropriate, overwhelming love (Josh). By blowing these things up, and running them specifically through the prism of Maura’s coming out, Transparent teaches us about them, and about ourselves.

And I mention all that because Transparent spends most of its first season building up this empathy for Maura, leading us to repeatedly identify with her as she tries to become her true self and is repeatedly let down by her children, and then spends a decent part of its finale tearing that all down. As useless as Ali is a lot of the time, she’s fundamentally sweet, and Maura proves unwilling to recognize her role in the way the kids turned out. The secrecy that Ali calls the family religion comes from somewhere, and Maura had good reason to start hiding things, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have consequences. And if secrecy is the Pfefferman family religion, an unwillingness to take responsibility for your own actions is their first commandment. The work the show has put in toward building up Maura comes back, and will hopefully pay off, in a big way—positive representations of oppressed groups are important, but they’re not the be-all, end-all of their depictions. Now that Maura has been established as fundamentally sympathetic, and we’ve struggled with her, she’s just another member of the Pfefferman family, comfortable mentioning cilantro before her daughter’s wedding, which means she has just as many problems as everyone else and can be a flawed, arguably more interesting character. Next season, the real show can begin.

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Though this move makes total sense theoretically, it does lead the finale into somewhat jarring emotional territory. With the story of the first part of Maura’s transition mostly told, we’re left to watch the Pfeffermans’ actions come back to haunt them while they try to pick up the pieces. And that’s pretty uncomfortable in Maura’s case. It’s great that she is fully comfortable being herself, but the ostentatious way she shows up at the funeral in a giant limo (during the service, no less!) and has clearly carefully practiced her coming out narrative for repetition during the shiva displays shades of Josh’s image-consciousness, and her brutal fight with Ali is indicative of stern authority, the professorial side of Maura’s personality coming forth in full sternness.

The title “Why Do We Cover The Mirrors” refers to a shiva tradition, done in order to prevent Jews in mourning from being wrapped up in themselves at a time when we should be other-directed. The rationale for this tradition, and its relevance for the Pfeffermans, seems rather clear—what are these characters if not tied up almost entirely in their own issues, staring at their own metaphoric reflections? There’s something else going on, though. Mirrors indulge vanity, but they also allow us to see ourselves, sometimes as we really are. The entire Pfefferman family mirrors each other, holding up their uncomfortable truths to scrutiny, serving a role in each other’s lives that no one might like but all find necessary. And notably, Ali speaks the title of the episode as a question to Raquel, head in the clouds and endlessly inquisitive as she is—she’s the one naming the episode, positioning herself as the most important character on the show behind her father. She can’t do anything, but she serves a crucial role in the family organism created around Maura.

That’s why it feels so wrong when Ali storms out of the house, theoretically out of the family, Michael Bluth-style, though in this case she’s the one leaving the money behind. It removes an important (possibly the most important) member of that unit, the one who (sorry) keeps this family together. The sequence is, accordingly, powerful. Partially, Ali’s stroll through Los Angeles (which we only see for a few brief moments) fully brings “Dreamboat Annie,” which Bianca and Kaya’s sister cover during the cold open, in to the actual narrative of the series. Here’s Heart:

“Going down the city sidewalk alone in the crowd/No one knows the lonely one whose head’s in the clouds”

“Sad faces painted over with those magazine smiles/Heading out to somewhere, won’t be back for a while”

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Sound familiar? Ali’s head has certainly been in the clouds, and she’s often been positioned as lonely against the other members of her family (particular back in “Wedge,” when she functionally searches for Ed alone—now, she’s leaving his shiva). And she does head out to somewhere, ready to make her own way, separate from her family. Except that Ali is back pretty soon.

Soloway literally refers to the possibility that the family will actually fall apart as “schmuck bait”—we know that they’ll stay together (there is, after all, going to be a Transparent season two). But driving Ali off with the understanding that she’ll come back is, in this case, part of her character. She strains against what she perceives (rightly) as the problems with her family, but she’s going to come back to them. And it’s worth noting that what Soloway refers to in that interview as the real schmuck’s bait—that the Pfeffermans will abandon Maura because of her transition the way Divina suggested would happen—is never treated as a serious possibility. Instead, Ali is the one who threatens the integrity of the family unit, and it’s only tangentially related to Maura’s gender. Transparent is, again, declaring itself as less about Maura’s transition and more about the Pfeffermans, and how Maura’s journey changes them and her.

Ali might be positioned as the moral center of the family out of necessity, which is interesting considering that her habit of telling the truth leads to maybe the most destructive single act of the finale—Raquel leaving Josh after Ali tells the rabbi her boyfriend is a “love addict.” This isn’t an unfair assessment of Josh at all (maybe even a kind one), but Ali is almost solely trying to get back at her brother for sleeping with Syd, engaged in emotional revenge and sabotaging a relationship the show has suggested might actually be worth saving. Is Raquel doing herself a favor by getting away from Josh? Maybe, but she’s not doing him one—it actually looked like he might have some stability in his life.

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Josh does more than his fair share to implode the relationship, asking about a series of women he’s slept with over the course of the season, but it doesn’t really seem like that big of a deal to me? After his fight with Raquel over Bianca, and given his apparent insistence on monogamy, I guess I’m just not sure why Raquel is so upset that Josh had had girlfriends even right before they started seeing each other (though I’m totally willing to admit to being wrong). And I might be a sucker for happy endings, but it would have been fascinating to see Josh actually in a good place in life, rather than perpetually getting dumped on as Sarah digs herself deeper into a new complacent hole by proposing to the future Tammy Pfefferman. And worse still, if Kathryn Hahn doesn’t return for season two, I will be very, very sad indeed—she does fantastic work leading the service and later trying to keep herself together.

The other members of the family get some great stuff to work with in the finale, too. Shelly comes across as her usual, callous self for most of “Why Do We Cover The Mirrors,” getting in two all-time great lines with “See ya, Ed” (which might be the coldest thing I’ve ever heard, anywhere—take notes criminals) and “That’s fine” when Judith tries to apologize for not coming by more often. That’s because, we now know, Shelly has had to be almost totally self-sufficient, neglected by her children and forced to take care of her husband for years. And she has a perfect takedown of Josh when he asks, “Is everybody staring at dad right now?” and she replies, “Does it matter?” Team Shelly, everyone. That she came across like such a villain at the beginning of the show is indicative of the way everyone has revealed increasing layers, for good or ill, as the season went on. (It’s a phenomenon you could compare to Orange Is The New Black in the way season one started as squarely representing Piper’s worldview, then expanded as she started to realize the humanity of her fellow inmates.)

Len is the other person who somehow fully comes around to being sympathetic—his near-tryst with Sarah is heartbreaking, but mostly for him, somehow, because Huebel manages to communicate how much Len really does love her. His obliviousness isn’t just because he’s an idiot, it’s because he simply assumed he’d be with Sarah since they loved each other, and that their marital problems would work themselves out. A round of applause for Len, refusing to become yet another hidden tryst for the family, but this is also one of the moments in the finale where characters come close to stating the subtext of the show—Len telling Sarah she doesn’t have to be a Pfefferman and Ali claiming the family religion is secrecy. Like the initial flashbacks, they come close to too much, solely because we already know who these characters are. Soloway doesn’t have to tell us again.

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Admittedly, I’ve already complimented the cast at length, and said probably more than I had to say about what makes the show so great, and so special, from a narrative perspective. But I haven’t gotten to talk about what that does to you—what it does to me, that we’re so boxed-in with the Pfeffermans. The laser-like focus on the family, and the problems of the family specifically, is communicated effortlessly by the presence of the security guard from “Wedge” who has the sweetest things to say about Ed, but not things we get to hear because people are busy talking about mirrors and destroying their relationships and nearly giving blowjobs in the laundry room. The purely sweet, kind stuff is on the outside (or in the box with Ed). But what we do get all comes down to Syd cutting Ali’s tie. That moment is shot with a level of intimacy that suggests the kind of connection everyone is looking for (though Marau’s search is certainly harder), and is forced to find in each other.

It’s in the opening shots of hands working to prepare Ed’s body while Kaya’s sister and Bianca sing “Dreamboat Annie,” the closest the show has been to actually just looking like a Wes Anderson movie. It’s an obvious comparison for anything of the “precious wealthy white people/indie movie” aesthetic, but it’s also an instructive one considering the characters’ sensibilities. Where Anderson’s characters are all deeply reserved to the point where their lack of emotion is a punch line, the Pfeffermans are unable to leave any part of themselves in the tank. They’re all looking for some kind of connection, and where they can’t find it with outsiders (Sarah with Len, Josh with Raquel), they’re forced into finding it with their family. (There’s a whole essay to be written about this show’s treatment of the human body.) It’s there in the shot of everyone at the funeral, pretty much all of whom get at least one note during the shiva (watch out for Esther). It’s there in the annoying cousin, who doesn’t quite know enough about gender dysphoria to avoid being horrible to Maura (shades of an uninitiated viewer at the beginning of the season). And it’s there in the dinner of leftovers at the end of the season, when Josh has to introduce a new player to the family to replace Ed.

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That’s the biggest bombshell of the finale: Josh is a dad. Duplass has never sounded more like a teenager than when he insists he eat before telling the rest of the family who Colton is, and the Pfeffermans have never sounded more Jewish than when they struggle to pronounce his name. I’m skeptical of a new addition to the cast (though I supposed he could be easily written out), and this new character smacks of Transparent giving into its less-pleasant soapy tendencies. But we end with a family dinner doubling as verbal sparring, and that’s pretty much all we needed. The family doesn’t necessarily have to stay together, but it does, and that’s all the intimacy they need (or are probably going to get), if only they can accept each other. This All-American teenager might have something to say about that next year—I’m willing to trust that if Colton is important to Transparent, he’ll justify his presence. After all, this show has proven itself more than good enough to cut the mustard.

Stray observations:

  • That’s Faith Soloway as Cantor Joy.
  • I must have that version of “Dreamboat Annie (Reprise),” now.
  • I’m glad the flashback narratives built to a conflict in the present, but I’m not sure it’s that big of a deal. My grandparents asked my mom if she wanted to have a bat mitzvah and she said no, so she didn’t. My grandparents weren’t Pfeffermans.
  • The kids call Shelly GG. That’s what my family calls my great-grandmother (she is still kicking).
  • And that’s the end of Transparent season one! In case it hasn’t been obvious, I’ve absolutely loved this season, and while there hasn’t been nearly as much discussion as I would’ve liked, I’m excited to talk about the finale, and the season as a whole, with whoever wants to. Here’s to season two and beyond. L’chaim.
  • Already used “Dreamboat Annie” (oops), so here’s “Razor Love” from a few weeks back:

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