Jeffrey Tambor (screenshot: Amazon Prime Video)

One of the advantages television has over other mass media is the amount of time we spend with its characters. Sometimes we get to watch them repeat the same patterns again and again; other times we watch as they break out of those loops and grow and change and learn in ways that actual humans do. And just like real people, that process is never really complete.

When “Elizah” arrives in our queues, we’ve spent approximately 10 hours with the Pfeffermans. But it’s rare to spend this much uninterrupted time with one member of the family. The third-season premiere does as much as it can to place us in Maura’s soon-to-be-busted shoes, while still providing enough distance to recognize her mistakes. It’s a fascinating episode relying on two of the most powerful tools at Transparent’s disposal (empathy and Jeffrey Tambor), and while it has its flaws, it continues the show’s streak of strong openers into a third year.

The focus of the episode isn’t the eponymous character, nor is she the first face we see or voice we hear. Those belong to Raquel, who has an increased role to play in season three, a complicated journey that gives shape to the proceedings in the same way the recurring flashbacks did in the show’s first two seasons. Kathryn Hahn kicks things off with a little talk about The Exodus, and the journeys beyond the world as the Pfeffermans know it begin with Maura’s day trip to South L.A., where a desire to help exceeds her logical (and, eventually, her physical) faculties.

“Elizah” is a great-looking car crash in which one of the drivers has the best of intentions. The phone call that introduces Elizah to Maura provides the emotional ballast for those intentions, with the pair striking a brief human connection that breaks through the barriers of physical location and personal experience. In a lovely bit of magical-realist staging, the two women are seen resting their heads on either sides of the same pane of glass—though, in reality, they’re miles apart. Earlier in the episode, Maura tells Davina that she’s feeling unfulfilled, but connecting this way to a total stranger could reverse that feeling. The impulse to help Elizah overrides every other drive, and she lights out of the LGBT Center in an effort to find someone who, in Maura’s estimation at least, is in danger.

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But “Maura’s” is the operative term in that sentence. “Elizah” is an episode that defines itself entirely through Maura’s outlook—Elizah included. When that relates to the frantic editing during the phone call, or the heart-wrenching closeup of Jeffrey Tambor’s face as Maura is wheeled out of the Slauson Supermall, the episode achieves its lofty aims. It envelops the viewer in Maura’s overwhelmed obliviousness, the flow of activity and the abundant visual information gumming up our rooting interests. Do we want Maura to find Elizah? Sure, because this character we’ve come to know and love (in spite of herself) is upset, and we want to see her mind at ease. But should she find Elizah? According to common sense and the confidentiality policies that Maura bulldozes her way through, absolutely not.

In an episode that rests entirely on Maura’s shoulders, Tambor is spectacular, making his character’s emotional state our own. We are flustered with her as she stumbles through the call center’s suggested questions. We share her mortification at asking fellow members of “familia trans” if they’ve seen Elizah “in the streets.” Maura is in over her head in so many ways this episode, ways that demonstrate how far she has to go toward understanding herself and her relationship to other trans people. “I’m just getting started, but I’m excited to learn about that whole world,” she tells Davina at the breakfast table, a choice of words and tone that suggests she’s not quite ready to see those around her as anything other than props and scenery in a story starring Maura Pfefferman.

But acknowledging this short-sightedness makes for tricky television. “Elizah” demonstrates, in slightly less than subtle shades, the privileged position from which Maura began this part of her life. She didn’t bounce through the foster system. People aren’t assuming that she’s a prostitute. She is subject to misgendering, though, with both instances in this episode representing opposite poles in her connection to Elizah. They start off on the wrong foot. They end with one woman standing up for the other.

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And that’s the tricky part: What Elizah does in that moment, as Maura is being escorted out of the mall, is still in service of Maura. In an episode tightly focused on one character, within a show about a family confronting their selfish ways, that type of criticism can be elided. But even as I marvel at the formal and acting achievements of “Elizah,” its treatment of Elizah rings a little hollow. Alexandra Grey delivers a deeply felt performance, but she’s not playing a character so much as a sentient MacGuffin. Seeking Elizah out isn’t about Elizah at all. It’s about Maura, and while that’s in line with the ways Transparent teaches its characters about themselves (and shows their true selves, warts and all, to us) that takes some of the wind out of “Elizah”’s sails.

Fortunately, the end of “Elizah” is not an ending. It’s the beginning of a whole new season. There’s not much of a story told about Elizah, but a concluding montage shows her walking down the train tracks (tracks crossed by Maura earlier), with the voices of Nina Simone and Kathryn Hahn in our ears. “What about this: What if the miracle was you?” Raquel asks. “What if you had to be your own messiah? Then what?” Elizah doesn’t need Maura to rescue her, and vice versa. They can be their own saviors. And what’s more Transparent then that?

Stray observations

  • Hello, and welcome to TV Club coverage of Transparent’s third season—it’s only two months late! You might have noticed I’m not Eric Thurm, who’ll be here tomorrow to cover episode two, “When The Battle Is Over.” In an effort to make up for lost time, Eric and I are tackling the third season with our esteemed colleagues Danette Chavez, Josh Modell, Nick Wanserski, and Esther Zuckerman. We’ll be posting daily reviews through Wednesday, November 23.
  • I brought this up elsewhere, but as much as I like seeing J.B. Smoove, Sasheer Zamata, Ron Funches, and Lena Waithe in “Elizah,” their presence sort of breaks the reality established by the episode. Maura heads to parts of L.A. that she’s entirely unfamiliar with, yet she keeps running into actors that we’re familiar with from other TV shows. There’s a disconnect there that pulls me out of the episode ever so slightly.

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