One of the best and worst things about Transparent is that so much happens. I know that “soap” isn’t a dirty word when it comes to TV in 2015 (seriously, it’s not, and if you think it is maybe go back to the drawing board with your taste), and part of the point of the show is that these characters’ lives are super messed up, so it makes a certain degree of sense that they’ll make huge mistakes and decisions all the time without ever really confronting the consequences. But oh, to see that fallout.
Transparent rarely finds time to meditate on the consequences of the Pfefferman’s actions, and when it does it allows them to manifest in subtle, prickly ways. Sometimes their transgressions come up again (Josh sleeping with Syd, which became one of the many bombs to go off in the first season finale), but other ones don’t (Ed’s death, which no one has really talked about this season). All of these can remain dormant for a while, but even if I trust Soloway to handle the soapy long game (and I do), there’s something immensely satisfying about breathing and taking stock of what’s happened.
So when the episode opens with Josh heading to confront Shelly—who knows that he knows what she did, but tries to act as if nothing is wrong—it should be phenomenal, the kind of scene that justifies how long it took for the show to reveal Maura and Shelly’s role in hiding Colton’s birth. But the pacing of this sequence is more than a little off. Josh shows up at the house to yell at his mother, then, after a quick break for the opening credits, Shelly claims she… forgot? About Josh’s love child, and his abuse, and the money she paid to keep it under wraps? And then just sort of holds out on that point, until everyone wears themselves out?
The ensuing arguments feels weirdly muted, rather than the volcanic confrontation we might have expected from a betrayal at this level. But Shelly stands her passive-aggressive ground, doing her best to convince her children and herself that she was a good parent, while Josh seems to just want to vent—which isn’t unreasonable, but also doesn’t really go anywhere. This kind of argument doesn’t need to “go” anywhere in order to be realistic, and maybe it shouldn’t, but for dramatic purposes there needs to be at least some sort of payoff, and there isn’t quite one here. Maybe unsurprisingly, Josh is like a sullen, frustrated teen, rather than an adult with an adult grievance. (Note that, while Shelly is in the hot seat and Josh is confrontational, standing over her, Sarah is just kind of chilling on the couch, like a confused, shocked, but ultimately detached observer.)
Given how devastating Maura’s revelation was in “Mee-Maw,” it’s disappointing to have this argument feel like any other Pfefferman fight. I suppose if you’re being charitable, that’s kind of the point—that throughout their lives, the Pfeffermans go from crisis to crisis, hurting each other freely, and always get away with it because they’ll always spring back into the shape of a family. (In this respect, they are more than a little reminiscent of the Bluths.) Still, there are times when it makes sense for a show to reach for the fireworks, and this was one of those times. And as good as he was in “Mee-Maw,” Jay Duplass’ acting in this scene feels… a little forced, perhaps because the thing that’s actually making Josh upset is kind of insane. Remember: He’s not angry because his parents were aware of the abuse he suffered and let slide, he’s angry because he can’t get back the years he would have spent as a teenage father.
Josh’s misdirected rage and inability to understand his own life is, in part, what leads him to lose his relationship with “the most amazing human being that I’ve ever met.” (Like, yeah dude. Have you seen Kathryn Hahn on this show?) It’s not the last straw, though. That would be the fallout from Raquel miscarrying.
Losing a pregnancy is just an incredibly lame, dumb plot device. Its history on TV goes back through Moonlighting to Gossip Girl to Degrassi to Boardwalk Empire to Mad Men. It’s dumb, and it almost never works. You can sort of see why writers do it, I suppose. (I always imagine the conversation going something like: “What if we got this character pregnant and see how they/their partner respond? Then we can just get rid of the fetus to avoid having to upset the status quo!” “Totally Steve, that sounds like a great idea! But we don’t have to ever mention it again after, right?” “Don’t be ridiculous, Jim.”) Even though the narrative logic makes sense from one angle, it’s lazy, and it treats the pregnancy like a thing you can just hand-wave away, which is deeply unfair to people who actually have miscarriages. Worse still, it’s boring and predictable. So even though Kathryn Hahn gets to do some fantastic acting, from a plot perspective, this is by far the worst thing the show has ever done. Especially because it feels like an excuse to have Josh to say that he and Raquel should take a moment to “just breathe.”
She knows in this moment, or thinks she knows, that they were together primarily because of the baby. This interpretation of their relationship makes sense, since it lets us fill in some gaps between the end of last season and the beginning of this one (we didn’t see why they got back together after the fight, but discovering the pregnancy seems like a good bet). Still, the dynamic playing out in their breakup is pretty complicated, and deserves a little more untangling if you want to be fair to both parties.
Superficially, the breakup appears similar to Josh letting Colton leave—the loss of a person in his life resulting from his immaturity and inability to commit to anything. In this case, Josh is far less defensible because he initiates the whole “space” thing, rather than simply allowing Colton to leave in a trainwreck of honesty and inertia. But is he really so wrong to insist on stepping back? It’s been, to put it lightly, an insane few months for both of them, and a lot has happened. And he might have come to the same conclusion earlier—having a child has been Raquel’s primary motive for a while, and it’s not hard to sense that he knows it might be more important to her than being with him, specifically. Throw in the abuse, and you get a boiled-down version of every argument Josh and Raquel have been having all season. By the time Raquel is sprawled out with a blanket on the couch while Josh prepares to go to an industry party, she looks totally checked out. She’s made up her mind.
This is why Transparent is so good, even in its quieter moments. Everyone is wrong, everyone is right, and the show rarely allows us to totally identify with one person over another. Even in cases that are clearly one-sided (“Other people throw babies in dumpsters,” Shelly says), the acting is so good that it’s hard not to empathize. Even at Josh’s industry party, where it would be easy to paint all of the people as assholes. His friends make sneakers, do chill photography, and generally engage in all kinds of theoretically terrible behavior. But it also seems like a genuinely fun time, even if there are a few too many mini-cocktails.
Transparent excels at using lovely camera work to paint potentially creepy situations in a relatively sympathetic light. Beyond the party, this also happens when Ali gets into the hot tub at Leslie’s house, after climbing the stairs to find her watching porn, back to the camera. (You’d imagine this being the introduction for a horror movie villain who has lots of surveillance cameras in a murder house.) The aggressively sexual, hyper-confident energy coming off Leslie is hard to deny (Cherry Jones!), and it’s not hard to see why Ali is so nervous talking about her project combining “the woman thing” and “the Jew thing,” which not even she seems to really think is going anywhere. Ali sounds (and smiles) like a child when she admits to being 33, and it’s a whole new kind of awkwardness for this potential fling.
Ali’s insecurity is a double-edged sword. There’s a sense in which it’s genuinely exciting and good for her to be exploring this new world, and allowing herself to be open to new possibilities and ways of relating to herself as part of her attempt to understand and work with this new presence. But, of course, it might also destroy her relationship with Syd (who gets some choice lines in earlier in the episode). As often happens, Ali’s plot is mirrored by her moppa. Maura is extremely clingy when Sal shows up to whisk Davina away, maybe because she perceives as a bit of a threat to her relationship with her friend. (Maura doesn’t exactly have a ton of people in her corner at this point.) Played by The Sopranos’ Ray Abruzzo, Sal is a fascinating presence. He’s pretty comfortable in his own masculinity, but he’s also honest about his trans-amorousness, the kind of coming out you wouldn’t normally expect a dude to have to engage in.
Sarah, meanwhile, has to deal with a far less interesting dude in Jason Mantzoukas’ Dr. Steve. Continuing his streak of being actually kind of sweet, Steve aggressively refutes the idea that Sarah is a “slut” when she tries to work toward her disciplinary fantasy, which makes him a better guy than we might have expected, but also someone who might not be able to meet her sexual needs. (Which is more important for Sarah at this point?) It’s another statement of a fact we already knew—Sarah doesn’t really know what she wants, and she’s struggling with short-term patches for making her happy. Nothing has worked so far, and she doesn’t even get the chance to take Steve out for a test ride before she’s called back to deal with Shelly, who is crying because of Ella. Apparently, the little girl really knows how to hurt people.
Look: It’s easy, for me at least, to kind of make fun of Shelly in this situation. Sarah’s reaction is totally reasonable (she had a hot date with a dude who has tons of free weed!), but Shelly has been laid pretty low in this episode. In her confrontation with Josh, she’s starting to realize how bad a lot of her choices were—Light does a fantastic job conveying how low Shelly’s opinion of herself is, even as she calcifies her own sense of social norms to keep herself moving. And there’s an elephant in the room: Maura leaving. Again, we find Shelly and Maura on the same emotional level as their children, and again, it helps make them more legible as characters (while explaining part of why their family is so messed up). Literally, in the case of this shot. “Your father left me,” Shelly says. Sarah doesn’t know how to respond. No one does.
- “Bulnerable” is written by Bridget Bedard and directed by Silas Howard (the show’s first trans director).
- “I’m not even looking for a parent, I’m just looking for a fucking human being.” This is the best Jay Duplass line delivery of the episode.
- What is up with Ali’s hair this season?
- “I’m sure she has a lot of opinions about your cunt.”
- “They really fucking come out late in your family.”
- “I love vagina.”
- On an unrelated note, I was having a conversation on Twitter a few days ago about the Shelly-Maura bathtub scene from “Flicky-Flicky Thump-Thump.” Did anyone else read Maura as being coerced by Shelly into a sexual relationship? I saw her as being more condescending and detached than anything else, but it’s quite possible I have a very narrow perspective on this and am missing a lot of potentially exculpatory stuff for the way I’m thinking about Maura leaving Shelly. I’d love to talk about different reactions to the scene in the comments!
- Welcome to the back half of the season! Hope you all had good holiday celebrations/aren’t too hung over today. We should be smooth sailing through the end of the season on the normal Monday-Friday schedule.