After a premiere focused primarily on Maura, the third season of Transparent widens its gaze to show us what the other Pfeffermans have been up to: pretty much exactly what you’d expect. Sarah has thrown herself into her work with the synagogue and friendship with Raquel, Josh is isolated and frustrated with his job, and Ali is still banging Leslie and talking about high-flying academic concepts she doesn’t quite understand. Also, everyone is fighting with each other. Fun times for the whole family!
“When The Battle Is Over” opens at the hospital, where Maura is having a less-than-pleasant experience after her collapse. Not only has she been misgendered, the hospital staff hasn’t even bothered to spell her name right. Bri shows up (Maura gave the EMTs the phone number of their parents’ house), and immediately begins sniping with her sister—precipitating a scene later in the episode where Maura asks Vicki to be her emergency contact instead, a moment of commitment to the seemingly adult relationship. Jenny O’Hara is, as always, excellent as Bri, and it helps that this scene begins to lay the groundwork for the genuine exploration of her relationship with Maura (something that’s been promised since the second season premiere). The tenderness evident in the way they sing their family’s phone number, which they were meant to memorize in the event of a kidnapping, suggests a closeness we haven’t seen before, and that we’ll uncover further as the season progresses.
Bri is replaced with Maura’s kids, forming a whirlwind of selfish garbage too consumed by their own issues to do much to help their mother. Sarah (as always, the most competent child) is in full-on aggressive mode, unwilling to talk through what kind of treatment Maura needs without yelling. It’s understandable, but her anger feels just the slightest bit misplaced—it’s not hard to imagine put-upon nurses and doctors letting some details slip through the cracks, particularly if they aren’t aware of the particular issues surrounding how to treat trans patients. In fact, for a show that usually takes pains to humanize even its loosely villainous characters, it’s strange that the uncaring doctor is credited merely as “Resident.” Even with all of this conflict, the hospital is the primary scene of community in this episode, because afterward the rest of the Pfeffermans are splintered.
Shelly does a reading at the temple, describing her own experience as the partner (ex-partner) of a trans woman, complete with lines like “When one person in a family transitions, everyone transitions.” She’s clearly been influenced by Buzzy taking a more egocentric interest in her own identity in a reflection of his conversation with Josh at the end of last season. It’s a good direction for her as a person, given how much Shelly’s identity last season became subsumed in the familiarity and obligations of her relationship with Maura, but all of the Pfeffermans become the victims of their own selfishness sooner or later. There’s not much going on in this story (for now), though Shelly does take quickly to the idea of expanding her “one-time temple talk” into a show that, of course, Buzzy will produce.
Sarah, meanwhile, is trying to join the board of that same temple—partly because of her burgeoning friendship with Raquel, and partly because she increasingly feels a need for community outside of her immediate family. This episode introduces the newest member of that community, Kobi Libii’s sweet, sensitive Cantor Duvid—a man who is so attentive to others that he brushes off talking about his wife’s death, instead asking about the minor details of Raquel’s life and breakup with Josh. Sarah, horny as ever, seizes on him as a possible romantic interest for Raquel—and Kathryn Hahn is, as always, perfect, communicating her superficial disapproval but deeper romantic interest. (Sarah may be a mess, but she does know how to read people.)
Blessedly, Sarah is the comedic highlight of this episode, engaging in a deeply awkward interaction with the temple board in which she argues for a large purchase of bean bag chairs to allow for modular event planning in non-traditional spaces. (When one of the temple board members asks whether she saved receipts for the chairs—which she has already bought—Sarah’s only response is “Um.”) Sarah is, of course, part of the reason for the discomfort (she’s a Pfefferman, and she gets a little too deep into describing her own sex life), but the board of the ostensibly progressive synagogue isn’t totally innocent here. Part of Sarah’s ideal direction for the temple involves outreach to the LGBT community—which, to put it lightly, kind of grosses out the board. (In a fated moment, Sarah says “I have a trans parent.”)
Sarah is also living with Len, though it’s unclear exactly on what terms. Later on, she tries to talk through all of this during one of her sessions with Pony, a scene that tries to find humor in the dom-sub relationship. (Pony quiets Sarah down by barking “Shut up, slut,” providing a great acting moment for Jiz Lee and echoing Len’s doofy command that his new girlfriend “worship that cock.”)
Josh has his own problems, apparently having lost most of his interest in his work—the only thing he’s been consistently good at or found satisfaction in over the course of the series. “When The Battle Is Over” introduces TV’s Nathan Fielder as Seth, a younger co-worker who mostly exists to give Josh anxiety, wear the kind of absurdly patterned clothing he would have worn in season one (while Josh wears a slightly more conservative suit), spew social media jargon about emojis and hyper-specific sub-genres, and push a band called Manatee. (As someone else puts it to Josh: “He’s come for your soul, man.”)
Unlike Josh, Ali seems to have found a bit more of a place for herself professionally, appearing to display a baseline level of competence as a TA in Leslie’s class, even though they’re still dating. (Remember at the end of last season when it seemed like a big choice Ali had to make? “Why pick one thing when you can have everything?” seems like a pretty good motto for most of the characters on this show.) Leslie has, somehow, fallen for Ali—though she does ask Ali to walk out of the classroom separately so that the undergrads don’t get any ideas, given the older professor’s rich sexual history. They’re not the ones she should be worried about: Aubree, one of the other graduate students (played by Sabrina Jalees), uses Ali’s hand to make herself cum after using Leslie’s hormones, an incident that is played for both laughs (it’s absurd) and deep discomfort (it’s sexual assault). It’s one of the more confusing things that’s happened on this show over three season, and probably deserves a measure of sustained consideration in the Leslie-Ali plot going forward.
As the episode comes to a close, Ali and Josh play at being married, eating pancakes and talking about the “honeymoon sonata” Josh had written when they were children. The fantasy family they’ve constructed for themselves is kind of weird and messy, but it feels more emotionally true than the ethical discussions Ali tries to lead in the classroom, which include the phrase “historical memory and feminist dystopia,” defensive panicking in response to being accused of white fragility, and someone else saying there are too many syllables in the word “intersectionality.” Like much of this season’s attempts at exploring the theme of “intersectionality,” (touted by Jill Soloway before the premiere) these conversations get lost in a mush, unable to do the work of actually exploring what it means to acknowledge different types of people as equally valuable.
Instead, this scene does what Transparent does best: staying close to its characters. The uncomfortable closeness of Ali and Josh is one of the show’s earliest, most specific themes, with Jay Duplass and Gaby Hoffmann proving to have so much chemistry that almost all of their scenes acquire a bizarre incest subtext. Still, like all of those scenes, this one manages to walk on the side of sweetness, depicting a sibling relationship that might be slightly gross and creepy to people on the outside, but is still fundamentally sweet, and important emotional bedrock of both Pfeffermans’ lives. Somehow, everything goes on as normal.
- “When The Battle Is Over” is written by Jessie Klein and directed by Silas Howard.
- Bri on the hospital: “It’s like Beirut!”
- Spoiler alert: Nathan Fielder isn’t in nearly as much of this season as I’d have liked (especially since Josh’s anxiety over his irrelevance at work is more or less dropped by the season’s midpoint), but it’s nice to see him regardless—and who knows, maybe he’ll show up in season four.
- Hi everyone! I missed you when this season was first released—and if you’re one of the people who asked if I was going to review the show again, thank you, your comments meant a lot. As you can maybe tell from the above, I’m quite a bit cooler on this season than the first two. More on that the next time I show up here.
- Ali: “How many of you have had the ominous feeling that your very essence is taboo to those around you?” Hm, I wonder if anyone is feeling that way this week?