“This is a big deal for me.”
That’s what Josh tells Kaya about her pregnancy, missing perhaps every hint imaginable that she doesn’t want to have anything to do with him. Somehow, Josh has managed to take getting his sort-of girlfriend in the band he manages (an awkward power imbalance, to say the least) pregnant and turn it into the biggest thing to happen to him, but it’s just the most flagrant example of the way “Rollin” digs in to the problems of the Pfeffermans. In the first two episodes, Maura laments how self-absorbed her children are—here, we see how that effects others, with each of the Pfefferman children so totally caught up in their own version of events they can’t see the axe about to fall.
For Josh, of course, that’s the catastrophic end of both his relationship with Kaya and his job. First, her sister tries to puncture his illusion at band practice—in what world would it make any sense for them to get married?—but she’s just a “fetus” and doesn’t know what love is. (There’s that Pfefferman self-justification.) Then, after finding out Kaya had his boss take him off the band and assign him to up-and-comers The Drug Mules (this is a pretty good fake band name), he goes ballistic and attempts to throw a chair through a window. The moment it bounces back, Soloway’s camera shakily focused on Josh before following him out of the office as his boss yells “You just got fired, bro,” is a good distillation of a lot of Transparent’s humor. It’s something we’ve seen before, and it’s not exactly surprising, but the attention to detail saves it, along with the discrepancy between what Josh thinks is going to happen and what we know is going to happen. That’s where Transparent lives.
The breakdown of Ali’s big sex plan plays out almost the same way. Somehow, Ali’s salt-and-pepper shaker explanation of “spit roasting” is kind of adorable? (The easy chemistry between Hoffmann and Carrie Brownstein’s Syd helps.) Hoffmann plays Ali as genuinely excited about the night she’s going to have on moon rocks—it might sound kind of gross, but her sincerity makes it hard to be mad at her for trying (and it does sound pretty fun, if you’re into that sort of thing). The disconnect between her interior and the outside world here isn’t even that big: Ali’s plan could have worked, but she pushes too far, first asking Mike to roll after Derek says no, then suggesting that Mike and Derek want to have sex with each other using her as a conduit in one of the better drug sequences I’ve seen in the last few years. The show invites us to consider whether there might be some truth to this beyond Ali just being really high, but for her purposes, it doesn’t matter. Mike and Derek seemingly snap out of their highs immediately, and Ali winds up in a car home.
Sarah gets the most to work with (or work against) in “Rollin,” as she first unwittingly compares Maura to a baby in the house, then finds herself overtaken by a crush that might make a 12-year-old embarrassed, calling Tammy at all hours and regressing into a child as she prepares to leave Len. (“I don’t want you to be mad at me,” she says, collapsing into his arms.) Tammy’s absence is tangible, a shadow looming over “Rollin” in a way that should immediately clue viewers in to what’s going on (Tammy, at the very least, is having second thoughts about leaving Barbara, if that was ever her plan to begin with). Appropriately for the beginning of October, this subplot gives off a sense of slow-building horror for Sarah, with Tammy the absent monster at the end of the episode. Sarah is even shot as tiny and insignificant in the foyer of the big, mostly empty house, out of place and out of sync—everything in the house is black and white, and she’s blue (good one, show). Everything she does is an attempt to communicate some sort of color, but that’s hard to do when confronted with the blank face of Rob Huebel.
It’s easy to see how this might make the kids (and seriously, I have to keep reminding myself that all of these characters are much older than me) insufferable. But for the most part, these aren’t totally problems they’ve created for themselves. The gap between the way the world is and the way the Pfeffermans see it (closely tied, admittedly, to the way they want it to be) is slight, but enough to cause serious problems for their attempts to deal with other people. It’s not just that they assume they know everything, it’s that they assume they know other people, and that other people will do what they expect—in particular, that Tammy will appear and carry Sarah off into the sunset. The Pfeffermans keep pushing up against big changes—against the things they want—and getting knocked back, mostly by their own limitations. Whether they’ll learn anything from these pitfalls remains to be seen.
But the most disappointing instance of this is Maura’s inability to come out to Josh. The shot of her emerging from the edge of the frame as Mort, fastening a ponytail, is probably the most effective moment of the episode, saying everything about what happened to Maura in the intervening time without a single word—even looking at Mort seems strange after having spent so much time with the person Maura really is. Josh’s presumptive question about the perfume makes something else clear—the picture Mom and the kids painted in the pilot of Mort as a philanderer is totally off-base, a useful fiction Maura uses to justify having feminine products around all time (especially those of younger women).
That plays into the way Maura’s story in “Rollin” starts to justify the show’s use of flashback, with Mort’s chance meeting of Mark, who seems to be similarly struggling with trans identity. Bradley Whitford’s mischievousness works perfectly for the pair’s plaintive meeting in a seedy bookstore, where Mort has ostensibly gone to buy candy for the kids (who are, unsurprisingly, fighting amongst themselves or listening to a Walkman). The funniest line reading of the episode is the sneer Whitford uses in describing the magazines they could use as cover. Deck And Patio? Outdoor Living? These are for “normals,” people who are, in their conspiracy, less than Mark and Mort. It’s a real bond, something we haven’t seen yet from Maura. (The saddest moment of the series so far might be when Sarah tries to express the feeling of falling in love and Maura draws a blank.) It’s also a suggestion that there might be a way for her to form a stronger community with similar people, a community that can take pride in its difference—the support group and apartment complex may or may not be the foundation of such a community, but they’re bigger steps toward acceptance than her kids are taking.
And yet, “Rollin” manages to give them grace notes at their lowest points as the episode ends, each preparing to grapple with the past. I’m thinking of the simple way Soloway’s direction communicates Ali’s joy in her car ride home and in the fountain once she reaches the apartment complex. Yes, she’s high out of her mind, but the moon rocks have captured the deeper naïveté and innocence of a person who earlier attempted to plan to be spit roasted. (I suspect this will draw comparisons to Hannah Horvath, but I haven’t gotten any indication Ali has a cynical or truly mean-spirited bone in her body, which is a big difference.) And her invitation to Maura is an odd sort of cliffhanger, suggesting a complete disaster for their meeting in Ali’s laid-bare, hyperemotional state (though I can’t think of many better ways to ensure someone would experience maximal empathy in a moment like Maura’s coming out).
Josh, pantsless and pathetic, leafs through the remnants of a relationship that was clearly predatory, and just as clearly contributed to a lot of his issues and poor understanding of how he’s supposed to act in relationships. Will he confront Rita about it? Can he? His actions are almost inexplicable for most of “Rollin,” before considering the way Soloway and episode writer Bridget Bedard position him as trapped in fog (remember that he’s still in a relationship with Rita). And poor Sarah is alone in the house, the symbol of what the Pfeffermans’ lives used to be like, emptied of Maura’s presence, literally trying to bury the specter of an old flame (with a candle, no less). They may have brought these problems upon themselves, but as the series continues introducing complications, they’re also going to have to face the consequences.
- “Kiss me. I’m 70% water.” Ali’s got game.
- “When I hear your voice—I feel better.” I understand not finding the kids particularly likeable, but how can you not feel for Sarah after the way Landecker says this?
- “You weird, old, sad fellow.”
- “That’s… last month’s issue.”
- This week in Transparent Spinoffs I Want: A Rob Huebel-penned memoir titled The End Of Len.
Time to get into some Gender Trouble. As best as I’m capable of expressing the central idea of Judith Butler’s main work, it’s this—that gender is, fundamentally, performative. That means that the stories we’ve told ourselves over time about women being born to be nurturing mothers and men “inherently” being hunters, gatherers, or assholes, are all just that—stories, based on the way people have chosen to act (products of societal pressure and culture, certainly, but still choices). Everything about gender that we see is based on a performance, acting out what we perceive our role to be. That idea has permeated even casual conversations about gender, to the point where we can talk about the performance of different types of femininity (“the cool girl” springs to mind). It’s hard to have a serious conversation about performativity in gender (or the foundations of the concept) in a review of an episode of television, but the kernel of the idea is crucial to having a serious conversation about this show. Perceiving gender as performative make it much easier to explain gender dysphoria to those who wouldn’t otherwise readily understand what it means for someone to be a woman in a man’s body. And, even though it might seem obvious to some, it helps to have everyone be basically on the same page before discussing the thematic tissue of “Moppa,” which is all about different ways the characters perform gender.
Maura, especially, finds herself growing into her performance of femininity. In flashback, we see her first, tentative attempts to be a woman, wearing a sparkling suit and wig in a hotel room with Mark, who we learn is the Marcie that everyone else thinks Maura has been dating. Their meeting in a hotel room is a wonderful subversion of the illicit hotel meetup trope, where there’s usually something consciously seedy being expressed, something genuinely illict happening. In this case, everything is gentle, furtive, and beautiful—think of Whitford’s slight twirl as Marcie introduces herself to the world (even if her whole world is just the then-Daphne Sparkles). And Tambor’s reading of the first time she says, “My name is Maura” is a world-beating, heart-breaking accomplishment, the pinnacle of a performance that has to go all over the place in this episode, from giddy excitement at blueberry pancakes and foundation to deep discomfort and self-doubt in a mall bathroom to a rage at a loud party held by the gay men in her building that blurs her feminine side. It’s a sentence deeply loaded with meaning, proclaiming the creation of a newer, truer, self, and Tambor sells the hell out of it.
Maura’s story in the present, where Divina tries to teach her how to “walk like a woman” and helps her get new hair clips that replace the more obviously fake wig, can’t help feeling like a bit of a comedown by comparison. This is the first of several problems we see Maura encounter as she attempts to fully express and openly perform her gender identity, ranging from the relatively insipid (she hasn’t been conditioned by years of being a woman to know how to deal with cosmetic salespeople) to the disastrous—navigating the women’s bathroom at the mall. Where in the first three episodes, her concern was how to explain herself to her children and be accepted by them, once she can more or less comfortably go out in public with Ali and Sarah, she’s presented with some of the many, many transphobic people she’ll have to encounter.
As the first major conflict surrounding Maura’s identity, this scene rewards some more intense scrutiny. Think about the way the camera holds on Maura, not even showing the door to the bathroom, just her face, holding, unmoved, as Maura stares. Sarah reenters the frame, dragging Maura into this new, feminine world, one where Maura’s performance of her true gender identity will receive far more scrutiny than Divina telling her to carry herself better. I haven’t said much about the direction of the show because it’s been so consistent, but this shot captures something important about the motivation between many of Soloway’s choices (or, in this case, Nisha Ganatra)—they’re mimicking the emotional states of the characters, approximating a sort of formal empathy. The camera’s paralysis is Maura’s paralysis, and Sarah’s emergence to help Maura move into the spaces that will define her new life is a movement that doubles as a breath of fresh air, suggesting that maybe this family is capable of helping each other after all.
And Sarah mightily acquits herself here, displaying the positive side of her childish impulsiveness when she snaps at the women in the bathroom, defensive of her father in a way that’s almost maternal (there’s her description of Maura as a baby again). The woman in the bathroom is speaking in clear, black-and-white terms—if you’re phenotypically (biologically) a man, you cannot be in this bathroom—and Sarah, for now, is the champion of Maura’s ability to be herself. Four episodes in, Sarah might have received the most definition of any of the Pfefferman children—instead of merely a perennially put-upon, bored suburban housewife, she’s a passionate, caring person who sometimes finds her affection misplaced. And in the course of her outpourings of love and attempt to burn her life down for someone else, she’s responding, at least in part, to Tammy’s performance of a decidedly masculine sort of aggression during their first confrontation (more on that later).
Sarah is equally protective of Maura in her morning conversation with Ali, which is as good a litmus test for the Pfeffermans’ likeability as any, turning on the question: Do you think they’re making fun of Maura? If they are, it’s hard to maintain any semblance of sympathy for them—it would be unconscionably cruel. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. The laughter here is nervous, a response to something that’s new and challenges the way they see the world. It’s uncomfortable, not malicious, and it’s easy to see the way that time will calm them (especially Ali) and make it easier for them to connect with their father. The way Landecker says “Outing a trans person is like an acting of violence,” the words don’t fit quite right in Sarah’s mouth—she’s only just looked all this stuff up—but she’s trying to get them to come naturally. (Note how by this point in the series, she rarely slips up and misgenders Maura.) This, to my mind, is the crucial exchange: Ali asks, almost annoyed at the inconvenience, “Why is he doing this now?” Sarah’s tired, compassionate response: “Why did he wait so long?” Ali will grow up, if not in other areas of her life, in this one.
With all this focus on the girls’ brunch, Josh is practically an afterthought for “Moppa” (and Mom is still nowhere to be seen, lurking somewhere on a condo board), having yet another fling, this time with Syd, and finally attempting to confront Rita about their relationship. Syd calls attention to the double standard in play in Josh’s relationship with Rita when she asks him whether it would okay for an older man to take advantage of a teenage girl. Josh has no response, and the next time we see him he’s at Rita’s apartment, having an argument that reveals quite a bit about their history and Josh’s ongoing issues with their relationship. For one, he somehow hasn’t realized that his parents didn’t know about him and Rita. But Rita’s defensiveness sends them into bed, without letting Josh come to closure. There’s another directorial moment that suggests a real emotional connection, lingering over Brett Paesel’s body in a way that avoids any sense of lechery, before Rita asks Josh to sends someone to fix her air conditioning. They’re acting out the roles of a real love affair, but it’s still unclear how deep the transactional nature of their relationship goes, and who’s giving up what.
“Moppa” glances over the first significant interaction we’ve seen between them, because its scope is drilled-down—the episode takes place over the course of a single day, with most of its attention devoted to the brunch. That means Transparent might not get to return to many of the soapier developments it’s thrown out (Syd and Josh sleeping together, for one). But they all tell us more about the characters, even when they’re not in the room. For example: It’s telling that the most sympathy Len has earned comes from the way Ali asks Sarah, “What about Len?” Ali seems to genuinely care about Len’s well being, and the compassion in Hoffmann’s voice is the best argument I’ve seen for why he’s a person we should actually care about, even if he doesn’t appear in the episode.
Len is, oddly enough, the biggest emotional casualty of the season so far, and for now it’s unclear if Sarah will have anything to show for it. She seems Tammy twice over the course of the day, and given her absence in “Rollin” and everything we know about Tammy and her relationship with Barbara, it seems inevitable that she’ll say “no” when Sarah asks if she loves her, or at least stand there, unable to answer. Like Maura’s flashback in the hotel, we know how this scene is supposed to play out. But somehow, instead, she acquiesces, and goes inside to leave her wife. Melora Hardin does a great job of enacting all of the stereotypically male beats of the married guy who’s hesitant to leave his wife, mixed with a now-characteristic aggressiveness and emotional reserve that suggests the way Tammy has settled into the role. If Tammy really does leave Barbara, and she and Sarah really do start a relationship out in the open, they won’t be doing anything nearly as revolutionary as Maura’s performance of her real identity, but they’ll certainly be following her lead.
- “Your male privilege is leaking all over the place.”
- “This is love.” “Come on.” “No, seriously. This is—this is—she like, made me squirt.” Sarah’s equation of how much she enjoys sex with love is very in character, and pretty subtly presented. Well done, show.
- Things female ejaculate has been compared to on this show: Capri-Sun, the Pirates Of The Caribbean ride at Disney World.
- “I know. Dewy ass cheekbones.”
- This week’s music choice: