When was the last time we saw all three Pfefferman children in the same place? The break fast during “The Book Of Life,” sure, but there, they’re just part of the larger dysfunctional unit. When was the last time we saw the three of them interacting, just as three siblings? Was it all the way back in “Flicky-Flicky Thump-Thump,” when they’re getting ready for Josh’s party? (I’m not positive, but pretty sure this is the case.) And even if that’s wrong, there have been far fewer scenes of Josh, Sarah, and Ali bouncing off each other this season. This is to say: Seeing the Pfefferman siblings just hang out and exist for an extended period of time feels like a blessing, and a conscious throwback to the comic claustrophobia of season one.
There’s a lot going on in “Grey Green Brown And Copper,” but the anchor of the episode is this extended sequence: Ali, Sarah, and Josh swimming in the leafy, dirty pool, then watching TV. (The pool is, indeed, covered in leaves.) For starters, it’s one of the sweetest moments of the season. Even in “Best New Girl,” they’re barely all in the house at the same time, and their conversation is neglectful at best and antagonistic at worst. Here, they circle around each other like kids, essentially dancing. They literally have a “tea party” under water. Infectiously smiling while literally underwater, unable to breath: the Pfefferman way.
Transparent is able to pack a lot of information into each of its frames, but that doesn’t mean it cares much about subtlety. Josh asks a question that, given the scene’s physical connections to childhood, feels obvious: “Do you guys think, like, the beginning of the end of the Pfeffermans was the day we stopped swimming in this pool?” It’s unclear on what he means by the “end” of the Pfeffermans though. Is it just the technical end of the nuclear family, preceding Mort and Shelly’s divorce? Is it just the time when the three siblings felt comfortable hanging out all the time, before Sarah threw herself into faux-activism, Josh starting getting molested by Rita, and Ali sat around looking grumpy all the time? Or is it the loss of a sense of innocence and wonder, of being able to hold onto the presumption of intimacy and love? (Maybe all three!)
Sarah, for one, is trying to figure out a way to make it back to that kind of spiritual space—literally, she wants to “get my goddess on,” and explore the possibility of having a connection to something bigger than herself. This is what she’s wanted all season, but she’s never voiced the desire publicly to her family members. Still, Josh’s first reaction is to ask her to promise not to go to Raquel. Ali interjects, cutting off the fight by calling for the tea party. Afterward, they all snuggle together, watching TV while Josh says creepy stuff like “Incest is best, yo.” It’s the kind of scene that unabashedly asks you to dislike the Pfefferman children if you are so inclined. But if you’re willing to push through the surface and appreciate the attempt at sweetness on display (which, through sheer force of effort, actually becomes sweet), there’s a lot of warmth to reward you.
From here, the episode lets the Pfefferman children branch off again, newly reconnected, so that we can see what next season might hold for them. Ali goes to study with Leslie—apparently—after being given a choice between functioning as her student or her lover. Their interactions here present the kindest and most human version of Leslie we’ve seen. She calls Ali “Sprout,” empathizes with her hangover from the festival rather than consciously choosing to appear enigmatic, and asks after Maura, taking pains to use her name. I’m still not totally sure why an ostensibly well-respect poet is going to choose to hang out with Ali all the time and let her TA her classes, but sure, let’s go with it. Importantly, we have a sense for a directedness to Ali that might not be utterly destructive. At least, I hope we see more of Cherry Jones, and more of the newly-confident Ali who isn’t purely motivated by weird sex.
Sarah has found some measure of self-acceptance in her quest for spirituality, and also the BDSM world. With her new friend Pony, she can find sexual release, a form of punishment that allows her to work through her feelings about the end of her marriage, and use Square to pay for it, all at the same time. (“Cash is so dirty.”) Though we don’t get any Tammy in this episode, sadly, she does encounter Len, who is trying to get over an unceremonious dumping. Rob Huebel is just great here, getting in his one scene per season where we remember why Len and Sarah were a good match in the first place. He’s funny, wounded, and easy to root for—Sarah’s urge to comfort Len makes total sense. (And as with nearly every scene she has this year, the possibility of fucking is imminent.) We don’t know if they actually reconcile, and honestly, I suspect the writers might not know either. It doesn’t matter so much though, because Sarah’s most important connection is with the woman she goes to in the end: Raquel. (Phew.) Thank you for keeping Kathryn Hahn in my life, show. I’m very excited to see where they go.
Josh finds his own pseudo-guru in Buzz, who has fast become, if not a critical character to the show, then at least someone who provokes a lot of excellent and revealing reactions from the rest of the Pfeffermans. They putter around a bit, drinking beers and waiting for Shelly to come back (the most notable absence from this episode), before encountering a wounded duck. Josh uses his jacket to wrap up the hurt animal and care for it—a nice piece of clothing, which functions as one of the symbols of his vanity. It’s a nice gesture on Josh’s part, but he’s made a lot of nice gestures this season, and has nothing to show for it. He has no Raquel, no Colton—the band is in a good place, but that’s a small flame that needs to be kindled, not the foundation of a life. As Josh puts it to Buzz, “Nothing’s adding up.”
Buzz offers a possible explanation for at least part of the emptiness and confusion the younger man is experiencing: “Joshua, your father died.” He’s being a little overly dramatic, but not by too much. The show has, in its second season, already gotten far away from what was ostensibly its central premise in the pilot—Maura’s transition, and new feminine identity. That this is a form of death does not make it any less beautiful. As Josh puts it succinctly and in gloriously annoying faux-liberal white guy fashion, “It’s, like, politically incorrect to say you miss someone who has transitioned.” But it’s okay for him to express that he’s upset! He doesn’t have to hide behind a veil of pretending everything is fine: Josh is still in pain, and he may have hated Mort (who we never really got to know that well, but seems like a pretty shitty dude), but that doesn’t mean he’s ever fully processed what happened. That’s a tantalizing direction for season three to go, and in the meantime, we end with Josh feeling, continuing to feel, and, perhaps, forming a stable and intimate relationship with a new person—someone with whom he is not romantically involved. His breakdown is about his father, but the emotional transparency it provides might be a step toward dealing with the rest of the terrible parts of his childhood.
And finally, we get to Josh, Sarah, and Ali’s moppa, who is forming a new romantic connection, with Vicky. Nearly everything about their interactions is wonderful, which is a high bar to clear considering that Vicky takes up a bunch of screen time after only being briefly introduced in the last episode. (And, especially, given that Shelly doesn’t appear in this episode at all.) Anjelica Huston is just dynamite, though, and reveals a side of Maura that, amazingly, we still haven’t really seen. During their night in a motel room, we see Maura, again, in front of the mirror, finding herself again, the way she did back in episode two. And she gets in a classic Maura line, finding a light and elegant feminity that feels wonderful and authentic while still the slightest bit performative. “Are you a showery or a bathy?” “I’m becoming a bathy,” Maura says, practically demanding a reading in conjunction with the bath scene from earlier this season (also in episode two). (I’m not totally sure what to make of this connection—any thoughts?)
Really, most of these scenes ask you to compare Vicky to Shelly in some fashion, but the best I can do to parse that right now is to suggest that Vicky’s confidence and sense of security allows her to remain more herself, even when she’s connected to Maura. Where Shelly throws herself into her partners in a way that pushes Maura away (to say nothing of their history), Vicky is someone she can genuinely ask things of, while feeling like it’s an intimate request and not a cloying demand. Of course, Maura is also bringing a renewed sense of empathy and desire to connect with other people to the table after her experiences with Davina and Shea. When she asks Vicky if she’s comfortable sharing a room, is Maura responding to the confrontation that characterized her experience at the festival? Or is she just trying to form a bond with and be considerate of one individual? This is the kind of thing a lesser show would spell out in dialogue—Maura might add “I’m trying to be more considerate of cis women/all people,” or something equally uninteresting. Instead, we just get to watch them bounce off each other… until they, you know, bounce off each other.
The two explore each other’s bodies—bodies they’ve been told are abnormal for various reasons—in one of the season’s most tender, lovingly shot scenes. (Is there a better sex scene this season? Is there even another full sex scene? We never see Ali and Syd actually use that strap-on, nor do we get a real glimpse of Raquel and Josh’s sex life at the end of their relationship.) They manage to have what is apparently very good sex, in spite of both the ways in which Vicky doesn’t feel like as much of a woman, and the ways that Maura is continuing to become one herself. Maybe it’s because both of them are close to accepting themselves. (Vicky on her fibrous breasts and subsequent surgery: “They lopped off my tits, so what.”) Vicky is NATO (“not attached to outcomes”), but I’m very attached to some outcomes for her and Maura—they’re a great pairing, and Vicky’s presence is mysterious enough that I’d love to see more of what makes her tick, and how she, like Buzz, would fit in with the rest of the family. (Does this all mean Anjelica Huston will be a regular on Transparent next season? Please, please let it mean Anejlica Huston will be a regular on Transparent next season. At least a recurring guest star or something.)
The blossoming of their relationship comes to a halt, however, when Maura asks Vicky to come along as emotional support on a trip to see her mother. Maura hasn’t seen Rose in three years, it turns out. (For some reason, I thought it was longer.) “She’s never seen me… as Maura,” she says, but she doesn’t really need the end of the sentence—Maura is who she is, and Rose has never quite seen her that way. It’s the other side of the death Buzz helps Josh work through, giving Rose the opportunity to see the new person who has been birthed from the remnants of her son. But the emotional labor involved and potential for devastation and embarrassment is high, especially since Maura thinks Rose will reject her definitively. Perhaps it makes sense, then, that Maura asks Vicky to go see Rose with her. She’s the kind of person who latches on to connections too quickly, keeping them close, close. But the request is… kind of a big ask. It is too intimate. (Also, it does make you a lot more appreciative of Syd, right? Ali really threw a good thing away there.)
Maura’s mother, as it turns out, has other things to be upset about. In the conclusion of the flashback story, we see Rose on the boat to America, getting the family’s jewelry out of the chocolate. There’s a sweet, wry moment between Rose and her mother (who has been on just the right side of outright villainy for most of the season), but it doesn’t matter without Gittel. All of the life has gone out of Rose’s eyes. And it gets worse—when they finally do make it to Los Angeles, they discover that Haim, Rose’s father, has another family, and has totally given up on them. So, in addition to literal Nazis, this is the instigating trauma of the Pfefferman family: a deadbeat dad, who offers to buy Rose a book as a way of making up for abandoning her. It’s thematically appropriate, but if we’re being honest… a little boring.
Most of this episode is fantastic, but the conclusions to Rose’s flashback story, and to Maura and Rose’s visit, feel rushed and on the nose. As great as Emily Robinson continues to be, turning a cold fire at her father, her scene partner doesn’t have much to work with. Played by Michael Stuhlbarg (of A Serious Man fame), Haim is a sop of a man, a straight, cis white guy who abuses his privilege and casts aside his family: essentially the easiest possible villain for the show. He doesn’t even have Josh’s background with abuse. Haim is just the worst. (As if it to make the theme even clearer, he specifies that the book he buys will either be about “a knight” or sewing.) This isn’t to say that trauma or oppression should be a game, or even measurable—it absolutely should not. But to start the season with such a tantalizing glimpse of the flashback story and have the monster at the end of the book be this—an utterly unsympathetic character who crumbles at the first sight of responsibility for his actions—is just too pat. The Pfeffermans should be the scourge of the Pfefferman family, not a dude we’ve never met who comes to symbolize the whole patriarchy.
And as we cut to several generations of Pfefferman women—Rose, Bri, Ali, and Maura—standing on the beach, watching the sunset, we see the real conclusion of the story: Maura’s birth. There’s certainly some material we missed, in particular whatever confrontation Bri and Maura had, if there even was one. That scene, which I’ll admit I really was looking forward to given their acid conversation at the wedding, gets cut out in favor of Yetta sitting in a hospital waiting room with Maura’s father (played by Moshe Kasher), who confirms that he thinks the baby is going to be a daughter. “A father knows these things,” he says. But that daughter is born a boy, and we cut from the screaming baby, evidently in the wrong body, to Maura staring into the unknown.
I don’t love this. It’s too obvious, and presents a sort of soft, mystic-adjacent conception of what it would mean for Maura to be a woman. It’s an explanation we didn’t need. But the fact that Soloway, the writers, and the rest of the crew felt compelled to end the season here says a lot: The spiritual life that Raquel, Sarah, Ali, and even Josh turn to to provide meaning has a purpose in the world of this show, and perhaps in our world as well. (Your mileage may vary.) All of the Pfeffermans have gone on very solitary journeys this season, searching in vain for something that will make them happy, whether it’s fucking, traditional relationships, academia, or a giant festival full of fake Native Americans and weed and people being led around on leashes. The search is important, this ending seems to say, but they’ve been looking in the wrong place. Crucially, they’ve been looking alone. Rose, Ali, Maura, and Bri look more contented together than they ever did apart. Go outside yourself with others, admit that the world is larger than you know, and bring your family with you. Who knows—you might just find something.
- “Grey Green Brown And Copper” is written by Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster and directed by Andrea Arnold.
- Great moments in visual subtlety: Josh cracks an egg, prepares to make something for breakfast, then thinks better (or worse) of it and pours a bowl of cereal instead.
- “I suggest it’s always wise to steer clear of people who are overly attached to dogma.” I’ve missed Maura’s use of intellectual jargon to hide her emotions.
- I love that Maura kisses the mezzuzah outside Rose’s room before going in. It’s the kind of subtle approach to the show’s spirituality that I hope characterizes a bit more of season three.
- “Good for you. Gentrification wins again.”
- And that’s it for this season! Apologies for the somewhat erratic schedule (holidays) and length of the reviews (I just love this show a lot). This was one of my favorite television seasons of last year, and I got a lot out of thinking through it at length. I hope you all got something out of it too.