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“Symbolic Exemplar”

Until “Symbolic Exemplar,” everyone on Transparent has been getting ready for something. And this episode is shot through with the sense that whatever they’ve been waiting for, it’s about to happen. Partially, that’s because the episode concludes with the Trans Got Talent show Maura has been planning for a few episodes. But the sense that everyone is preparing for something to happen permeates everything through Maura’s performance. Ali gets dressed for her big date with Dale, Sarah goes to pick up weed so she and Tammy can fully enjoy their weekend without the kids, and Josh uses the talent show as a break from his date with Raquel (so he can hopefully get it up when he returns). “Symbolic Exemplar” (and the next episode) is what Transparent has been building to so far, but none of the characters realized it.

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To an extent, that means that “Symbolic Exemplar” is a manifestation of all of the themes we’ve talked about so far—in particular, the obligations of family. What do the Pfeffermans owe to each other? When Sarah tries to persuade Josh to come to the talent show, she tells him he should go because Maura has gone to so many of his events, to which Josh responds that it’s Maura’s obligation as a father. This is maybe the most insensitive thing he’s said over the course of the series, but it still gets at something important about the talent show—it reverses the parent-child relationship, exposing new sides of the characters. And that subversion is partly why the Pfefferman children are so uncomfortable with it.

Maura’s relationship with her children also gets a reversal in the flashback that opens the episode. Ali wants to cancel her bat mitzvah, because she’s having a crisis of faith. “No one sees it,” she laments, and Maura and Ali’s reactions to this statement—to the probably non-existence of a deity—say a whole lot about their characters. Ali needs someone tallying her actions, or at least needs to have someone watching her all the time. But for Maura, the idea of no one watching while she sneaks off with Marcie sounds pretty good. This flashback also makes Mom a more sympathetic character, having to deal with not one, but two members of her family who are trying to shut down an event that is, to an extent, equally hers. The brunt of Mort’s failure to “be a man” does come down on Shelly’s head, and as unpleasant as she is in the present, it’s not hard to see where her rigorously maintained social walls come from (and why she might have been so concerned with her reputation in the temple).

Meanwhile, the talent show forces the Pfefferman children to consider the walls between their romantic lives and the rest of the family, bringing their significant others into a world their father has upended. Even though we only met Raquel a couple of episodes ago, her date with Josh is actually maybe the sweetest and most emotionally naked moment of the show so far. Soloway continues filming these characters in sexual situations with a certain level of intimacy—she’s trying to turn you on, no matter who’s boning, or trying to bone—but this one smacks of a real emotional connection, even if both people are feeling kind of stunted. That’s especially apparent in the dialogue around both of their sexual fears, which is hilarious in how emotionally naked it is (Josh’s inability to perform is perhaps a bit on the nose, but Raquel describing herself as “a namer” is incredible).

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On the other hand, Ali’s date presses on the boundaries of expectations, as Dale appears to be every bit the “dudely dude” she wanted in a sequence that plays like a dream. Still, reality threatens to poke through as Ali clearly contorts herself into something she’s not, squeezing into “high femme” and letting Dale shave her. As weird as the “daddy” stuff is here (shades of Maura telling Ali about her gender confusion), it never veers into outright grossness, mostly because Ian Harvie is so great at delivering lines like “you’ve got to let the dick choose you.” And Dale is, obviously, more comfortable at Trans Got Talent (they’re his peeps), even though Ali is a little nervous around all the trans people, seemingly apologizing for bringing him in the way someone with a crush apologizes for everything about themselves that they think might not pass muster with the other person.

And Sarah tries her best to prepare for a big date weekend with Tammy—now that their custody schedules are finally aligned they can have some time to themselves for the first time since they went public with their relationship (uh oh). Sarah’s anxiety in the meeting with Jason Mantzouakas, Medicine Man is a rare moment of overacting from Landecker. But it helps to see how on-edge Sarah is when Tammy’s willingness to make decisions solo finally begins to get on her nerves. Tammy’s aggression at the talent show (“What do you mean you don’t know?”) is frustrating, but it’s also out of concern for Maura—we’ve seen this beat before, but Josh does, in fact, have a right to be upset, especially since he doesn’t know that Maura has given the house to his sister and her new partner. And Sarah’s reaction to their fight will hopefully give her story some energy going into the last two episodes.

All of these issues come to a head at the Trans Got Talent show. This is really a fantastic setting—everything is brightly lit and beautiful, pushing out any negativity that hasn’t been brought in by the Pfeffermans. Soloway’s decision to populate the series with trans actors pays of beautifully as one of many little touches in the way the performance is set up, flourishes like the way Maura writes “VIP” on the signs she’s using to reserve sears for her kids so they can support her (and leave that powerful image of the empty seats when they fail to do so).

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Truly, I will never hear “Somebody That I Used To Know” the same way again. For some reason I briefly thought Maura and Divina were singing “Blurred Lines” (which would have been really bold), but that Gotye song is a surprisingly effective choice. Remembering how ubiquitous it was, the way Transparent flips it is damned impressive. The rest of the episode builds on that, relying heavily on a sadder piano version of the hook. And Maura and Divina imbue a pretty empty song with a lot of emotion, which contributes to the way Tambor’s face as Maura realizes her children have abandoned the show becomes simultaneously a source of humor and an object of pity.

Cate Haight, one of Transparent’s editors, told me on Twitter that Jill Soloway likes to refer to the show’s tone as “funcomfortable.” I can’t think of a better word to encapsulate the performance sequence “Symbolic Exemplar.” It took me maybe an hour to finish watching the episode the first time through, pauses and all, because I felt so bad for Maura. I don’t love cringe normally, but this went over and beyond that, because Sarah, Josh, and Ali aren’t just violating social conventions with their actions, they’re betraying their father who’s been nothing but loving.

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Here’s the thing, though—Maura’s performance is kind of funny. It has to be, for the scene to work. We have to be at least somewhat complicit in the kids’ stoned giggling, or they’re just being exposed as awful people unworthy of the investment we’ve been asked to put in. And I might just be a horrible person, but the tension between the spectacle and Maura’s utter seriousness creates some type of horrifying humor (and self-loathing). Divina inhabits her femininity completely, but Maura is still taking her first steps into it, with the talent show as literally one of her first public performances of womanhood. So there’s a vulnerability on display here, achingly communicated by Tambor, that practically demands nervous laughter. Raw emotions are uncomfortable; especially when they’re coming from people we don’t know well, and laughter is a natural, if suboptimal, response. This is the show acknowledging those “Jeffrey Tambor in a dress” jokes and turning them back.

The fallout from the talent show will drive the last two episodes, but the things the Pfeffermans were waiting for have already started to happen. In particular, when Ali tries to have sex with Dale in the bathroom, her sexual aggression comes to a head in one of the better comic uses of a dildo I’ve seen (this show’s use of dildos is great in general). I mean, look at this:

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When Dale accuses Ali of being a “chaser” in his car on the way back, it rings half true—certainly, being a trans man is one of the reasons she’s dating Dale, though it’s not clear what she’s actually chasing (it doesn’t seem clear to her, either). All of the Pfeffermans have been hunting for different things, and have gotten them in ways they couldn’t have expected—it might have been kinder to Maura if the kids hadn’t even shown up. And for Ali especially, it’s even less clear what she wants upon her return to Dale’s house. When she walks in and sees a pretty normally furnished apartment, rather than the man cave we saw at the beginning of the episode, it raises questions: What’s wrong with Ali? What’s wrong with us?

The boundaries of reality seem like they’ve begun to break down around the youngest and most perceptive Pfefferman, but it’s also possible that she just really wanted Dale to be her dudely dude so badly that she willfully ignored his tea-drinking ordinariness, something that’s almost scarier because it could happen to pretty much any of us (and probably has). Ali could be mentally ill, but I think this is more about confronting us with the disjunction between reality and fantasy. This is a big theme of the series so far (God knows I’ve talked about it enough), but the end of “Symbolic Exemplar” is the place where that disjunction is most visible. Everyone’s tried to instantiate their fantasies, but the reality is an abandoned Maura, tearfully showing up at Shelly’s door. There’s what we can see, but there’s also a whole host of stuff we haven’t seen that suggests that there’s more than meets the eye. And a lot of what’s been hidden are events catching up to these characters from two decades in the past.

Stray observations:

  • The way Brownstein says “I like it” confirms Syd’s feelings for Ali without needing to dwell on it too much, which is nice.
  • “Pink revisions” sounds like a jazz album.
  • The use of “Somebody That I Used To Know” is as good a place as any to compliment music supervisor Bruce Gilbert, who’s also Soloway’s husband.
  • If the collapse of the talent show is any indication, the real villain of Transparent is weed (sorry, “medicine”). Kids, don’t do drugs. Not because anything terrible will happen, but because you’ll laugh at stuff that isn’t funny, and sometimes that stuff is your father trying her best to perform Gotye.

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“Best New Girl”

What a weird, beautiful piece of television.

Everything I said about being nervous about where the flashback stories were going was so, so wrong. I’m happy to wait a week to get to the fallout from “Symbolic Exemplar,” because “Best New Girl” is the best episode of the show so far (and one of my favorite episodes of television that’s aired this year), using its full-on flashback conceit to reveal new information about why the characters are where they are after the catastrophic end of the talent show, yes, but also telling an independently moving and complicated and vital story about them, using the predetermined knowledge of where they’ll end up to dig deep into the more surreal parts of their lives and impress upon us how the sins of the father will be visited on the son (and daughters).

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It’s impossible to overstate the success of the flashback casting of the son and daughters—if I didn’t know better; I’d say that Dalton Rich and Emily Robinson in particular, were just Jay Duplass and Gaby Hoffmann, and that Transparent was secretly pulling off a televised version of Boyhood. More than just looking the part, Rich and Robinson capture the mannerisms and personalities of the older Pfeffermans in miniature, and it is stunning. We can see a much more age-appropriate version of Josh’s snottiness and the way his relationship with Rita is both all-consuming and leading him to think he’s God’s gift. We can see Ali’s directionlessness, and the way her apathy clashes with her considerable talent. And we can see their weird hybrid sibling-flirty chemistry that’s far more antagonistic than it is in the present, reminiscent of a slightly grimer version of their adult relationship (less dancing, for one). Though her story is much lighter and Kelsey Reinhardt given less to do, we see Sarah pushed into her first relationship with a woman on the way to a protest, headstrong in the assumption she just has to, like, be there when someone is out changing the world. She doesn’t know much, but Reinhardt effectively captures the way that, as in the present, her heart is still (mostly) in the right place.

Accordingly, “Best New Girl” doesn’t give us much time to see how the siblings interact in the past. They haven’t changed much in the intervening two decades, and watching them squabble is basically all we’ve done so far anyway (even Ali’s disgust at Josh and Rita makes sense given how creepily possessive they can be of each other). Instead, they interact with new people—Sarah with Cindy on the bus, and Ali with a whole host of adults—and with Mom, who makes far more sense as the mother of these terrible children and iced-out wife than she does as a villainous, callous old woman.

Poor Shelly. In her conversation with Aunt Judith, she’s hilarious as always, but really she just seems more ignorant of what’s going on with her husband than anything else, trapped in a marriage that’s obviously unsuccessful with a partner who won’t help her corral her increasingly selfish kids. As sympathetic as Maura is, Mort still leaves Shelly to clean up the mess from Ali’s self-immolation, to her knowledge so he can learn about the Rosenbergs (and maybe spend some quality time with his TA), and to ours so he can be Maura in the open. In the pilot, Maura asked herself how she could have raised such children, but the answer might just be that she was too wrapped up in her own issues to really help Shelly parent. (And if her pursuit of Connie is any indication, the kids get their habit of thinking with their figurative dicks from their father.) This, and the rest of Maura’s story, reads almost like an acknowledgment of the way the show’s aggressive sympathy for her has cost us, just a bit, in our understanding of her character as flawed and responsible in her own way for the state of her family.

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The one other case where a character we have met fits in: the only glimpse we’re likely to get of Josh and Rita’s relationship in its predatory heyday. The way Rita looms over the shrimpy high school-aged Josh, oozing charisma where he’s more of a meaner Sam Weir, cements the imbalance at the root of their relationship—until now, it’s at least been possible to imagine a more mature teen Josh, or a younger Rita who genuinely appears to care about him. In no way would that be any more acceptable, but it’d at least clarify Rita’s motives a bit. Here, her actions are unjustifiable, purely manipulative or at least it seems like that way until the moment when their fingers touch in the car, a framed from behind so that we’re peeking over the car seat at them, a shot that’s somehow tense, foreboding, and sweet all at the same time (maybe one of the lessons of Transparent is that all human intimacy contains something like the danger this shot communicates).

But the real show is at Camp Camellia. The title “Best New Girl” seems like it should refer to an award given out at the crowning event of the cross-dressing camp that Maura and Mark attend, implying that we should see Maura win that award, or at least be in contention. But where “Symbolic Exemplar” is all about things happening, even when the Pfeffermans weren’t ready for them, “Best New Girl,” and especially Maura’s storyline, is all about empty space. There’s a vacuum at the heart of each of the Pfeffermans’ lives, even this early in their family history, and everyone lets themselves be taken by currents looking for something to fill that vacuum. And yet, more happens, and reveals itself to us, in those empty spaces and tiny moments.

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The biggest of those spaces is the gap between Maura and everyone else at the camp. Though she and Mark are both overjoyed to be surrounded by people who look like them, they’re still only accepting up to a point—Camp Camellia is really for cross dressers, for men who look like women but are still men, god damn it, which they prove in a gossip session that manages to blend the worst stereotypical feminine and masculine qualities of group dynamics. With Maura looking on, horrified, everyone piles insults on a poor woman named Ramona who was kicked out of the camp for having hormones, because she identified as a woman (the more liberal wives are also tolerated, not encouraged at the camp). We haven’t been watching a story about Maura slowly coming to terms with others accepting her gender identity, or at least not in the way we think we have.

This use of the camp, a supposedly safe space for Maura that turns out to be anything but, also allows Transparent to engage in its most nuanced parsing yet of a dense web of possible identities (something that not even the writers fully understand at the beginning of production, as Soloway admits in this fantastic interview with former TV Club editor Todd VanDerWerff). When the camera pulls through the curtain, zips around the thriving party (as the cross-dressers dance like they’re at a disco), or captures Mark and Maura casually biking to a phone in full dress, Soloway is painting the camp as a space as inclusive and wonderful as the Trans Got Talent show.

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But by the end, Camp Camellia is yet another reminder of what separates Maura from everyone else, another set of barriers. It’s not a place Maura can fully be herself. And that helps answer Sarah’s question from back in “Moppa”: Why did she wait so long?

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The collapse of Maura and Mark’s relationship over their opinions about who the camp should be for, and over Connie, reveals something more insidious about what we’ve been watching in the flashbacks. Mark’s phone call to his family is an incredible distillation of the nexus of performances and identities on the show—stuffed into a dress, telling his son to “man up.” But the voice he uses on the phone isn’t the affectation, the way it is for Maura—it is, more or less, who he is. One theory (put forward by Connie) is that Mark is gay, and attracted to Maura, leading him to be jealous of her fling with Connie. There’s a bunch of evidence for this, from the way Mark is positioned flirtatiously on the couch as Connie and Maura dance, leg exposed, to the way he reacts to Maura asking “Are you my wife?” to the fact that they meet buying a porn magazine showcasing trans models, which Mark could well have been buying simply as porn rather than aspiration. Instead of participating in the pageant, it’s heavily implied that Maura sleeps with Connie after Mark storms out of their cabin.

The total devastation of Maura and Mark’s relationship to the point where they’re calling each other cunts is powerful stuff, and lets Whitford play a bit more in his comfort zone. The wonder and innocence of his twirl in that dress gives their conversation in the car even more bite, bringing to bear the full extent of his well-honed capacity for being an asshole. And I’ve praised Jeffrey Tambor at great length in these reviews, but he deserves every positive thing and more you could say about him here. The little moments of pain on Maura’s face when she’s forced to clink glasses in a transphobic toast or when Mark tells his son to be a man on the phone, the spark in her eyes when he flirts with Connie, her disgust as she and Mark get back in the car, even the way Maura says “alcohol” and “cabin” are part of a formative stage on the path to the Maura of 2014, and Tambor nails it. He even gets to play the irresponsible horndog (there’s the version of Mort everyone was talking about in the pilot).

As stellar as Tambor is, the MVP of “Best New Girl” just might be the actress he’s paired with in an intercut toward the end of the episode—Emily Robinson. Progressively pawned off, first from Mort to Shelly, to Sarah, to Josh, and finally left to her own devices, teenage Ali is a cipher this entire episode, displaying more agency at 13 than most people would at twice that age, and consciously choosing to come across as a cipher. Did she really think she couldn’t memorize her Torah portion and then discover she could when she performs it for Jules the bartender? Her recitation is an impressive piece of acting, vocally and physically—musical and mystical, comic, and somehow sad all at the same time, a bit like Maura’s performance in “Symbolic Exemplar.” Jules is right that Ali’s kind of a badass, but only kind of. Her cool 13-year-old thing doesn’t end so well at 33. The exhilarating danger and potential of youth that leads Ali to dance under a bridge with a grimy dude named Patrick gets a little sad when it sends her to her dad asking for money to take a gender studies class.

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And all that brings us to the single weirdest moment of this episode, and one of the more intriguing things I’ve seen this in this season: Ali, trying her hardest to seduce Patrick, sees him kissing her future self. I have a few theories about what’s going on here but honestly, they’re not that important. Maybe the episode is part of Ali working through her life, reliving what led her to the end of “Symbolic Exemplar” (and maybe she’s even sitting on that beach in 2014 as she does it, projecting her memories). Maybe she’s legitimately mentally ill, explaining the gap between her perceptions of Dale’s house. Maybe it’s a visual manifestation of her teenaged self straining for the fuller freedom of adulthood, trying to be the type of woman who can get Patrick’s attention. More than any of those things, though, it’s a singularly odd, poetic moment that deserves your scrutiny, and your own reading in the face of its opacity. There are times when television shows try their hardest to weird out the audience for the hell of it, to trick them into thinking the writers are smarter and getting at some cosmic truth when really it’s all smoke and mirrors and the power of the small screen (I’m looking at you, Lost). Transparent has such a nuanced, powerful grip on its characters and its world that by this point I’m fully willing to go on the trip it wants me to take.

Speaking of trips—Ali’s torah portion is the beginning of Lech-L’cha, in which God calls to Abraham and tells him to leave his home, everything he’s known, and head to Canaan, the future Israel. It’s the beginning of a journey (and the beginning of a song I had to sing all the time as a kid), which is especially appropriate for a bat mitzvah, or non-bat mitzvah. Ali is embarking on a one-way trip to adulthood (in the back of a truck), with all of the complications that creates. If she’s looking back on this time (the same way she slowly peels back her fake age), it’s hard for us to know what really happened. Did Patrick really restrain himself, either on the beach or in the truck during the night he spent with Ali in the truck? (I’d like to think so, partially because it’s funnier for the show to come up against the expected, soapy, disturbing twist and reject it. This way is more fun, and interesting, sort of like how Josh and Bianca don’t actually hook up in the pool the way the show has been telegraphing they would.) Maura makes an attempt at a journey of transition here, only to find the path blocked for the moment. And Transparent has been an entertaining, exhilarating, and thought-provoking journey through gender, identity, and the lives of these characters. (Can you guys tell I like this show?)

What makes “Best New Girl” so great is that it’s a part of that journey, but also functions totally in service of itself. “Where is this going?” is the obvious question to ask when confronted with a flashback or prequel story, but “Best New Girl” doesn’t have to have anywhere to go. It can only be valuable on its own, and in that respect “Best New Girl” succeeds completely. As a kind of slightly off poetry, it achieves the quality that a lot of people are fond of applying to television, a quality we refer to with the word “cinematic,” though it has less to do with film as a medium and more to do with achieving new possibilities in visual storytelling, reaching into territory that’s simultaneously exciting and unsettling. On those terms, as both of a piece with Transparent and on its own, “Best New Girl” is a runaway success.

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Stray observations:

  • “Best New Girl” announces itself as a Very Special Episode of Transparent by using Bob Dylan’s “Oh, My Sister” as the new theme music.
  • This episode pegs the ages of the Pfeffermans. So in the present, Ali is 33, Josh 34, and Sarah 38.
  • “He had the nerve to bring hormones to cross-dressing camp.”
  • “Oy, the Rosenbergs.”
  • Shelly sent out “500 calls and electronic mails.” It’s 1994!
  • Another great Judith Light delivery: “I am not throwing away good money to have a PhD tell me I need to give my husband more oral sex.”
  • For no real reason, I figured out what date this episode takes place. If Ali’s Torah portion is Lech-L’cha, her bat mitzvah was originally scheduled for October 15, 1994 (thanks, internet).
  • Wow. I know these have been really long, but I just can’t say enough about how great these episodes are.
  • This week’s music choice, perfect for all your uncomfortable sexual fantasies.

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