Welcome to The A.V. Club’s Transparent binge-watch. From Friday, December 11 through Sunday, December 13, A.V. Club contributor Shelby Fero will be watching and reviewing every episode of Transparent’s second season. Though she’s working straight through the season, she’ll be taking some breaks, too, posting three reviews on Friday, four reviews on Saturday, and three reviews on Sunday. You can weigh in on this episode here, discuss the whole season on our binge-watching hub page, and track her Pfefferman-addled mindset on Twitter (@shelbyfero).
As she sits in one of her however-many-number-of-classes-now, Ali’s professor flashes an image of a solar system overhead. As he expounds on distance and how far the light must travel before we see it, the image magnifies so we’re pulled into the vastness of it all. Stacked between Sarah’s tired face as she and Len battle for custody, an ultrasound of Josh’s new baby, and Maura confronted with her storage-unit life, all four of these images conjure a feeling of directional loss; both the lows and the highs inherent.
The human condition forces the question “Who am I?” to shape our lives at some point or another (along with its offspring: “What have I done?” “Why did this happen to me?” and “Where do I belong?”) and acts as a central theme in Transparent. For some people, the exact root of self-questioning seems obvious, such as Maura’s transness, while others don’t know why they’re lost, like Ali and her opaque restlessness. It’s in pursuit of answers that things become gritty; when destroying and building both make a mess, it’s hard to know which is which. In the second episode of the season, characters trade off wielding the chisel and being carved into, for better or for worse.
For Sarah, this means both living the pitiful troped life commonly reserved for single dads–battling for custody, looking like crap, renting a sad one bedroom apartment, getting too drunk at the party–and getting accosted by her clearly-doing-much-worse jilted lover. She’s at once doing very, very well, and barely holding on at all. Raquel, bless her, too finds herself oscillating wildly: One minute she’s ecstatic over an ultrasound with Josh, the next she’s trying to reconcile her ideals with the insane family she’s tangled herself into. It’s a testament to her character that she makes a strong, kind choice in the end…how it turns out is yet to be seen. Seeking her own place in this universe, Ali finds herself back on Syd’s doorstep, and, later, in her arms. It’s like a knife to the gut watching the two connect, remembering the built in power-imbalance of their once one-sided relationship. You hope for the best while dreading the worst.
Maura has maybe the most literally directionless life: Her pop up storage unit has become an increasingly contentious point in the gated community; a look of derision shadows her face at any suggestion made by Shelly that she should stay permanently. It’s an unstable balance, the two of them together. Shelly desperately denies Maura’s autonomy as a single transwoman in little ways, trying to hold on to a companionship she thought she’d lost forever. Maura hates herself for giving in to Shelly’s little demands… but she still gives in to them, creating a confusing feedback loop of almost positive reinforcement. They’re enabling because they’re scared. Both hold more power over the other than they realize, while at once feeling completely vulnerable. Maura reacts with contemptuous looks and snide comments; Shelly gets tanked to blot out the world’s harsh realities.
There are victories, too, among the Pfeffermans. There’s the jokes about the lesbian wedding cake, Colton’s unabashed perseverence in connecting to this family, Ali’s sideways glance to her sister after Tammy’s really, really bad dramatic speech. And it’s in the last scene, as Maura dances among her peers at an LGBT club, that she’s provided a moment to just be. Dancing against a mirrored wall, Maura presses her palms into their own reflections, clasping hands with herself; she’s earned a moment of stability, no matter how fleeting.
With “Flickety-Flickety-Thump-Thump,” Transparent reminds us that, safe as it seems, you can’t live on middle ground forever.
Most “You’re The Worst” Moments: Ali showing up at Syd’s (“NOOOOOO don’t do this to Carrie Brownstein!”I yelled, alone). Maura fingering Shelly but also Shelly bringing it up. This isn’t a healthy cohabitation! Ugh, Rita.
Most “You’re The Best” Moments: Colton’s HASHTAG AXE tank top. Just Colton in general–how fitting a name, for a sweet foal of a boy. Maura stoicly intoning, “why do you do that? Why do you put yourself down like that?” Josh telling Tammy to leave. Raquel and Josh deciding to take Colton in. Security guard: “Glad to see you’re working out.”
Thing I’m Nervous About: Shelly’s future emotional state, Maura’s future emotional state, my current emotional state.