Josh hits the Shangri-La, clutching a bottle of booze like a weapon against intimacy. He’s adrift, he tells his Dad, fired from his record label. “We had a falling out, I need to go out on my own, it’s time for me to have my own label,” he says, succinctly summing up the impossible yet best possible action plan for all of these enmeshed Pfeffermans. He wonders in sideways speak if some proceeds from the sale of the family house could go to funding his new label. Maura, who clearly is the matriarch of secret-keeping in the household, of course agrees, though suggests they keep it a secret from his sister and brother. It’s like she gets off on being both the beneficiary—the better to feel needed by and superior to his kids—and the keeper of secrets. If she’s really going to have kept her identity hidden for all these years, then she’s going to make sure her children keep some hidden corners themselves. Throughout the episode, the kids arrive at Papa’s knee, needy for his offerings of wealth and promising him to keep these loaded exchanges a secret from their siblings. The house, the foundation of this family’s history of affectionate half-truths and careless betrayals, gets double-promised to Sarah.
Josh pretends to be Mr. Cool when it comes to news of his father’s transition. “I get it,” he says, the great lie of his life. “Whatever people want to do behind closed doors, that’s their business.” Well that doesn’t sit well with Maura, so she aggressively loosens her ponytail, forcing her son to see him more clearly. Josh excuses himself to the bathroom, only to stumble into the den of his father’s private life. Wigs and makeup and the construction tools of femininity confront him in a room brilliantly covered in birdcage wallpaper. Josh remains convinced that his Dad must be suffering from dementia (false) and a need to always be the center of attention (true, but irrelevant).
There’s a nice transition to Ali in her own gilded cage, at a park where she excitedly tells her siblings about her plans to go to college. “Ali’s going back to school!” singsongs a sneering Sarah. “She’s going to sign up!” says Josh. They’ve all been down this road before, including apparently Ali’s past life as yarn spinner. Amidst their ridiculing of their dilettante sister is a clear strain of bitterness about all the times their father has funded her many life experiments. You’re going to benefit another one of Daddy’s checks? Then here’s a dodgeball throw to the gut.
Flashback to 1994, a sexy Sunday with Shelly ready for some scheduled sex. Mort wants to experiment by wearing some of her underpants, saying an Esquire article (ha!) promised it would make him feel 18 again. Sure, Shelly’s game. Later in the episode Maura and Bradley Whitford’s Marcy risk leaving their hotel room sanctuary. Over Caesar salads (“Enjoy ladies,” the waitress says to their utter delight), Maura tries to sell Marcy on the liberating promise of a trans conference that just happens to fall over his daughter’s bat mitzvah weekend.
When Ali goes to her father to sell him on her women’s and gender studies plans, she wisely appeals to his ego. It’s all about you, Dad. Isn’t it always? And Maura praises Ali again for being the brain of the family, a girl with books in her. Or a boy perhaps? “I saw so much of myself in you when you were just young and growing up and experimenting in your gender confusion,” she prattles onto Ali, who doesn’t seem to remember wrestling with gender confusion as a child. “Some people say it runs in the blood.” Nope, later!
The scene of Ali auditing her first class—not an unfeminist act, mind you—was 100% first rate. The professor, a ridiculously self-serious woman and also an ex of Syd’s, dropped bell hook’s name and talked about how exclamation points are “in and of themselves small rapes.” (Put that on an Urban Outfitters T-shirt.) Afterward Ali sponges on to a trans man professor in a flannel shirt, pumping him for windows into her father’s soul. Unclear of their conversation’s terms, Paul Bunyan wonders I think if Ali is flirting with him. “No, I’m not a dyke, this whole time you thought you were talking to a boring lesbian?!” I love her, and I too shall from here on out call alpha males doodly dudes.
I’m gagging on coleslaw over here, listening to Tammy praise books as design elements. Of course she is the type to color-code her library and artfully arrange little stacks in horizontal towers. Shabbat Shalom at the old family house. Tammy has brilliantly read an article in Real Simple about the gift of unplugging and practicing mindfulness and using old panty hose as screen cleaners. So gather round messy Pfeffermans. Len crashes the gathering early and he’s ready to string up Tammy for passing on her lesbian sniffles to his kid. This is Len’s first time seeing Mort as Maura, and he’s not willing to play nice. “Would you ladies be more comfortable if you all lived on an all-lady planet, sail off in a uterus-shaped spaceship?!” (Best writing on TV—or on the web, whatever!) His wife left him for a woman, his father-in-law is in a muumuu, his kid is snotty-nosed, and he wasn’t invited to dinner god dammit! I know Len is kind of a goob and is rigid and all, but I kind of like him in this scene. He’s been given a raw deal, and Maura knows it. She apologizes for not talking to him privately, and for the inadequacy of language when it comes to dealing with him/her, but deep down she’s still just a person like him. (That was just a hair too close to Julia Roberts’ Notting Hill speech for me.)
Later, Sarah and her Dad dip their toes into the pool. (I get the metaphor!) “I hope I’m not ruining the kids with this crazy stuff,” she sighs to her father, who along with Shelly kind of ruined their kids with all their crazy stuff. “Remember our crazy stuff?” Maura says. “Yeah, but it’s all blended in with the good stuff.” It was a lovely scene, full of hope that maybe our kids too will see their childhoods for both the crazy and the dear.
Run Rabbi Raquel! Get out of the hole and save yourself. Joshie always means well, but this can’t possibly end well.