Transparent recap: 'Symbolic Exemplar'
The Pfeffermans gather for Maura's performance in Trans Got Talent.
“Now you’re just somebody that I used to know,” Maura sings with her friend Davina in her Trans Got Talent performance. And to her children watching that’s who she is in a way: somebody they used to think they knew. Perhaps the choice of Gotye’s 2011 hit is almost too perfect for what the Pfefferman’s are going through in the seventh episode. Each of them are wrestling with versions of themselves and what they expect themselves to be.
“Symbolic Exemplar” opens on Ali, who has the biggest journey in this episode, trying on clothing with Syd. She’s attempting to look “high femme” to impress Dale, the trans TA she had met in the previous episode. Ali doesn’t understand the concept of high femme. Syd’s assessment: She’s middle earth femme. Not like Hobbit femme, like “mole people femme.” She eventually tries on a red bustier, which makes her look like she’s headed to a costume party as a saloon dancer. But this prompts a flashback: a young Ali ranting to Mort about her the dress she’s supposed to wear for her Bat Mitzvah. She asks Mort if he believes in God. He tells her, “I struggle with it.” Next we know, Mort is advocating to let Ali cancel her Bat Mitzvah; Shelly is—rightfully, the Jewish mother within me thinks—pissed. Shelly says to Mort: “I want you to be a man and save the goddamn day.” It’s obviously an ironic comment.
So Ali, outfitted with a Midnight Cowboy jacket on top of her get up, meets Dale, who drives her to his cabin. (Their interaction is set to J. J. Cale’s “Don’t Go to Strangers.”) The decor in his home fits all of her preconceived notions of Dale: It’s rustic, it’s hyper masculine, and, eventually, we learn it’s a fiction. But more on that later. Dale is a dom. He refuses to let her sit. He demands she call him “daddy.” When she drops her panties and lifts up her skirt on his command, he takes offense at her prominent bush. He shaves it for her. They then go shopping in search of the perfect dildo. Ali settles on a red one called “Sparkle Unicorn.”
As Ali is exploring her femme identity as submissive to Dale, Sarah is off trying to numb herself. Josh takes her to get a prescription for medical marijuana, and even though she listened probably too many ailments (IBS?), she nervously explains to the weed doctor played by Jason Mantzoukas (The League), “I am the happiest I’ve ever been in my life so this like totally doesn’t make sense.” It’s one of the least convincing declarations of happiness I’ve ever heard. And while Sarah is happily puffing away, Josh declines the pot when she offers it to him. “I’m trying not to pile f—ed up on top of freaked out,” he says.
But Josh is also trying something new on a date with Rabbi Raquel. They flirt adorably. She taking her yarmulke on and off saying “sexy” (off) and “not sexy” (on), until Josh sweetly and adorably says, “it’s sexy either way.” They kiss, but before things can get too serious, Josh reveals he can’t get it up. Raquel’s instant worry is that it has to do with the fact that she’s a rabbi and is therefore injecting too much religion into the situation, but he tells her it’s not that. Things are weird for him right now: After all, his dad is now his moppa. Anyway, Josh and the rest of the Pfefferman children have to go see Maura in the talent show. Raquel tells him she’ll stay behind, whip up something to eat, and wait for him.
At the talent show, Maura is reserving seats for his children. Sarah arrives, high out of her mind. Josh looks petrified to be there. Ali brings Dale, who declares “these are my peeps.” Before the performance Pfefferman children retreat to an empty room, and while Sarah and Josh smoke Sarah’s vape pen, Ali reveals that Dale is trans, and didn’t have the lower surgery. Josh remarks that this means, “four out of five Pfeffermans prefer p—y.” (That line isn’t the most relevant, but it needed to be mentioned given its brilliance.)
The performance itself is one of the most excruciating moments I’ve seen recently on television. Not because Maura and Davina are bad, but because of the Pfefferman children’s reactions. Sarah first tries to dance, though now she’s high and drunk, and then guffaws. They all awkwardly stifle laughs. Soon Dale asks Ali if she wants to leave. They retreat to the bathroom to use that bright red dildo, but suddenly the mystique of Dale is gone. He can’t get the packaging open—and that sets off a number of things going wrong before the device lands sadly on the floor.
Josh is the second Pfefferman to escape the show before the song is even over, and then, finally, Sarah, after a row with Tammy. Sarah asks Josh to take her home, but before he does he sees Tammy’s truck filled with pieces of their childhood home, which she is redoing. He is furious, but Sarah simply starts laughing. Josh goes to the house to find the books gone and a flatscreen TV where their fireplace used to be while Bianca packs a bowl from Sarah’s stash, which she stored in an old pirate treasure box of Josh’s. If Ali is experimenting with her femininity in this episode, Josh is experimenting with his stability. But he lets that all out the window as he ditches poor Raquel, left alone at his house, and gets high with Bianca, ultimately getting caught by Sarah and Tammy.
Just like Josh’s attempt at stability fizzled out, so did Ali’s performance. Back in the car with Dale, he brings up the topic of “chasers,” people that like trans people for being trans. Ali is confused and insulted, but it prompts something in her. She stops her performance, rips off her bustier, and throws it out the window. When they arrive back at Dale’s house it’s not as she remembered. Gone are the logs, this is just a typical dwelling. Inside there are no neon signs, just some art that looks like it might be from Ikea, a small TV, and candles in the fireplace. Dale offers her tea.
And finally there’s Maura. Maura—who has finally been able to stop performing and come out as who she really is in a spectacular way, giving a performance that is not actually one—is despondent when no one is waiting for her after the show. Her children, in the wise words of Davina were “rude f—ing kids,” and she seeks solace in Shelly, who embraces her. They are both two people who used to know each other.