Transparent season 2 recaps and study guide
Amazon dropped all 10 episodes of Transparent’s second season on Dec. 11. To welcome back the Pfefferman family — neurotic Jewish mother Shelly (Judith Light), transgender “moppa” Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), and their three children, Sarah (Amy Landecker), Ali (Gaby Hoffman) and Josh (Jay Duplass) — we binged and recapped the whole season. The page numbers correspond to the episode number so you can read along, without spoilers, as you watch.
EPISODE 1: “KINA HORA”
As I’ve mentioned before, you can tell so much about what’s going to happen this season just by watching that amazing first scene. Sarah and Tammy are getting married, and season 2 opens with them gathering among family and friends to take wedding photos. This unconventional family has only gotten less conventional with time, and everyone’s feeling the strain of pretending to belong to a nice, normal family. Maybe that’s the whole point: It makes the Pfeffermans more relatable. Can any of us really claim that we come from a nice, normal family?
In the photo, neglected children cozy up to their parents: Bianca, the daughter of Tammy’s ex, is forcing a smile to the left of Sarah’s attention-starved kids, who are acting bratty not far from Colton, Josh’s college-aged son. It’s a poignant image, since season 2 explores how parents’ decisions affect their kids, specifically the ways in which Maura’s coming out as a transgender woman has sent her grown children on a never-ending quest to redefine who they are. Remember that Josh just discovered that he was a dad in the season 1 finale. Season 2 finds him coming to terms with this, trying to figure out what role Colton will play in his life now that Rabbi Raquel is carrying his baby.
From the look of that first scene, all the Pfeffermans’ relationships remain uncertain. Josh is holding Raquel tightly from behind while she smiles awkwardly, as if she knows she’s trapped in a situation that’s not quite happily-ever-after. Likewise, Sarah looks miserable at her own wedding, which makes sense, given that the ceremony ends up outlasting the marriage. The only happy-looking couple in the portrait is Maura and Shelly, who are posing like newlyweds themselves, with Maura’s hands resting on Shelly’s shoulders. You might believe, just for a second, that they’re still the same people they were when they first fell in love — until the photographer accidentally calls Maura “sir,” spoiling the fantasy and breaking up the photo session.
They’re a conflicted bunch, these Pfeffermans. But then, that’s also why they understand each other so well. “These are your people,” Josh tells Colton. “They love you no matter what.”
Judging by that gorgeously shot, deeply melancholy final scene, Josh is right — though that devotion sometimes makes them unhappy. Alice Borman’s haunting song “Waiting (PAL Remix)”, which returns at crucial moments throughout the season, plays while the camera pans across the hotel rooms from one conflicted couple to the next. We can see Josh, pleading for Raquel’s forgiveness after betraying her pregnancy to his family. We can see Shelly, pulling Maura into a romantic embrace that’s sweet but also sad, because it looks like she’s forcing romantic feelings that Maura hasn’t shared in a long time. We can see Sarah, officially breaking things off with Tammy. And we can see Ali, stepping out on the balcony to stand beside the ghost of a transgender woman from 1933. (More on that below.) The lyrics sum up each of these twosomes well as they spend the night together, feeling alienated from each other. “Are you coming back?” Boman pleads. “I’m waiting.”
What a beautiful start to another great season. The Pfeffermans might not always earn our sympathy. But they’re our people. We love them no matter what.
- Pay attention to Ali’s hair throughout the season. In the season premiere, she’s rocking some kind of gender-neutral, asymmetrical, deflated pompadour, which seems designed to show the world that she’s not done figuring out her sexuality or gender. Throughout season 2, her hairstyles get even more creative. Like a mood ring perched on her head, they change along with her love interests and her ideals about what a relationship should be like.
- Halfway through Sarah and Tammy’s wedding, just as the band starts to play “Hava Nagila,” the scene flashes back to Berlin in 1933. We see a room full of dramatically lipsticked cabaret singers, dancers wearing frilly lingerie, and other beautiful people, including the queer actress and writer Mel Shimkovitz, who played a bar mitzvah bartender last season, and the trans actress and model Hari Nef, who plays a major role in season 2. I won’t spoil who Nef’s character is yet, except to say that her story offers an interesting lesson in pre-war transgender history and helps illustrate one of the season’s major themes: That family trauma can be passed down through the generations.
- Transparent‘s soundtrack has always been fantastic, and this season is no exception. You can listen to many of the songs from both seasons in the playlist I’ve created here.
NEXT: Episode 2
EPISODE 2: “FLICKY-FLICKY THUMP-THUMP”
Early in this episode, Ali attends an astronomy lecture that eerily reflects what the Pfeffermans are going through now. “When we look up at the sky, we’re not seeing the universe as it is today, but as it was, hundreds, thousands, millions of years ago,” the professor says. “The multitude in this past of every star, sending photons hurtling through space, each one a clue as to our origins. What you are looking at is the past.” Ali sits in the audience, with tears in her eyes. Then the camera cuts to Raquel and Josh, who are seeing an ultrasound of their baby for the first time. It’s an elegant transition: The ultrasound looks like a miniature universe, with pulsing specks of light around the baby that look like stars. From the way Raquel and Josh’s eyes tear up, you can just see them imagining how their lives are going to change. Just like that astronomy lecture suggests, this is an origin story, but it’s also a story about the future.
The Pfeffermans’ own story speaks to the difficulty of reconciling the present with the past. Sarah is turning the house she once shared with Len into a neutral zone where they’ll “bird nest” with their kids, turning a space that’s filled with memories into a new way of living together as exes. Josh and Raquel decide to invite Colton, the lost son he fathered as a teenager, to live with them even as they raise their baby, allowing Josh to come to terms with his past and build a family at the same time. And as a transgender woman, Maura is both a totally different person and the exact same person she’s always been. That’s one of many reasons why Shelly is having so much trouble figuring out where she stands with her onetime husband.
The kids might joke that Maura and Shelly “are lesbians now,” since Shangri-La turned into a condo, leaving Maura with few options beyond returning to Shelly as a roommate. But the reality is much more complicated. They still feel a great love for one another, even if it’s mostly based on a shared nostalgia (“You remember Jean Nate, right?” asks Shelly about the bubble bath. “Oh, I like this!” Maura says, remembering the scent.) So that “flicky-flicky thump thump” between them in the bathtub is all the more depressing. Maura is clearly uncomfortable. She loves Shelly and obviously feels grateful to her for letting Maura live there, but the sex act Maura performs smacks of obligation, not desire. “Don’t make me do this,” Maura says before it even begins. “I’m good,” she says when it’s over, refusing Shelly’s offer to reciprocate. Worse, Shelly seems to have told the kids that they’ve rekindled things between them, which feels like a betrayal to Maura. It sounds like Shelly mostly needed that “flicky-flicky” to make her feel better about herself.
Love isn’t always a window into someone else’s experience on this show. Sometimes, it’s just a mirror that reflects your worst self back to you. Later, when Josh throws a pool party to get his band Fussy Puss signed, Tammy shows up drunk, breaking her longtime sobriety, and yells at Sarah, “I am in pain! I am your pain!” That must be how it feels for Shelly and Maura to look at each other, too. Or Josh and Colton. They’re looking at someone they care about deeply. But like that astronomer said, what they’re really looking at is their past.
- I love the way Syd insults Ali’s hair: “That’s an interesting braid. It’s like, did you join a New Wave polygamist cult?”
- Favorite quote from Ali: “Turns out I love the flavor of lost lesbian wedding dream cake.”
- I loved the final scene, with Maura looking at herself in the mirror as Sia’s “Chandelier” plays in the background. Transparent creator Jill Soloway recently told the New Yorker that she didn’t ever want to write something that showed “a trans woman looking in the mirror and crying.” This scene felt like a triumphant reversal of that cliché: a trans woman, looking in the mirror, finally accepting what she sees.
NEXT: Episode 3
EPISODE 3: “NEW WORLD COMING”
It’s an old truism that many people don’t truly feel like adults until they become parents. But in the Pfeffermans’ case, being a parent can also turn an adult into a child. All of the Pfeffermans seem to be going through some kind of second adolescence at the same time. So it makes sense that Josh and Maura can’t help but try to relive their youth through their kids, specifically by revisiting the schools where they grew up.
Right now, Josh wants to start acting like an adult, but he’s just doing what you might call “adulting.” He has invited Colton to live with him and Raquel, but he hasn’t considered what that gesture really means. When Colton asks if he can call Josh “dad,” Josh responds, “Yeah… I think so. Or do I need to think about that? I’ll think about it. Yes.” When Josh gives Colton a tour of the high school he’ll be attending — the same school where Josh went — Josh ends up regaling his son with his own high school exploits, even comparing notes about how many women they’ve each slept with. He relates to Colton as a buddy, not a father. Josh doesn’t even realize that he needs to be Colton’s legal guardian to enroll him in the school. No wonder he can’t bring himself to do the stand-up thing and propose to Raquel. Because he has no idea how to act like a mature human being, she takes the proposal upon herself.
Unlike Josh, Maura is learning how to be a grown-up and how to be a woman at the same time. She doesn’t yet realize that it’s rude to ask Shea if she has a vagina. She embarrasses her friends when she tries to say, “Yassss queen!” And when she takes Ali to visit the college where Maura used to teach, hoping that ushering Ali into a women’s studies program will finally help Ali decide what to do with her life, Maura is reminded that she once blocked a radical feminist named Leslie from working on a political journal that solely employed men… and one woman with huge breasts.
Ali seems to believe that doing the grown-up thing means correcting what Maura did to Leslie long ago. She wants to rebel against her moppa and get into Leslie’s gender studies program, and somehow, her reinvigorated interest in feminism gets mixed up with Ali’s need to take things to the next level with Syd. It’s no accident that a line from Leslie’s poem — “This is my country” — both convinces Ali that she belongs among Syd’s circle of lesbian friends and helps Ali take the first steps toward entering an adult relationship.
That first kiss between Ali and Syd is so bittersweet. You can practically fast-forward to the exact moment when Syd’s heart will inevitably break a few episodes down the line. For now, though, the night ends with them snuggling together in bed. “There’s a new world coming,” Nina Simone sings. “This one’s coming to an end.” It’s an appropriate message for this family, as Ali explores new aspects of her sexuality, and Maura and Josh make way for the next generation to take their place.
- This episode was directed by The Diary of a Teenage Girl‘s Marielle Heller.
- The character of Leslie, played by Cherry Jones, was inspired by the real-life lesbian poet Eileen Myles, who worked with Allen Ginsberg and wrote the cult classic Chelsea Girls. Soloway met Myles while researching the role and ended up dating her. Yes, readers, you’re free to start psychoanalyzing Ali’s crush on Leslie.
- Great quote about Leslie, courtesy of Syd’s friend: “I think she lives in Oakland, or somewhere Northern Lesbian-ish.”
- What do you make of Sarah’s fantasy about her old teacher smacking her with a paddle? It made me think of Tammy’s words in the previous episode: “I am your pain!” Maybe Sarah is tired of inflicting pain on others and subconsciously wants to be punished for it. Or maybe she’s just kinky like that.
NEXT: Episode 4
EPISODE 4: “CHERRY BLOSSOMS”
“Everyone feels like they’re on the outside,” Raquel tells Sarah. “Not just you.” That’s true for so many people on this show. Shelly feels alienated from Maura’s new life, not realizing that Maura feels just as alienated from other people, especially as she tries to navigate the dating scene. Sarah feels ostracized from the other parents at her kids’ school, who know all the gossip about her and Tammy. Raquel is left standing awkwardly apart from the family hug between Colton, Josh, and Rita, which makes Raquel anxious, despite the fact that Rita is a crazy person who sings Sly and the Family Stone’s “Family Affair” at inappropriate times and packs up other people’s pizza to take home.
To be fair, though, Rita’s right about “A Family Affair.” It is an “a propos” song for their dinner, when you consider the lyrics: “You’re still checking each other out / Nobody wants to blow / Nobody wants to be left out / You can’t leave, ’cause your heart is there / But you can’t stay, ’cause you been somewhere else.”
Many of the Pfeffermans are caught between two worlds right now, but Maura and Sarah might feel that tension most acutely. Maura’s still figuring out whether she wants to get gender reassignment surgery, and it seems like a cruel irony that the same hormone treatment that helps her feel like a woman may actually make it difficult for her to have sex. Sarah wants to start a new life, but she can’t avoid getting sucked back into the old one. At a fundraiser for her kids’ school, she runs into both Len and Tammy, the latter of whom is drunk and sporting a neck tattoo. (“I am becoming. It’s got, like, a double entendre!”) It’s funny that Sarah ends up winning (or cheating her way into winning) the raffle for a life coach. She’s so commitment phobic, she can’t even agree to attend an appointment for free advice.
Meanwhile, Grandma Rose is literally caught between two worlds. Stuck in a nursing home, where she’s increasingly confused, she can’t tell the difference between Ali and Rose’s transgender sibling, Gittl. Through a flashback to 1933, we learn that Gittl was a central figure at Berlin’s Institute for Sexual Research, where cross-dressers, hermaphrodites, and others who don’t traditionally conform to gender can work with Mr. Magnus Hershville, the “Isaac Newton of sex.” Later, while doing research at the library, Ali discovers a study that suggests trauma is inherited: After bunnies were shocked while smelling cherry blossoms, their grandbabies instinctively feared the same scent. We already know that Ali is grappling with her identity, just as Maura and Gittl did before her. But what trauma has she inherited from them? Something tells me we’ll soon find out.
- Maura keeps her droll sense of humor even when she’s having a serious conversation with her doctor. “Do you plan on getting breasts?” “Two, please.”
- Colton wants to learn about black mold, just to help Rita? He’s a teenager, and he’s still the least selfish person on this show.
- Soloway’s directing is so cinematic in this episode. I loved the close-ups of the ceramic figurines in Rose’s room, an image that suggests how child-like she’s become in old age.
- The final scene with Sarah standing naked in the kitchen, eating a microwave dinner, is a good indication of where she stands in her life right now. It’s an image of total freedom and something far more pathetic at the same time.
- What woman in her right mind pays $485 for an eye shadow palette?
NEXT: Episode 5
EPISODE 5: “MEE-MAW”
My boundary is your trigger. Barb said something like that to Sarah a few episodes ago, and it sounded funny at the time, like empty therapy-speak. But “Mee-Maw” reminds us just how much of Transparent is about pushing boundaries — not just the characters’ boundaries, but also our own.
Take the fact that it begins in a spa, zooming in on naked bodies of all shapes and sizes, the kind you don’t normally see on TV. Consider that Sarah shares her sexual fantasies with her sister, in full detail. Think about Ali wearing a strap-on in full daylight, while brushing her teeth, or inviting her girlfriend to the full moon ritual hosted by her crush, or explaining why she’s suddenly dating a woman for the first time: “I just crossed the line that I guess I always had there.”
Are we supposed to laugh when Ali insists that she “can’t have emotional intimacy with somebody who hasn’t suffered under the patriarchy”? Or are we supposed to take that line as seriously as Ali does? Like many moments in Transparent, that one feels like a test, designed to make viewers figure out just how much tolerance they have for people who are “overly attached to dogma,” as Maura puts it. But it’s also a test of how open to other characters’ perspectives and experiences we can be.
For the Pfeffermans, the lack of boundaries might be the best and worst thing about their family. It bonds them closer than most, but it can also make them feel like they don’t have control of their own lives. You can especially see this with Josh, whose own parents took it upon themselves to send Rita away to have baby Colton and let Pastor Gene raise him — without telling him.
I love that Transparent sets us up to think Pastor Gene and his family will be a bunch of judgmental simpletons who live in a trailer, only to find that we’re the judgmental ones for expecting that to be the case. Pastor Gene actually seems pretty accepting of Maura as Colton’s “mee-maw.” He even makes a point of telling Raquel that he loves “the Jewish people,” though his wife doesn’t love the idea that Colton might be one of them. He only judges Josh for not stepping up to be Colton’s dad — at which point Maura ends up derailing the plan for Colton to stay with Josh and Raquel.
It’s hard to tell what the best thing for Colton, Josh, and Raquel would be in the end. Raquel needs to set more boundaries to keep her unborn baby healthy. Josh shares that responsibility, though he’s heartbroken that inviting Colton to live with them conflicts with it. Still, it’s impossible not to reserve all of your empathy for Colton, especially when he pleads, “If you want me to stay, just say so.” The poor kid has had way too many boundaries on the way to becoming part of a family. Someone just needs to open up and let him in.
- This episode was written by Our Lady J, a former Lady Gaga collaborator who was hired as part of Soloway’s “trans-affirmative action” program. She knew transgender people who’d reconstructed their own baby pictures in real life.
- The scene with Sarah meeting the life coach is one of the funniest and most passive-aggressive conversations I’ve ever seen on Transparent. There’s a spark inside it, and that spark is a boom!
- If you need me, I’ll be sitting here in this cloud of smoke, listening to Sade or roots reggae.
NEXT: Episode 6
EPISODE 6: “BULNERABLE”
Selfishness is a complicated thing on Transparent. As my fellow EW critic Jeff Jensen once put it, it can be “redemptive and destructive, alienating and necessary, often at the same time.” This episode illustrates that well. Maura tells Davina that she’s “focusing on moi” right now, which originally sounds like a good idea. After all, Maura has just moved out of Shelly’s house, where Maura’s whole life was about subverting her own needs and making Shelly happy. But too often, putting moi first is an excuse for self-pity on this show. Case in point: as soon as Maura notices that Davina is happy with Sal, Maura can’t help but grill Sal about his true feelings, trying to make Davina notice the cracks in their relationship.
Ali actually pretends that her most selfish desires, like trying to seduce Leslie, aren’t selfish at all. In her mind, their hot tub bacchanal is a force for the good of feminism everywhere, even though it’s disloyal to Syd. Other Pfeffermans are constantly trying to make things all about them — a habit that’s most likely a plea for sympathy, but actually ends up isolating them from the group. When Josh confronts Shelly about hiding Colton from him, Shelly uses it as an opportunity to make him feel sorry for her. (“I was all alone!”) When Raquel loses the baby, Josh says he’s sorry that she has to “go through that,” as if she’s going through it on her own. He’s generally a caring person, but the fact that he leaves her on the night of this traumatic news to attend an industry party proves to Raquel that they’re not in this together anymore. She returns his engagement ring.
Maybe the saddest part is that everyone in this family is lonely, but they’re too self-centered to realize that this shared loneliness should actually bring them closer together. After a disastrous date with the doctor, who can’t indulge Sarah’s sexual fantasies without accidentally imitating Julia Child’s voice, Sarah returns home to Shelly for the ultimate this-isn’t-about-you! fight. Shelly on Maura: “I don’t need another person in my life making me feel like a complete failure.” Sarah: “Can we just stop? Because my night is completely ruined.” Shelly: “Your night? What about my night?” You just want these two to shut up already and listen to each other, especially when Shelly sighs and tells Sarah, “I’m alone again.” Sarah’s alone, too. Somehow, they’re alone together.
- There are so many quotable lines in this episode. Sarah on Shelly: “She’s in the back, breaking child labor laws.” Shelly on being a bad mother: “You think I was so terrible? I didn’t beat you… I gave you a credit card!” That gross record label executive on Josh’s band, Fussy Puss: “I just love it so much, man, I wanna give it a prostate massage.”
- “Phallus is to crucifix as vagina is to Holocaust.” Let’s hope Ali never gets a job writing the analogies for the SATs.
NEXT: Episode 7
EPISODE 7: “THE BOOK OF LIFE”
Jewish critics have called Transparent “the most Jewish TV show,” because it understands Jewish parents and siblings so well, in both their strengths and failings. “Book of Life” is a prime example of the show nailing those family dynamics and conversational rhythms, just in time for the holiest day of the year.
It’s Yom Kippur, and everyone’s atoning in the wrong way. Sarah finally apologizes to Tammy, but mostly to absolve herself of any guilt. She even blames her parents for any wrongdoing she has committed. Shelly claims she feels bad about causing Raquel’s miscarriage (“It’s all my fault!”) even though she should really be apologizing for turning Josh’s loss into her own. At the break-the-fast dinner party she throws with Syd, Ali issues a sweeping mea culpa to everyone she knows for “anything I may have done to any of you this past year.” But it’s an empty gesture, one that’s actually intended to distance Ali from any responsibility (“may” is the operative word here), especially when Syd is sitting right there in front of her, and Ali clearly doesn’t feel bad about hurting Syd by sleeping over at Leslie’s place.
That dinner party scene adeptly captures how family gatherings make you take stock of your life in a way that can be painful. “How are your parents?” Syd’s parents ask Josh. “The usual,” he says. “Mom’s good. Dad’s a woman.” Ali tries to lighten the conversation by mentioning that Josh is engaged and expecting a baby, but from Josh’s expression, it’s obvious that neither of those things is true anymore. Meanwhile, Shelly actively tries to hurt Maura by bringing her new boyfriend, Buzz, to the dinner, even though Shelly doesn’t know him well enough to realize that he was a patent attorney, not an astronaut. Your heart goes out to poor, confused Buzz when he asks Maura, “So, how do you gals know each other?”
The only person who’s atoning in the right way is Maura. She wasn’t always there for her kids when they were growing up, but now she’s really trying to be a good “moppa” to Josh. “It’s okay to be sad,” she says. “It’s sad.” Those words enrage Josh, who says he doesn’t need Maura’s permission. But watching that scene, I choked up. It made me so sad, I wanted to cope with those feelings the way Josh does: by shoveling a whole packet of ham into my mouth.
- “What is being queer if not questioning everything?” Ali asks Syd while trying to get her to consider a polyamorous relationship. She’s asking for selfish reasons, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a legitimate question. In some ways, it’s the biggest question that Transparent has been wrestling with since episode 1.
- Alexandra Billings doesn’t get much screen time as Davina, but with a single, uncompromising line in “The Book of Life,” she steals the episode from all the other actors: “I’m a 53-year-old, ex-prostitute, HIV-positive woman with a d—. And I know what I want and I know what I need.” Damn straight.
- Jay Duplass deserves an Emmy nod for his performance as Josh here, even when he’s not saying a word. You can tell so much about his character just by watching the way he grimaces or binge-eats his way through the supermarket.
NEXT: Episode 8
EPISODE 8: “OSCILLATE”
“You have to keep them from harming themselves,” Shea tells Maura. She’s telling Maura what to do as a volunteer for the transgender suicide hotline, but she’s also summing up one of the hardest things about being a parent: Sometimes there’s nothing you can do to keep your kids out of harm’s way. Gittl refuses to accept the visa that her mother secured for her and decides to stay in Berlin with Magnus, right as the danger is escalating for her as a transgender woman and a Jew. Josh is dealing with his break-up and the loss of his baby in unhealthy ways, pushing himself too hard in Crossfit and acting like a jerk to everyone he knows, including car salesmen, until he can’t take it anymore. He finally breaks down (along with his new car) on the side of the road. And just when Maura needs to be there for him, she’s focusing on being a good mother figure for Shea.
Maybe the Pfeffermans have convinced themselves that there’s nothing they can do for Josh. Buzz’s advice is a fitting mantra for this self-involved family: “You need to do what you want in this life, not what you feel like you should be doing.” There are no Mother Teresas in this group. Who can blame them if they want to escape their own troubles at the Idylwild Wimmin’s Music Festival while Josh struggles back home? If they can’t protect other people from harm, they’ll focus on protecting themselves.
- Am I the only one who’d be a little squeamish about eating a steak stamped with the words “Buzzy Meat”?
- “If you hold an item in your hand and it doesn’t give you joy, you should get rid of it.” What a cruel explanation for why Shelly got rid of the art that Ali made for her.
- Bradley Whitford, who played Maura’s cross-dressing friend Mark/Marcy in season 1, plays Magnus Hershville here.
- Raise your hand if you didn’t sing along to the Indigo Girls’ “Closer to Fine.” If you just raised your hand, I don’t believe you.
NEXT: Episode 9
EPISODE 9: “MAN ON THE LAND”
The Idylwild Wimmin’s Music Festival in this episode is based on the real-life Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which ended in August, after 40 years, largely because of controversy over whether transgender women had the right to attend. So many details ring true to the actual festival: the drum circles, that “Vagotarian” T-shirt, the tampon-making workshop, the fact that nut loaf is served, the naked woman selling “birds of prey” earrings from her perch on a hammock. Personally, my favorite part is Crying Bear, the shaman who tells the crowd, “Some of you know me from my ‘drumming away racism’ group.”
It’s to Soloway’s credit that she gives us permission to laugh at these things while still taking the festival’s feminist ideology seriously. Transparent tends to romanticize spaces where marginalized people can live freely, apart from society’s rules, whether that’s Gittl’s group of cabaret dancers in Berlin or the cross-dressing camp where Maura felt like herself for the first time. So it’s all the more upsetting that the same type of tree-lined sanctuary that once made Maura feel like she was among her people is now making her feel like an outsider.
The debate that Maura has with Ali and Leslie and their feminist friends is one of my favorite scenes from the whole season. It deals with so many of the show’s big themes in one heated conversation. What does it take to really be a woman? What does it mean to call someone “privileged” when she spent half her life as a man, reaping the financial and political benefits, but also suffered immeasurably by not getting to live as a woman? How ironic is it that Ali is concerned about women living with a “low-grade anxiety about being raped or maimed” when, according to at least one study, half of transgender people experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetime?
I’m not sure how to feel about the ending of this episode, which juxtaposes the Nazi raid on Berlin’s Institute for Sexual Research with Maura choosing to leave the festival because she’s not welcome. It’s hard to compare the two experiences when one involves choice and the other involves certain death, and the fact that this juxtaposition perfectly illustrates Ali’s earlier point about how trauma gets passed down through DNA feels a little too neat. But the ending is saved by Maura’s new friend Vicki (played by Anjelica Huston), who picks her up while she’s walking down the road. There’s something poetic about that final shot: it’s only after Maura has been ostracized by the group that she truly finds her people.
- That’s Soloway playing the “naughty doggy” who’s dragged behind the dominatrix in the woods.
NEXT: Episode 10
EPISODE 10: “GREY GREEN BROWN & COPPER”
Before we dig into this episode, let’s talk about Soloway’s mission of bringing a “female gaze” to Transparent. “Women are shamed for having desire for anything — for food, for sex, for anything,” she said during a recent speech in Los Angeles. “We’re asked to only be the object for other people’s desire. There’s nothing that directing is about more than desire. It’s like, ‘I want to see this. I want to see it with this person. I want to change it. I want to change it again.'”
Directing with “the female gaze,” she told the New Yorker, is less about telling people what to do and more about creating the right conditions everyone needs to thrive — less about asserting control than what she calls “discerning-receiving.”
That’s how Transparent views love, too. It’s not about belonging to someone or submitting to someone. It’s about remaining playful and open, which might be why Sarah is smiling like a goofy little kid even while she’s getting paddled. It’s about creating the right conditions where both people are free to be whomever they want to be, and still connect with each other in a meaningful way. Desire isn’t just about getting what you want. It’s about remaining, as Vicki describes it to Maura, “NATO — not attached to outcome.”
You can tell so much about the “discerning-receiving” connection between Vicki and Maura by the way they never stop asking questions: Do you want a showery or a bathy? Do you want to see me naked? Do you want to keep your bra on or off? Do you want to spoon? There’s something almost radical about the way their love scene is filmed — not just because it shows two people over 50 having sex, not just because it’s a trans woman and a cisgender woman, not just because it dares to make a woman with a double mastectomy look sexy. The most radical thing is how innocent it feels, lingering on nothing more salacious than a close-up shot of Vicki’s thigh, as if it’s being filmed from a virgin’s perspective. And in a way, Maura is a virgin. “I don’t know what to do,” she tells Vicki. Remember that she’s having sex as Maura for the first time.
When you love someone, being “not attached to outcome” means giving other people the space to make choices you might not make yourself — which, when you think about it, is also a nice way of thinking about feminism. Even though Maura comes from a family where boundaries are constantly breached, she respects Vicki’s decision not to meet Maura’s mother because, as she puts it, “You have some great boundaries! They’re hot!” Leslie wants to keep hooking up with Ali, but she respects her enough to let Ali make a decision on her own: “You wanna be my student, or you wanna be my old lady?” Josh supports Maura’s transition, but that doesn’t mean he can’t mourn the father he lost. Even Maura’s sister, Bry, who makes no secret of the fact that she disapproves of Maura’s transition, shows up at the end to stand beside the family she loves.
That scene at the beach with Rose, Maura, Bry, and Ali is such a lovely image. At the place where sand, ocean, and sky blend together, so do these three generations of women. It’s a nice callback to the opening scene, where Ali, Josh, and Sarah swim in a pool that was once flooded by leaves — three siblings, reconnecting in the place where land, water, and sky meet. Each of them is like that wounded duck in the bathtub, awkwardly trying to stay afloat. But the fact that they’re drawn back together when they’re most alone — they’re all single for the first time in ages — also underscores some of the most important questions that Transparent has asked this season about the nature of self. How do we know who we really are, both as individuals and when we’re around the people we love? How much of that self-image is rooted in our DNA, and how much of it is informed by the way others see us? What’s the proper balance between loving other people and looking out for yourself?
I can’t wait to keep watching the Pfeffermans explore those questions. What a fantastic season of Transparent.
- “What makes you so sure it’s a girl?” Rose’s mother asks Rose’s husband about the baby. Maura will spend the rest of her life dealing with that question.
- Did anyone else do a little facepalm when Sarah tried to find her “spiritual mojo” by visiting Raquel? She knows that this will really hurt Josh. Surely, there’s another rabbi in Los Angeles who can help Sarah “get her goddess on”?
- The scene where Josh collapses in Buzz’s arms, mourning a father he didn’t even like, was wrenching. I love that Transparent honors all kinds of emotional responses, even those that might be considered “wrong.”