Just like their inability to do makeup, the Pfeffermans don’t really know what to make of female friendship. No, let’s be more specific: no one in this family can relate to the struggles of other women, or see them as anything other than romantic partners. This is perhaps a part of their solipsistic nature—it’s hard for them to relate to anyone, period, being the unique little snowflakes that they are—but it’s particularly notable that the women of the family can’t see beyond their own experiences to embrace the power of female solidarity.
You’d think Maura would be the best at this, but she’s not: her living arrangement with Shelly turned out to be less reunion and more like a terrible episode of This is Your Life. Which is unfortunate, because we really only see Shelly through the lens of her family—she’s the one character who the show doesn’t invest with her own viewpoint. Poor Shelly…she’ll always be on the sidelines, sounding shrill but in reality far more self-reliant than any of the children (or former husbands) who she has raised.
“I can come and go as I please,” Maura sniffs when Shelly (correctly) detects that her ex’s sleepovers at Devina’s house equal trouble in theirs. Maura is a fully-grown person, yet she’s so worried about being penned in that she becomes as sulky as a child (or Josh) when forced to honor a commitment.
“Do I make you happy?” Shelly implores as Maura stares at herself in the mirror. She assures her, vaguely, but later will snap: “Stop worrying what’s good for me, what do you want? Just pick something, make a choice. Make yourself happy.” This will be over whether or not to watch Scandal, but like all things in Transparent, it works as a meta-critique about their relationship dynamic more than it does about what show Shelly happens to land on.
Nor does Maura’s closest surrogate, Ali, fare much better: she’s turned her only close friend, Syd, into a romantic partner. Never mind Josh, because obviously that dude can’t be in the room with a member of the opposite sex without accidentally getting them pregnant or being embroiled in some statutory accusations: Rita and him; him and Bianca. (Why isn’t anyone more concerned about Bianca’s presence in Josh’s life? Like, I’m assuming Rabbi Raquel managed to ice her out of the living arrangements, but she’s still 16 and in a band spending all her time with the brother of the almost-wife of the ex-wife of her mom. WHO IS WATCHING THESE CHILDREN??)
Then there’s Sarah. Poor, high-strung, just looking for an Itty Bitty Committee to join; near hysterical with desperation. We’ve been told Len got all the friends in the divorce, and we’ve seen how Tammy’s ex Barb feels about her. (Though Barb’s a little bit of an enigma: does she not like Sarah because Sarah stole Tammy from her? Does she not like Sarah for dumping Tammy? [I mean, she did go to their wedding after all.] Or does Barb just really enjoy Len’s company? [Twice now, she’s been over at their house on a play-date organized by her and Len.])
It’s Sarah, the Pfefferman who began the show as the most quote-unquote “normal” one of the family who’s been left with zero allies, let alone friends, in her life. It would be Mommy and Me social suicide to be friends with Sarah Pfefferman right now, and yet we have a moment in the beginning of this episode where the possibility is raised. Poppy (Annie Mumolo), a seemingly sympathetic teacher, takes the brunt of Sarah’s amazing meltdown in an amazing monologue that shows exactly how tightly this character is strung.
“Regarding Wacky Hair Day, the thing is, kids are naturally anxious about their appearance on really…really, any given day? So to disrupt the routine, a routine that some of us are barely hanging on to, just to get them dressed and get them out the door and get their snack made and get their lunch made and get their sunscreen on, get them in the car and get them here on-time, and then you add this, um, lunatic wacky hair wrench into the works…”
There’s a moment, after this tirade, where it looks like Sarah might have an ally. Poppy asks if she’s okay and puts her arm around her for a walk-and-talk, telling her how stressful all the events during Spirit Week can be. Especially the gay-la.
“Shit, the gala,” Sarah grumbles.
“Gay-la,” Poppy replies.
“It’s GAH-la,” Sarah chides. The moment is perfect, because Sarah is, of course, still hung up on things like proper pronunciation and grammar (a little bit of irony, considering how meaningless her Moppa has rendered pronouns), even though beggars can’t be choosers and lonely moms without a spirit committee to lead will end up buying up all her own unsold raffle tickets at the gay-la to save face in front of Len and his girlfriend and a drunk Tammy.
And because we’re in season 2 of Transparent instead of season 1 (where the structure was looser and less sitcom-y), Chekhov’s Rule of Raffle Tickets apply, with Sarah winning both a large screen TV and several life-coaching sessions. She tries to turn down the prizes, as a spurned and wasted Tammy heckles her from the sidelines; the wince on Len’s face sealing the mortifying moment. (Even though he supposedly hates Sarah, he doesn’t want to see her suffer: “Take the damn ticket,” he mutters as he watches his ex-wife put herself in the middle of another humiliatingly public defeat. From the safe distance of a girlfriend who spends over $400 in eyeshadow palettes, you can hear Len coaching Sarah under his breath, “Take it and get off the stage.”)
I want to pause here and add that there might not being anything more Pfefferman than the self-loathing that comes from winning a raffle you rig yourself. Consider Josh, who gets a whole dinner table full of the people in his life most important to him: the pregnant fiancée rabbi; the fully-formed (and totally infatuated) son Colton; his son’s mother (and his former baby-sitter) Rita. And yet for once it’s not hard to imagine why Josh’s embarrassment of riches is actually a curse: Rita is legit crazy, as evidenced by her humming and then singing Sly Stone’s “It’s a Family Affair” in the middle of dinner while Raquel blanches and Colton averts his eyes. Now that he’s finally got a makeshift family to preside over, papa-familial-style, Josh risks losing them all in one wrong move. Rabbi Raquel is making it clearer and clearer that her interest in Josh goes as far as the baby in her belly and Tante Gittel’s ring on her hand; she tolerates Colton—barely—but not the circumstances he brings with him like a bad puppy tracking shit on her nice new carpet. Rita is a no-go, as far as Raquel is concerned, and if she doesn’t exactly spell out that this means Josh AND Colton must sever their relationship with their crazy mother figure, it’s only because she doesn’t have to: it’s implied in every eyebrow she raises.
Meanwhile Maura doesn’t know what she wants, but female friendship isn’t it. She goes to a doctor to discuss options for taking her feminity to the next level with testerone blockers, but balks at the idea that they might lower her sex drive. The doctor asks if she would like breasts, and she replies “two please” with all the heart-breaking sincerity of the ugly duckling trying out her new swan costume. But as Maura’s sexuality seems to be straddling the line between drag and trans–she wants breasts, but also wants a dick and the ability to fuck women–the doctor cautions for her to “get to know her body.”
Instead, Maura tries to get to know someone else’s, when she attempts to pick up a lawyer having a bad day at a bar. At first the woman is gracious, but as soon as she realizes that Maura is hitting on her, she begs off in a classic example of the dramatic principle, “Chekhov’s Aggravated Lawyers Sans Tapas.”
Ali visits her Grandma Rose in an effort to get in touch with her past..for the totally myopic reason that she wants to write an essay that will impress Leslie. “Do you know there’s such a thing as inherited trauma?” Ali asks Syd in the library. “It’s called epigenetics.” While Ali gives Syd the example involving bunny experiments, the real reference here is to a study at Mount Sinai Hospital in epigenetic inheritance regarding a particular trauma: Holocaust survivors had somehow managed to pass down stress disorders to their children through genetics rather than experience.
And now we’re getting to the real heart of the episode, which took place in Rose’s flashback, which we now realize are the same flashbacks that Ali has been having all season. Ali, having not won the genetic lottery, only stands to inherit the family’s traumatic history. Meanwhile, the man of the Pfefferman clan is given the one thing of value that young Rose was able to smuggle to America with her: a ring, that we now know didn’t belong to Rose’s sister Gittel, but to her cross-dressing brother, Gershon. (Note that Rose also confuses Ali for her lost family member when she visits, exclaiming “Gershon, you’re here!)
Only four episodes in and the irony is already palpable: both Maura and her sister cite “not wanting to upset grandma Rose” as the reason Maura shouldn’t visit her aging mother, while in truth, Maura didn’t visit her even when she was Mort, and Grandma Rose, we suspect, has a much better sense of the persecution of trans people than even her son-cum-daughter does.