Transparent is back: everyone jump into the pool!!
Not quite. If Transparent season one was about transitioning and (at least some attempts at) acceptance, season 2 is making clear that it’s no longer One Big Happy. No, now we’re at the part where stuff gets hard. Well hard-er. Now we’re looking at the Pfeffermans as they deal with rejection, of all sorts. And let me be honest: my neck’s kind of hurting for the whiplash.
We knew that Sarah–poor, desperately holding it together by less of a string and more of a piano chord–takes the brunt of this week’s blunt force trauma. From the beginning, with her and Len in family counseling, where she learns just how deeply her ex-husband loathes her. He won’t agree to cohabitation (“Fuck that!”) and accuses her of traumatizing their daughter against weddings. Then there’s the proposed solution for the kids’ stability–a “bird-nesting” arrangement where her children live full-time in the childhood home Maura pre-queathed to her last season to raise her family, while Len and Sarah trade off days staying with them. While she was in a unit–either her and Len, or later, her and Tammy–Sarah’s mothering was never called into question, and she was relatively safe from the accusations of unfit parenting. Newly single, and a sort of belated runaway bride to boot, her claim of custody isn’t just diminished but completely overthrown: she must leave her own house and let Len and his girlfriend move into her parents bedroom and raise their children for half the time. Sarah is guilty of many things–being bossy, being a flake, being totally reactionary to the choices her life has provided for her–but this scarlet letter of Bad Mother seems a little excessive.
And yet, Sarah embraces it, getting totally wasted at Josh’s pool party at her (now part-time house), where her loopy “Burn it all to the ground!” boisterousness to pregnant Rabbi Raquel’s offer to attend her class on healing is such a heart-breaking smokescreen to what she truly feels: that Len and Tammy are essentially right about her as a monstrous person. And fuck if she isn’t “leaning in” to that as publicly as she’s leaned into every other blanket generalization of her previous roles: housewife, lesbian, and now: the family fuck-up.
This is all made so much worse when Transparent veers from its anti-“unnecessarily confrontational” tone of the first season, when Tammy shows up to Josh’s pool party totally shit-faced, throwing away her longterm sobriety to crash her daughter Bianca’s performance with the rest of Fussy Puss. “I have the soul of a warrior!” she screams into the microphone to Sarah as the party halts around them. “And you destroyed it!”
“You think there are no consequences?” Tammy continues to rant, “I’m a fucking consequence! I’m not crazy! I’m in pain! I am your pain.” This is a far cry from the confident interior designer we saw seduce Sarah first season, the one who said that she understood jealousy because “people have been jealous of me my whole life.” Tammy is ousted from the party, but not before seeing her wedding cake being used as party food at the house where she was planning to live in her version of One Big Happy, but where she is no longer welcome. And to add insult to injury, even her daughter Bianca has defected to the Pfeffermans.
Interesting here to note Colton’s reaction in this shot: the newest member of the Pfefferman clan is coincidentally the biggest anomaly of the bunch. Where they routinely bring up every humiliating detail of each other’s lives (“So, you and mom are lesbians now?” Ali remarks off-handedly when Maura arrives with a post-orgasmic Shelley); Colton is unfailingly, almost implausibly polite. Not the way Raquel is unbelievable in her politeness, because the judgement she harbors against her future in-laws is–excuse the pun–totally transparent, but in the way that it stretches my suspension of disbelief that a kid raised as he was would be at once so naive and somehow, totally open-minded. Here’s a sixteen-year-old trying with the best of intentions approaching his grand-moppa with the fact that he looked up “trans” on YouTube, and yet is so totally off-base that Maura dismisses his questions about what he found–a woman wearing a silly cape– as not a trans thing, but “a YouTube thing.”
Colton doesn’t seem to be politely ignoring the catastrophe, as social etiquette would dictate, but with the wide-eyes of someone trying to comprehend his new normal. Here are the people he’s told are his family, who he is told will totally love him for who he is (at least according to his biological father, which Colton eagerly, painfully over-interprets in his bashful reply: “I love you too,”) and yet they are so completely foreign to him that he doesn’t even seem capable of registering what, exactly, is happening.
But let’s move the focus off the pain off Tammy and Sarah for a moment, and rewind to the title of this week’s episode “Flicky Flicky Thump-Thump.” I have watched that scene between Maura and Shelly in the bathtub four times now, because I can never catch the whole thing with my hands covering my eyes. Not because the sexual relationship of two older people is inherently upsetting…or well, not only that. (And I’m sorry if that’s just my own personal hangups talking, but in all fairness, I wouldn’t want to watch my cisgendered parents have sex either, and this feels on that same level of familial taboo; a too-closeness that reflects the shame of myself as a voyeur of this private experience rather than any disgust over seeing total fox Judith Light simulate the world’s most realistic orgasm.) It’s also our painful awareness of Maura’s resigned attitude to the whole experience, and Shelly’s (seeming) total obliviousness to just how far apart this relationship with Maura is from the one she shared with Mort. (Credit to Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster–two of the cisgendered straight writers on Transparent and the co-writers of “Flicky-Flicky-Thump-Thump”–for creating such flinching/unflinching moments in this week’s episode.)
Josh, ostensibly having the best experience of the entire family, is facing his own rejection in the form of Raquel’s millions of paper-cut glares, her criticism over the way he does…well, everything, basically, her inherent disapproval over he is as a person. First season Raquel was reticent for good reason; this season, she’s become more brittle and unlikable: her lack of faith in the father of her child written all over her tight smiles and over-long blinks.
Ali, the most lost of the Pfeffermans last season, now seems to be the one closest to finding a holistic version of her identity. We get another flashback–or are these scenes of Berlin merely figments of Ali’s imagination about what is clearly her family’s origin story?–of Berlin in 1933, where she walks, specter-like, among a series of images:Emily Robinson, who played Ali in the first season’s flashback, hiding a ring and pouring cement over it, an SS symbol, and a trans (drag?) character played by Hari Ness, whose role in the Pfeffermans’ history is still only hinted at.
Maura, whose fateful decision to come out as trans kicked off the premiere of Transparent, is also trying to find her way back to herself. You can see her recoil from Shelly’s touch to reciprocate after he brings her to orgasm with his hands; while doing so, her voice lowers, and she’s once again relegated to the role of the man in the relationship, dictating the terms on her ex-wife’s sexual experience: “Let me do it,” Maura-as-Mort says. “Close your eyes,” she-as-he-says. And then later, when she suspects Shelly of blabbing to the children about their rekindling romance, rebuffs her at the pool party and eventually leaves to meet her friends at a strip club. (What kind of strip club is this, that plays Robyn and features female dancers, trans patrons, and a bunch of eager sailor boys? Is this just what a normal Saturday night in LA looks like?) When given the choice between dance partners, encouraged by Davina to join in the fun, Maura opts to sway in front of the club’s mirrored walls, an act of seduction intended for only one recipient: herself.