Oof, this was a brutal episode, and a surprisingly savage one, connected by the strange language that seems out of place in Transparent and more fitting for, say, a Kurt Sutter production: references abound to hunters, to blood, and to the necessity, sometimes, of abandoning one’s family in order to survive. These themes don’t seem to mesh with what we currently know about the Pfeffermans, who are, if nothing else, a tight-knit clan, evidenced from the opening scene of sisters Sarah and Ali nude, oiled and massaged in a Russian Bath House. Although I come from a pretty liberal family of high-functioning, codependent Jews myself, I found something off-putting with the comfort and ease these fully-grown women have in being nude around each other. Maybe it’s my own hang-ups, but the way that Ali stares at her sister while they are being massaged, the way she sits above her, with her legs splayed, while spouting rhetoric like “I’ve realized I cannot have real emotional intimacy with someone who hasn’t suffered under the patriarchy,” doesn’t seem like familial bonding. It seems like two adults who confuse a lack of boundaries with intimacy.
Not that our focus stays on Ali or Sarah for very long this week: this is a Josh episode. Colton’s adopted parents, “hearing something” in his voice on the phone, have decided to back up their RV with their Romney-style extended family and come visit their son in his new living situation. “Pastor Gene” may be a lot of things–a hunter himself, a man of such small-town fame that he boasts about getting recognized at Sizzler, an anti-Maura, essentially–but it’s hard to see him as the bad guy the show clearly wants us to. What kind of parents, after all, would willingly hand over the care of their teenage son to strangers? Well, Maura-as-Mort and Shelly, obviously: they are the ones who turned a blind eye to their baby-sitter’s sexual advances on their son. When the melting pot hits its boiling point–not, as we think, in a Birdcage-esque blowout when Maura crashes the Colton family reunion in search of baby photos to have doctored in attempt to change history retrospectively; to appear as if she had born female–with Pastor Gene’s judgement of Josh’s life choices leading to Maura admitting she and Shelly had known about Rita’s pregnancy, Josh still stubbornly refuses to see his family’s failings for what they are. In his mind, the problem wasn’t that his parents were neglectful, but that they were duplicitous.
“They knew?” Josh freaks out behind closed doors. “Do you know how different my life would be? Everything would be different!”
“If what, honey?” asks a somewhat vindicated Rabbi Raquel, who can finally afford to be magnanimous, now that her judgement of the Pfefferman’s failings is being echoed.
“If they hadn’t lied!”
“No honey, everything in your life would be different if Rita hadn’t molested you.” Rabbi Raquel is the most gentle we’ve seen her this season, and that should be tip-off number 1 that she’s about to turn; however valid and correct her point may be.
Maura’s reveal to Josh and Pastor Gene seems like a moment of vindication: as Pastor Gene calls her son a liar for saying he knew nothing about Colton’s existence, Maura deepens her voice, becomes almost-Mort again in the face of this new, outside threat.
“Excuse me,” Maura says, squaring her shoulders at Gene’s assessment that it was impossible that no one knew about the pregnancy. “We knew. And I want to be very clear with you. No one abandoned anyone. What we did do is make a sizable contribution to your church.”
In another world–a gentler, Transparent Season 1 world, say– this revelation might have banished the specter of Pastor Gene and his righteous indignation. But we’re in Transparent Season 2 now, and the threat of abandoning Colton a second time comes not from outside the Pfeffermans, but insidiously close to them. It’s Rabbi Raquel who urges Josh to let go of his new-found son, claiming that all the bad feelings this confrontation was stirring up “can’t be good for the baby.” As true as that might be, it’s playing dirty, especially with someone like Josh, who has a history of erratic, emotionally-driven behavior when it comes to pregnancies. (Remember when he wanted to marry the girl from Glitterish and tried to give her Gittel’s ring?) It’s not playing fair, and though Josh is no longer a boy to be taken advantage of (and therefore responsible for his own decisions), I can’t help thinking there is something Rita-ish in Raquel’s manipulation of him.
As Colton prepares to leave–his adopted brothers and sisters singing a verse from James 4:10–he turns to his father, who had spent the past month showing him how beautiful and different and whole his life could be in LA, only to snatch the dream away and banish him back to his provincial upbringing. “One last check…this is what you want?” Colton asks, somewhat desperately. “If you want me to stay, just say so.”
Josh winces–his lip curling up, slightly bearing his teeth–but Rabbi Raquel is standing right behind him, so he says nothing. Meanwhile, Ali and Syd attend Leslie’s Full Moon ceremony–where Leslie’s arm is curled lasciviously around what looks to be an underage girl, in stark contrast to her “damn the patriarchy” rhetoric (for what is more patriarchal than a professor using their status and power to seduce young minds?)– where the women are chanting about “the things we have hunted; the things we have killed.”
“It’s so violent, but it’s ours,” Leslie exclaims, in confusingly un-second-wave rhetoric. “Force and power for each of us!”
But Force and Power are in short supply for any of the Pfeffermans, no matter their gender. Maura goes home to Shelly defeated and deflated, telling her that “Joshie knows everything.” She refuses to be comforted by Shelly’s chirpy defense– “We were protecting our boy, our Joshie! And now look at him. He’s with a rabbi, for cripes sake!”–and tells her that she’s leaving. It’s a surprisingly rushed moment: in three lines of dialogue we have Shelly cycle through at least that many stages of grief, from denial (“Go where? You just got here!”) to anger (“How dare you do this to me? Twice in one lifetime, I have to put up with you deciding that I’m not good enough,”) to bargaining (“You have nowhere to go”). And while she hasn’t landed yet at acceptance, Maura has. Sometimes the bonds of family are fortifying, but just as often, we are discovering, they are a noose fashioned from umbilical cords.