This review contains spoilers from episodes five and six of Transparent, Season Three.
For Sarah Pfefferman, “Tacos [sic] con Torah” is a rousing success—even the late switch to pupusas—but for the rest of her clan the night slips toward regret. Ali fights with Leslie over the latter’s unabashed politics, prickling more at her infelicitous timing than the conflict itself; Maura and Shelley, on subjects from suicide to one-woman shows, seem to say all the wrong things. But it’s Josh, reeling from Rita’s death, who leaves the gymnasium more wounded than healed, his yearning for Raquel’s embrace cut short by Duvid’s presence. As Maura recites the Kaddish, Josh and Raquel exchange glances run through with sorrow, mourning other losses, too, and it spins him further out into space: If nothing else, “Oh Holy Night” and “The Open Road” depict the Pfeffermans, unmoored.
Other images in the episodes suggest the same dizzying whirl. Sarah, in a sweet moment with Len, twirls ‘round and ‘round to inflate the evening’s decor—”very opening ceremonies of the Olympics.” Shel admits to “a little vertigo” as Buzzy rotates her seat for a “To Shel and Back” promotion. Ali visits her dentist for another nitrous hit, and another turn on Wheel of Fortune. These are, to my eyes, notes on the idea of (personal) progress, nods at the challenges of change I spied in the episode “To Sardines and Back.” Despite their best efforts, the Pfeffermans’ semi-permanent state seems to be ”... and back,” stumbling over the past with each new step forward, and in this, Ali’s epiphanies are on less solid terrain than her wide eyes might otherwise suggest. I used to meditate on the idea of not having to fix anything at all, her line of verse reads. Everything is what it’s supposed to be, her goddess relates.
Hers is a seductive notion—that we might arrive at a point in our lives at which there’s nothing broken left to fix, or that what appeared broken was working all the while. It’s also one that “Oh Holy Night” and “The Open Road” militate against, not least as Ali, finally faced with Leslie’s profession of love, suddenly stiffens, retreats, falls into her familiar pattern. For Josh, the desire to escape is even more forceful: It’s there in the threadbare clutter and sticky smells, the framed photographs and pill bottles, of Rita’s apartment; it’s there, too, in his decision to bring Shea (Trace Lysette) on the road alongside him, though it’s clear he’s mostly interested in her “exotic” allure.
For a time, perhaps, the spell seems to hold. The tender montage of gas stations and discarded tires that accompanies Josh’s acoustic performance suggests the people we might’ve been, still hope to be—the “Kevin Johnsons” we’d become were we not held in place by our prior commitments. It is, as Josh says of the abandoned water park where he and Shea pause in the clean light of the sun, “a thing of majesty,” though the lyrics of his song open “The Open Road” to other readings. We could make it in another world —note the conditional tense—is as seductive as one of Ali’s mantras, and in the end as fanciful. Like Raquel’s candle, consuming its wick, the magic soon passes, snuffed out. Josh quails at the fact that Shea’s HIV-positive, an offense she meets with well-deserved anger. “I’m a person!” she screams. “I’m not your fucking adventure!” In Transparent, as in life, we inhabit only one world, equal parts majestic and broken: We must make of it what we can.
Other thoughts and quotes from these episodes:
The highlight of the two episodes, as it happens, is an attempt to change back —in this case, to return the Pfefferman home to its more rustic origins, as opposed to Sarah and Tammy’s preferred aesthetic (“California Pizza Kitchen”). It’d be enough to see Maura in a long black dress, heels, and aviator sunglasses wielding a hammer, or Josh with a flowered metal canister over his head, but it’s their brief repartee before breaking the glass that’s most memorable. “Jewish men do don’t demo,” Josh cautions. “I am a Jewish woman, Joshy,” Maura replies. “And Jewish women do whatever the fuck they want.”
Another, less consequential, highlight: Len’s description of Sarah as “a cute, little prenatal Mussolini.”
Matt Brennan is a film and TV critic whose writing has appeared in LA Weekly, Indiewire, Paste, Slant, The Week, Flavorwire, Deadspin, and Slate, among other publications. He lives in New Orleans and tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.