In “Off the Grid,” the penultimate episode of Transparent’s third season, the Pfeffermans’ sense of their relation to others suddenly splinters apart. Ali’s nitrous-fueled hallucinations inspire her research (“intersectionality as the Holy Other”) and, from Leslie, her retreat; in Overland Park, Kansas, where she joins Josh for barbecues and sunset walks, her brother finds that he’s Colton’s biological father, but not, as it happens, his dad. Sarah’s dominatrix flees for Boulder, and she’s unable to replace her with Len; Maura’s doctor stops her medical transition on account of her 70-year-old heart; Shelley’s is broken, too, by Buzz’s dissimulations. “What I will not accept is being lied to,” she says, recalling the series’ entire arc in a single declaration. “Never again.”
Scattering ashes and hitting the road, drinking, dancing, and raging, the Pfeffermans spend much of “Off the Grid” cutting ties with those outside their fold: It’s telling, for instance, that the episode opens with Raquel submerged in the ritual bath, as if cleansing herself of their influence. It’s disappointment, discontent, that propels their actions—including Maura’s first dalliance with a man—but there’s also a potent feeling of homecoming afoot, a family assembling around the hearth. “No one can see me like you do,” Yoko Ono sings, against glimpses of Ali, Maura, and Sarah at their most contemplative. “No one can see you like I do.”
This has been the central thrust of Transparent this season. As I wrote of “To Sardines and Back” and “Just the Facts,” Jill Soloway’s gossamer reflections on the content of kinship suggest that “family itself is home, even as its architecture changes.” On the cruise, in “Exciting and New,” there’s no respite from pain—or “the size of my fear,” as Maura says so poetically—but there is the recognition that each Pfefferman bears it: the weight of past trips, past sicknesses, past holidays, past fights. Though Josh is so bereft that he begs off from dinner, and later castigates Ali for the closeness they’ve built, the Pfeffermans seek the familiar as expatriates might, gathering together to speak their common tongue as if foreigners in a far country.
If neither “Off the Grid” or “Exciting and New” matches the season’s strongest episodes, “Elizah” and “If I Were a Bell,” the events contained therein nonetheless set up two of its most remarkable sequences—one faintly comic, the other pure joy. The cruise-buffet Seder the Pfeffermans celebrate, with Wasabi standing in for the bitter herbs (“You really get the bitterness of being a slave on that one,” Sarah remarks, biting into the cracker), is an inventive way of propelling them forward, as though the Passover tradition encourages each to be honest. It’s here that Maura admits, “My actual self is so tied up with the shame,” and that Shel confesses she’s “not at home in this family.” “If you want to hear my story,” she adds, echoing what might be the series’ credo, “my story wants to be heard by you.”
After a season, or perhaps a lifetime, in which she’s felt adrift from her own blood, Shel’s performance at the Spinnaker Lounge marshals the force of a plea, or a prayer—an act of “coming out” as the self she once was, stepping from “the darkness of a secret” into the stage’s bright light. With her wide, wet eyes and half-fearful voice, gaining confidence as she embraces the contradictions of Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket,” Judith Light, in as masterly a feat of acting as I’ve seen on television all year, delivers Shel Pfefferman’s finest hour—and director Marta Cunningham holds tight all the while to her irrepressible face.
“No one’s got it all figured out just yet,” she says, revising Morissette’s lyric to reflect the universal, and this is, indeed, the lesson of Transparent, the reason we circle around its hearth. By the time Ali, Sarah, and Maura lead the crowd’s standing ovation, and Light ends the season with Shel’s grateful bow, it does seem that she’s once again at home in her family: No one can see her like they do.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.