On Transparent's Superb Flashback and the Fight for Selfhood

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On <i>Transparent</i>'s Superb Flashback and the Fight for Selfhood

This review contains spoilers from episodes seven and eight of Transparent, Season Three.

In her Boyle Heights childhood, year 1958, Maura Pfefferman drifts into soft-focus reveries. Far beyond the infield diamond, she tends to a bustle of ants, imagining herself in white fur; far below the street’s cruel surface, she sees herself dancing in an immaculate pink dress, sparkling like a matinee idol. “If I Were a Bell,” named for the number from Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls, rings with the adolescent im/possible, the moment at which our sense of self runs into the world’s expectations. As written by Our Lady J and directed by Andrea Arnold, Transparent’s episode-length flashback to postwar Los Angeles distills elements of the queer experience into a set of powerful, wounded specifics, and at the same time expands the particulars of its historical moment to encompass the universal. “If I Were a Bell” is, in this sense, a superb illustration of Maura’s distinction in “Life Sucks and Then You Die,” a clarion call to those for whom selfhood itself is a constant fight, and not a social privilege: “I don’t want to be trans,” she explains to her sister, Bryna. “I am trans.”

It’s telling, if we’re on the subject of correspondences between two otherwise disparate episodes, that the most hurtful humiliation Maura suffers is not at Haim’s hands, but at Bryna’s—her failure to stand up for Maura at school, even under the weight of peer pressure, inflects the bitter recriminations that mark their later relationship. Transparent is careful, as always, not to caricature ignorance— Vicki’s cheerful presence briefly acts as a buffer between the siblings—and for all the offense Bryna causes with her reticence to accept Maura, the series doesn’t exactly let the latter off the hook: Bryna wrongly frames her elder sister’s medical transition as a form of “getting everything,” but with regard to Rose’s care she’s right that Maura’s abdicated responsibility, swooping in for a short visit and leftover Chinese only when it’s convenient.

Rose, with her aloof sadness, her bone-deep fatigue, is another emblem of kinship’s complications: She laces her warnings with kind words (“You’re a very pretty dancer”) and defends, to a point, Maura’s self-determination (“So what? Can’t anyone be happy?”), but in the end she decides to abandon her children, as if they’re one burden too many to carry. Can you blame her? Can you blame any of the Pfeffermans for feeling their grief so acutely? “If I Were a Bell” is an entry in Transparent’s ongoing effort to hear echoes in trans and Jewish identities, and as the family gathers in the fallout shelter during the air raid drill, the sound is as clear and as painful as ever. Rose clutches Maura, determined to protect her; Yetta negotiates, love leavened by the knowledge that difference is dangerous; Haim rages, voice thick with desperation. He believes his son might’ve been saved from Hitler’s exterminating impulse had his wife and his daughter not “let him run around in a skirt,” though this is just bargaining: He wants to bring his boy back.

As Raquel suggests in her own fit of wrath, as Josh implies when he accepts Colton’s Jesus, spirituality and identity are not matters of appearance, but tumultuous wrangles between the self and the other, the individual and his or her world. “It’s not changing your mind whenever you feel like it,” she castigates Sarah. “It’s not following your bliss. It’s not finding yourself by crawling through your bellybutton and out your own asshole and calling it a journey.” The difference between being and wanting to be, to refer back to Maura, is one born of perspective: She was always Maura, never Mort, but bringing the former to the surface required a reckoning with forces beyond her command. To come out is not to change one’s mind about oneself, much less follow one’s bliss, but to stake a public claim to that self against all the encouragement not to do so.

I must admit that the significance of “If I Were a Bell” is rooted in my own experience. I realized recently that it’s been 10 years since I came out myself, and I suppose to those around me it might have seemed a stark divide: 19-year-old Matt, then living in Los Angeles, moving from “straight” to “gay” in the course of a declarative sentence. From the inside out, it was a far more fraught and halting process; I remember dreaming of waking up next to a male classmate instead of my then-girlfriend, and not quite knowing what to make of it. For me, coming out didn’t mark the moment I became gay. In retrospect, I was attracted to men as soon as I felt any sexual attraction at all—but rather the moment the pressure that had mounted within finally found its escape hatch, the need to be what I was defeating the expectation to be something else, and with it my deep-seated suffering.

This is, perhaps, what draws Maura and Shelley together, whispering the question in the dark. It’s the shared understanding of what it means to carry a burden, and the promise that we might find, in ourselves and in others, the courage to be relieved of it. They’re referring, of course, to their emerging attraction, but their connection runs far below the surface. “Can you keep a secret?” Maura asks, hopeful, and Shelley responds in kind.

“Can you?”

Other thoughts and quotes from these episodes:

As foreplay goes, I’m not sure Duvid’s, uh, poetic approach to Raquel’s nipples could fairly be described as “sexy,” and she appears to agree. I mean, maybe it’s a nice sentiment, but also… what? “Your areola is a relief map to every place you’ve ever been, every feeling you’ve ever felt, and every person you’ve ever loved.”

Sarah: “Cults do good things. Cults create, like, vegetarians and stuff.”

The only thing holding me back from calling “If I Were a Bell” one of the best TV episodes of the year is Shelley’s molestation by her music teacher in 1958, not because it’s handled indelicately, but because it awaits further examination, if not resolution. Knowing Transparent, the series is likely to return to the subject, but against the rich treatment of Maura’s childhood, this glimpse of Shel’s own trauma feels underdeveloped—enough to throw the episode ever so slightly out of balance—even as it lays the groundwork for that lovely final scene.

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.