The Second Season of Transparent is Staggeringly Great

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(Note: This piece discusses the second season of Amazon’s Transparent. Spoilers abound.)

Around the fourth hour of last night’s five-hour fever-binge that covered all ten episodes of the stunning second season of Transparent, I had a very different title in mind for this essay:

“The Pfeffermans Are Narcissistic Monsters”

I’m not the first person to notice this fact, and I won’t be the last, but it struck me that the naked solipsism of the family was ramped up to excruciating levels. At the end of season one, you could still convince yourself that these characters were semi-ordinary dysfunctional people who, though they often failed in the battle against their own demons, had good intentions buried deep inside their stormy, superficial hearts, and maintained a puncher’s chance at happiness and redemption. Now? That’s all gone. The Pfeffermans, to a person, have been revealed as pathological narcissists who wreak absolute havoc on the poor souls that get sucked into their charismatic orbit, to the extent that I suspect Jill Soloway and the show’s writers are using the family to make a point about the toxic absorption of privileged people in America.

I say “suspect” because I’m still not totally sure. If I had read the preceding paragraph before watching the season two, I would have been suspicious. I like stories about ideas that are told through the lens of people, not the other way around—walking, talking metaphors are boring. But the brilliance of Transparent is that even while the Pfefferman’s flaws are magnified under stress, they never stop seeming like real people. Bad people, maybe. Hateful people, maybe. Vile people, maybe. But people all the same, and people with charisma—on some elemental level, I could not stop liking them even as they added body after body to their pile of victims.

They are never subsumed by the overarching themes, and the show maintains a delicate kind of subtlety in the face of some very un-subtle developments. For instance: In the aftermath a Yom Kippur dinner marked by the usual family tension, does the camera linger on a table full of wasted food to make a point about consumption and our blindness to global problems while we wrestle with demons of our making? Or is it just another lovely establishing shot that gives Transparent its unique flavor? My guess is both, but the fact that this question can be raised in a moment that would be a throwaway in a lesser drama speaks volume about the show’s thoughtfulness and artistry. I’d go so far to say that even Mad Men, that most deliberate of TV creations, isn’t as purposeful as Transparent.

And yet, the people! They’re mean and selfish and cowardly and complacent, and they bring pain to all who cross their path. There are a thousand moments to pinpoint here, but the hardest for me to watch came when Josh parted with his son Colton. The boy was clearly lost, and wanted so badly for his father to say that he wanted him. Instead, Josh could only stare, unable to form even words of consolation, much less acceptance. We’re led to believe that he was motivated by his fiancee Rachel, one of the few non-Pfefferman characters who delves into narcissism herself and isn’t just the latest of the innocent casualties. She’s pregnant too, and the presence of Colton has never sat quite right with her. She likes his mother even less, and for good reason—the woman is a bit out of her mind. But in typical fashion, she treats these developments not as some of life’s complications that we all confront, but as tragic impositions on her life. She can’t handle the modicum of stress they represent, and she puts it to Josh in stark terms—”these feelings can’t be good for the baby.”

So Josh watches Colton go, cowardly in his heart, and we’re tempted to blame Rachel for her unkindness. But when she loses the baby, in a biblical kind of punishment that seems to come straight out of the book of Job, Josh’s true colors shine through. He doesn’t want to try for another child immediately, and he uses the soft language of intellectual hesitation and sensitive logic and new-agey bullshit to cajole her into accepting his fear of becoming an adult. Even his language after she gets the news is telling—he’s sorry that she had to experience losing a child, he says, but the words “we” and “us” have disappeared entirely from his vocabulary. It’s her problem now, and he leaves to get drunk at an industry party as she suffers alone on the couch.

She sees right through him, of course, and leaves that night. The departure brings Josh pain, but he never really fights to get her back, and we’re made to understand that deep down, this ending is a relief. Nor does he try to reunite with Colton—in the same way, the original rejection wasn’t Rachel’s fault at all. Josh is an overgrown with child with a case of perpetual cold feet, and try as he might to present himself as someone sincerely committed to a life of family, it couldn’t be more clear that he will spin out of responsibility every chance he gets.

The same can be said for Ali, who is nothing more than a lifelong dilettante disguised, at the moment, as a feminist social justice warrior. Her shift to lesbianism at age 33 feels like an act of opportunism, at best, but she sells the transition with the energy that only a true con artist could muster. Played by the unbelievable Gaby Hoffmann, Ali is one of the most morally reprehensible television characters I’ve ever watched. Unlike Josh, who is a man-child but wants to believe in a noble future version of himself that is both father and husband, Ali is simply ruthless. When she decides to explore her sexuality, she goes right for her poor friend Syd (Carrie Brownstein), who has already confessed her love for Ali and is the ultimate safe bet. It’s clear from the very moment their friendship is rekindled that Ali will use Syd as an experiment, and eventually leave her with nothing but an immense amount of pain. It’s awful to watch it play out—you want to shake Syd by the shoulders and wake her up to what’s happening, but Ali has the magnetism of a sociopath, and Syd can only follow along like a wounded puppy dog. When the end finally comes, it comes predictably, with Ali spinning a web of language about exploring boundaries and questioning sexuality and heaps of other nonsense that amounts to one thing—for her, the idea of a long-term relationship with Syd is akin to prison. And so she adds another notch in the Pfefferman victim belt.

(Quick digression: Syd stands out for having been egregiously hurt by two Pfeffermans, which is a pattern that I believe will repeat next season with Leslie Mackinaw, who was stonewalled at Berkeley by pre-transition Mort and has now made herself vulnerable to Ali. The lesson here is that you really, really don’t want to get sucked into this family’s poisonous orbit.)

Sarah, the oldest sister, is more of a lost soul, but that doesn’t make her any less hurtful. She endures her wedding ceremony at the start of the season in a state that can best be described as “anxiety dream,” but she can’t even get through “Hava Nagila” before deciding that life married to Tammy will be hell. Like the others, she has used another disposable human prop to fulfill some fleeting idea of what she might want to become, only to cast off that notion the minute it begins to look like something that will take effort. Things go badly for Tammy—as they do for the rest of the victims left in the Pfefferman wake—when she falls of the wagon after more than a decade of sobriety and ends up with a neck tattoo. In the process, she drops the line of the season in a drunken rant at a pool party: “I am your fucking consequence!” But Sarah could care less—in the second-most excruciating scene of the season, she visits Tammy on Yom Kippur to ask for absolution. To her, and the rest of her family, life is a game with an easy reset button. For everyone they touch, it’s a cauldron of pain.

I’ve gone this far without even mentioning Jeffrey Tambor, last year’s Emmy-wining best actor, who plays the trans parent herself. One of the great strengths of the show’s first season was the way it stepped outside liberal orthodoxy to view Maura as a human being with real, occasionally unforgivable flaws. She was never meant to be a static symbol of courage, and that decision gave legitimacy to the character and made her far more affecting than she might have been in, for example, an Oscar-grabby film that shoots for a target emotion like “bravery,” and eschews complicated humanity in the process. Those complications carry through to season two in a big way, where we see Maura’s self-centered behavior come to the forefront. She’s cruel to Shelly, rejecting her for the second time with an unjustified coldness, and she loses a friendship when she can’t escape her jealousy over a returned husband. The remnants of her male privilege are everywhere, from reminders of the Berkeley days to her demand for accommodation, not just inclusion, at a “woman born woman” music festival.

(Shelly, by the way, is more than the hapless victim she first appears—she’s solipsistic enough to believe that she killed Rachel’s child, and her most noteworthy moment comes when she gives up on the condo board after one day because her new boyfriend’s philosophy—which could serve as the family creed—is “do what you want in this life, not what you think you should be doing.” And while this may have taken on the flavor of self-actualization in season one, now it just looks like flaky behavior designed to hurt people who want a serious life.)

What Soloway and the writers have the balls to say is that a person can do something entirely courageous, as Maura has, and still be deeply unlikable. Her status as a transgender person doesn’t define her, and in fact the things that do define her don’t have to be positive. There’s always been a hint that her transition sparked the regression of the other Pfeffermans into a state of arrested development, and one of the most powerful moments of the entire season comes at the very end, when Shelly’s new boyfriend Buzz tells Josh that he needs to take the time to mourn the death of his father.

Josh responds from the good liberal textbook—it’s not politically correct to say you “miss” someone who has merely transitioned. But Buzz will not let him talk himself out of his pain. And that pain is real, as revealed by the sobbing fit that ensues. I was moved by this scene not just for its visceral power, which was significant, but for the insight of the writing staff—which includes transgender consultants—and how they were able to give this moment life despite it being outside the bounds what you might call the show’s dominant female perspective. Here, and everywhere else, they refuse to be limited by their subject matter. This is always human, and never propaganda.

The Faulknerian concept of the never-dead past expands beyond Maura’s unhappy pre-transition life in season two. Starting with the first episode, there are flashbacks to pre-war Germany at the start of the Nazis rise to power. There, Maura’s mother Rose is a young girl with an older sister Gittel—a transgender teenager with the birth name Gershon—who is at odds with her mother Yetta. While the family attempts to secure visas to leave the country, foreseeing the horror to come, Gittel will not go. The story develops by fits and starts throughout the season, and from the very beginning, I found it utterly absorbing. It’s a risky move for a show like this, but the way they pulled it off was astounding. At the end of the first episode, when Gittel appeared on Ali’s balcony, I felt the heat rush to my face. I didn’t know the shape of what I was seeing yet—that would come later—but the emotional impact was acute. By the ninth episode, when Gittel is dragged off by the Nazis, to the haunting strains of Alice Boman’s wonderful “Waiting” (the same song from the first episode, incidentally), I couldn’t stop crying.

Can I explain why? Not exactly—I can only describe the shape of it. There was something about the ambition of this story, and how it broadens the very narrow perspective of the modern Pfeffermans, that packed an emotional punch. Gittel’s last scene is contrasted with Maura’s departure from the women’s festival, and I’ve read elsewhere that some people think we’re meant to see something equivalent here. As in, the Nazis who went after the transgender community are akin to the “woman born woman” movement proponents who discriminate against the likes of Maura. But I think that’s an over-simplified explanation—there is sympathy shown for the women’s viewpoint in previous scenes, and the show is too smart to fall into the easy trap of comparing them to Nazis. Instead, I saw the contrast as depicting how themes of pain can be passed down through generations—the inherited trauma of Ali’s cherry blossom rabbits—and how our suffering is tied in with all that brought us to this specific moment, and how it will influence the suffering of those to come. My mind wandered off to my own family, including those from the past and the future that I will never know, and that’s when I lost it. The scene touched on something eternal, and beautiful, and sad, in a way that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen on television before.

The repeating cycle transcends times, and national socialists, and oceans and continents. Rose’s first child, Mort, will be the spirit of Gittel reborn—his father even knows he’s a daughter, until the doctor tells them otherwise—and there’s irony in that she won’t reveal herself to her mother years later, having no concept of the lost sister and the sympathy that Rose must possess. Gittel is present in Ali, too, who against all odds may be the Pfefferman most capable of resurrecting herself into something gracious and humane.

But the blood runs both ways. When Yetta and Rose made it to America, they tracked down the patriarch of the family, only to find that he’d remarried and had another child. As Yetta confronts the man in his kitchen, they act out a scene that will repeat itself with their great-grandson Joshua, years later, when the boy rejects his own son. Gittel is gone, and the father that Rose finds in America is someone who can only stare at the family he’s betrayed, begging for an end to the painful confrontation—a coward who will be left behind with curses and spit, but who will return again and again, forever.

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