Throughout this second season, Transparent has explored the role of rituals in the Pfeffermans’ lives — how they use rituals to relate to each other, how rituals help them find meaning, and most importantly, how rituals provide a framework for understanding their identities. Until the actual moment of the marriage ceremony, Sarah doesn’t know she doesn’t want to marry Tammy. As Ali tries to find her footing as a queer woman, she finds comfort in the structure of Judaism — and in Leslie Mackinaw’s house, which is practically an altar for the cult of pussy.
In “Man on the Land,” Ali, Sarah and Maura travel to the Idyllwild Wimmin’s Festival. This episode is the series’s most thorough consideration yet of the relationship between culture, ceremony, and identity. (“The Book of Life” is a close second.) They set off at the end of episode eight in a burning fire of sisterhood, feet kicked on the dashboard as they belted out Indigo Girls’ lyrics, and that’s where “Man on the Land” picks up: the three Pfeffermans look around in wonderment at the giddy freedom and madness of the festival.
The depiction of Idyllwild is a masterful, multilayered thing, bouncing rapidly and effortlessly between admiration and parody, esteem and pointed criticism. The festival is undeniably utopian, full of love and energy and an Indigo Girls concert. It’s a bit silly — see: the tampon-making workshop’s suggestion to arrive, or the inedible nutloaf that baffles Maura — but it’s also rife with dark divisions and troubling politics.
“Man on the Land” is more rumination than it is plot, following Ali, Sarah and Maura as they explore their own corners of the festival. Ali heads to Leslie’s poetry reading, where she watches with a glimmer in her eye as Leslie reads a lovely poem — but to me, the whole experience is slightly undercut by the fact that Leslie stands in front of a blown-up portrait of her younger self. This is what Leslie’s character so complex and fun to watch; she’s undeniably magnetic, but she’s also self-absorbed and obsessed with youth.
Sarah, meanwhile, runs into Jocelyn, a fellow mother from her children’s school. When Sarah expresses relief that she’s not the only parent who doesn’t conform to the stereotypical hetero-mom model, Jocelyn gives her a smackdown. “Can I just say something to you, try to help you out a little bit?” she says. “Nobody cares about what you do. They’re mostly thinking about carpools and playdates and homework … Move on, man!” Will this rude awakening be the push Sarah needs? Afterward, she stands dubiously in front of the festival’s most explicit silliness: Shaman Crying Bear’s Intention Circle, where a white lady with a New York accent wears a Native American outfit inside of a tepee, and is pleased to recognize several people from her “Drumming Away Racism” group. I laughed so hard I frightened my cat.
Perhaps shaken up by her encounter with Jocelyn, Sarah turns away from Shaman Crying Bear, and instead follows a pair of women to the S&M tent, where she finally has a chance to live out her Mr. Irons fantasies. Good for you, Sarah. Healthy outlets.
As we turn to Maura, the central conflict of the episode kicks in — and it’s accompanied by messy, political unpleasantness. While walking through the Marketplace, Maura begins chatting with Vicki (a very welcome Anjelica Huston), who owns a cheese store in L.A. and is delighted to learn that Maura is trans. Vicki tells Maura that the festival has an explicit “women born women” policy; in other words, transpeople are explicitly unwelcome. Maura is horrified.
The festival’s warm embrace of sisterhood quickly turns sour. Standing in line for the port-a-potties — which she earlier mistook for another curiously-titled workshop on the festival map — Maura watches as several workmen arrive to clean the facilities, and the women around her begin shouting, “Man on the land! Man on the land!” It’s the first of many overt echoes between the Pfeffermans’ current lives and the flashbacks to 1933 Berlin: a crowd turning hostile, and a supposedly safe place suddenly rejecting people. Extremely distressed, Maura wanders the festival in search of her daughters. The scene is cut with disorienting, sinister shots of suspicious eyes and naked female bodies; Maura has become the excruciatingly obvious outsider.
At last, Maura finds Ali happily ensconced around the fire pit with Leslie and her troop, After Ali goads her into joining them, the initially hospitable group quickly turns cold. Transparent then does a reasonable job outlining a very complicated debate, as Maura insists her pain has meaning and that the festival’s “woman born woman” concept is fundamentally flawed. (Ali chimes in, too: If you’ve had a hysterectomy, are you still a woman?) But the other women consider the festival to be their space, where they don’t need to make Maura, or anyone else, feel comfortable. “Your pain and your privilege are separate,” Leslie tells her. Though Ali jumps to Maura’s defense, she nevertheless finds herself voicing the opposition’s side. After the divorce, she says, “Mom was the one who had to leave the house.”
Maura reels away from the fire pit, and in a stunning twist, the lines begin to blur between the Pfeffermans’ present and the lives of their ancestors. As she searches for Maura, Ali looks down to discover she’s wearing the Jew Shoes she once described to Syd, with bells on the toes to warn men that she’s coming. Yetta walks by, hunched and urgent and suspicious, and we’re abruptly transported back to the Institute in 1933, where Nazis have gathered outside to raid the museum.
The parallels in this scene are overt, but they’re not simple. The episode’s ambiguous portrayal of the festival is too stubbornly intricate to be reduced to one plain metaphor, even as the similarities are easy to see. The Nazis burn Dr. Hirschberg’s books around a fire that looks like Leslie’s. Maura’s face reflects the fear and panic Gittel feels as she’s arrested. Ali and Rose hold hands, watching Gittel as she’s taken away, while a band composed of Nazis and a festival fiddler plays in harmony with the episode’s first extra-diegetic music, Alice Boman’s “Waiting.” Finally, after shouting “Man on the land!” and “Thank you for your kindness and FUCK YOU!,” Maura hitches a ride home with Vicki.
These are all rituals of a sort, even the Nazi book-burning. They oppress and exclude and define communities by punishing others. As easy as it would be to just read it that way, though, I don’t think Jill Soloway wants viewers to come away with a simple literalization of the “feminazi” slur. Instead, the scene’s juxtapositions lay bare a painful truth: Rituals like the Idyllwild Festival help women create meaning, but those acts of creation are also, inevitably, acts of defining yourself against something. I am this, I am not that. After working so hard to define her true identity, Maura discovers that she’s still a symbol of “not that” — even in a place where she hopes to belong.