Welcome back to Transparent, the show that proves it’s possible to be messy, evocative, oblique, stunning, sharp, and beautiful, all at the same time.
It’s fascinating that season three begins with "Elizah." The episode follows Maura almost entirely on her own, with no other Pfeffermans present and only a brief conversation with a character we’d already met. We see Maura sleeping with Vicki; we see her have a short, revealing conversation with Davina; she interacts briefly with her colleagues at the Los Angeles LGBT Center; and she has a conversation with a young trans woman who calls the center’s help line. Other than that, Maura is by herself, whether she's tracking this young woman to her last known location, trying to follow her through a busy shopping mall, or just trying to find her own footing.
The episode’s focused structure makes it a remarkably intense premiere, particularly once Maura leaves her comfort zone and goes searching through South L.A.’s Slauson Swap Meet for a stranger with green hair. It’s filmed like a montage set in a foreign place: Maura stumbling around the mall looks a little like Shoshanna in Japan, or a scene from Lost in Translation. (Or a much less humorously edited version of a go-see episode of America's Next Top Model.) "Elizah" is singularly focused on Maura, something the series has done in the past, but nonetheless feels quite different this time. It's revealing how little she actually understands.
When Transparent previously followed Maura through culture shock related to her transition, she always had a buffer. In season one, she and Marcy go to Camp Camellia, where she has her first immersive experience with drag culture, as seen through the lens of Marcy’s reticence and uncertainty. In season two, Maura goes with her daughters to the Idyllwild Wimmin’s Festival, where her initial happiness is quickly quashed by the festival’s “women born women” ethos. That episode featured a similar sequence to the one in "Elizah," as Maura wanders lost in a world she thought she understood. But even then, she went to the festival with her family and left with Vicki, a kindred spirit.
It’s different this time. Maura’s volunteering at the LGBT Center help line when she gets a call from a young trans woman named Elizah, who’s had a “really fucking hard” day. Elizah asks why she shouldn’t just kill herself, then abruptly hangs up. Shaken, Maura rushes to the car to begin searching for her. In the process, she forgets her purse and her pashmina, makes some serious social errors, breaks her shoe, and ultimately collapses in the mall. This is Maura alone, without her biological family or her trans family. She’s trying her best, and she’s motivated by good intentions, but she’s distinctly clueless about her surroundings. She has no idea how to talk to people who come from a different world than she does.
It's worth asking: Why did Transparent choose to start the season with this particular story? Both “Best New Girl” and “Man on the Land” came near the end of their respective seasons, after lots of time spent with the whole Pfefferman clan. Season one began with a family dinner; season two began with that stunning family-photo set piece. The implication has always been that we’re watching Maura in the context of her family. Yes, she's doing a brave and lonely thing, but she's still operating inside the context she’s always known. Season three launches her into a new world, highlighting the issues of privilege that have surrounded the show itself, Maura’s story within the show, and the real-life narratives about trans women like Caitlyn Jenner.
Maura’s privilege is certainly visible as she drives through South L.A., charging into the clinic in search of Elizah. (It’s visible even before then, as she struggles to connect with Elizah over the phone.) But it’s especially apparent once she stumbles into the Slauson Swap Meet and looks around as though she’s landed on an alien planet. The crescendo hits as she walks into a shop selling wigs and hair extensions, and says hello to three trans women chatting inside. “¿Es tu familia?” she asks, and they greet her warmly, agreeing that they are family.
And then, it all turns sour. Maura tells them that she’s looking for a woman with green hair, and asks if they’ve seen her “on the streets.” They are appalled. “What streets?” they ask. “I’m a student, and these two are getting their nursing licenses.” They immediately dismiss her. Of course they do; she’s walked into their conversation, made an assumption that she understands their lives, and, worst of all, unthinkingly presupposed that they live on the “streets” because they are Latina trans women hanging out in South Los Angeles. Maura is apologetic — truly, meaningfully apologetic. But it doesn’t matter. The damage is done.
Maura has two other significant encounters as she wanders through the mall. When her shoe breaks, she stumbles over to a shoe store to ask for help. The employees, wonderfully played by JB Smoove and Lena Waithe, don’t have anything in her size. All they can offer is some scotch tape to do a temporary, shoddy fix for her broken sandal. Finally, exhausted and overheated, Maura stumbles into a restaurant to fix her shoe and grabs a Gatorade out of an open cooler. The cashier tells her she has to pay for it, but she's lost her purse. At that moment, Maura finally spots Elizah outside.
Facing such emotional tumult, Maura’s torn between the rightfully indignant cashier, Elizah (who’s taken aback that this stranger actually tracked her down), and mall security. Eventually, Maura collapses, and she's taken away in an ambulance by EMTs who bemoan having to bring in another “5150” — code in California for a mentally unstable person might pose a danger to themselves. Maura’s feeble requests that she be taken to Cedars-Sinai rather than County Hospital go unheard.
In all of these encounters, Maura begins from a place of compassion. Ditto for everyone else: The trans women greet her warmly, the shoe-store employees do their best to help, and the restaurant cashier is initially happy to let her find her purse and come back to pay. But in each circumstance, there’s a fundamental gap between Maura and the people around her. She wants to understand, but she can’t. She’s spent so much time inside her comfortable bubble that, at some point, communication with the outside world inevitably broke down.
Maura’s story in "Elizah" also feels like an acknowledgement to Transparent’s critics. As Marcy Cook has noted at the Mary Sue, the show is created by someone who isn't trans, and it stars a straight, cis white man in a prominent trans role. Those facts raise important questions — questions this episode doesn't (and can’t) resolve. "Elizah" does, however, make one thing clear: Maura’s privilege is something the show wants to unpack.
Although the vast majority of the episode is devoted to Maura, there is one other notable element: a framing device in which Rabbi Raquel practices her Passover service. She begins in the synagogue, and later we see her walking through the woods, continuing her monologue. She’s trying to place her listeners in the position of Jews escaping slavery, running into the desert. “It’s time,” she tells them, “you’re free.” But then the reality of escape sets in, and you wonder if someone is “coming to save you.”
“What if the miracle was you?" she asks. "What if you had to be your own messiah?”
As season three begins, these questions obviously apply to Maura. She’s made the leap, escaped from her existence in a gender that wasn’t her own. She’s been courageous; she’s broken barriers; she’s set herself free. And now, as she tells Davina, she can’t figure out why she’s “so unhappy.” She made the big jump into a new life, and jumping was really, really hard. But now she has to figure out how to live in that new life, and how to define herself outside of the Pfeffermans or her trans family. She has to be her own messiah. Instead, she plunged headlong into a world she didn’t know, desperate to help someone who probably didn't want to be tracked down. And now Maura’s headed to the hospital — the wrong hospital, even though she keeps weakly saying her name is Pfefferman, don’t you understand?!
I'm looking forward to the next episodes, since I'm sure they'll mark the return of the other Pfeffermans. And I’m especially looking forward to those big family celebration scenes, those moments when Transparent is at its funniest and most devastating. But as "Elizah" proves, it’s captivating to start the season without them. It’s nice to see Transparent begin with Maura, herself.