I could fill this whole recap by just listing every tiny moment I loved in “To Sardines and Back.” The organizing premise is exactly what Transparent does best: The episode gathers the Pfefferman family together for a celebration, then watches as the tension plays out. Even better, this particular holiday is Maura’s 70th birthday, so the guests include “her family” as well as her “chosen family” of Vicky, Davina, and Shea.
The birthday party is the episode’s set piece, beginning with Josh and Ali as they set up the long dining table. From there, it proceeds through everyone’s arrivals, the meal, and a fraught game of sardines after dinner and cake — but it’s great from the get-go. Shelly and Buzzy arrive on a motorcycle, walk into the old house, and joyfully complain that there’s no place to put their “leathers.” Buzzy is wearing chaps, a word that I’m emphasizing because their presence made me pause the episode until I was done laughing. Maura arrives with a beautiful new haircut, wearing shapewear that gives Vicky some pause over her increasingly feminine shape.
It is a raucous and messy event, as these things always are. Despite the outside guests, much of the dynamic still splits down familiar Pfefferman parental lines, with the big question being whether this event is really about Shelly or Maura. It is about Maura, of course, not that Shelly is willing to admit it. Her proud announcement that she, too, has transitioned is so awful — “I’m a brand!” — and the Shea-Davina-Maura-Vicky reaction shot is unendingly funny and pointed.
As with any Pfefferman gathering, the crisscrossing lines of tension and conflict eventually overlap one another. After a tough conversation with Rabbi Raquel, Sarah learns that her application to join the temple board was denied (thanks to horrible Laura Milton-Kaufberger poisoning the well), and that Buzzy didn’t even stand up for her. Ali is fresh off a dental-nitrous-induced dream sequence that features Caitlyn Jenner and Ntozake Shange. Josh is trapped deep in his own dark place, clearly struggling to negotiate his emotions about everything.
The situation is already laden, and then Maura starts tossing some bombs. First, after a heartfelt rendition of “Happy Birthday,” she tells them that she’d like to stop using Moppa, and instead be called “Grandma,” or “Mom.” Then she adds that she’d like to begin transitioning medically. “Face, breasts, vagina,” she tells them, as several adults quickly usher the grandkids away from the table.
This information passes across the Pfefferman family table in waves. Shelly asks for more information about Maura’s “sex-change surgery.” (It’s a “gender-confirmation surgery,” Davina firmly corrects.) Sarah, Ali, and Josh want to be supportive, and each try hard to wrestle with their feelings so they can nod their acceptance. Everyone not in the immediate family leaves, so that the Pfeffermans can have a moment alone, but not before Buzzy wishes Maura “trog gezunterhait,” which Maura translates as “wear it in good health.” Vicky also rushes out, obviously troubled by Maura’s announcement.
It’s a beautiful scene, and the one that follows, with the Pfeffermans chasing each other through the darkened house with flashlights, is even more stunning. Jill Soloway and her sister, Faith, who wrote this episode, use the game to briefly trap small groups together in dark, enclosed spaces: the three siblings, Sarah and Len, and Josh and Shea. Each group elicits little intimate moments of revelation and processing, as they crouch in small hiding places and talk about Maura’s transition. Sarah asks Len about his girlfriend. Josh sort of flirts with Shea. There are moments of reckoning, too — the sort of moments that become possible only when you’re physically crushed up against someone else in the dark. Sarah confronts Ali about how she and Josh are acting like an old married couple. (“You stole him from me!”) The three Pfefferman siblings contemplate the further loss of the person they once knew as their dad.
Maura chooses not to play, and instead sits in a room by herself reading. “I’m not playing,” she tells anyone who bursts into the room, flashlight at the ready. She ends up talking with Vicky, who’s upset that Maura waited until this big, highly visible moment to tell anyone she was planning to have surgery. It’s not hard to understand Vicky’s frustration: Maura chose a big public announcement about something very personal (and physical) without telling the person she’s sleeping with. But what Vicky doesn’t understand is that Maura’s need for an audience is not just Maura. Performativity and family intimacy lie deep in the Pfefferman family DNA; none of them seem to ever know what they feel until they’re saying it to someone else. For however much they try to branch out, their identities are inextricably linked and defined by one another.
There are so many stand-out moments in this episode. Ali’s nitrous dream is hilarious and otherworldly, featuring copies of Shange’s for colored girls and Eileen Myles’s Chelsea Girls flying around in Technicolor, as well as a feverish gender-studies edition of Wheel of Fortune. On the other end of the emotional spectrum (and color palette), Rabbi Raquel admits to the temple’s new cantor David that she’s having a crisis of faith. He describes trying to mentally drape himself in beauty and truth and feeling the hair on the back of his neck stand up, but Raquel is still deep in a depression rooted in her miscarriage. Meanwhile, Laura Milton-Kaufberger’s anti-Sarah stance that centers on her “dark energy” is funny. (And also, not wrong?)
Far and away the most memorable device of the episode, though, is the turtle montage. “To Sardines and Back” begins in 1992, with the Pfefferman family adopting a turtle whom Josh names Nacho. (After briefly considering the name Shelly, ha.) At some point in the early ‘90s, Nacho escapes his admittedly insufficient enclosure and ends up roaming the house’s ventilation system, watching over the years as the kids grow up. Nacho hears Josh have sex with Rita. And in the final shot of the montage, Nacho lumbers through the walls of the house while Josh and Ali sing along to Jim Croce’s “Operator,” a flashback to the pilot episode.
Nacho’s trek through the space-time of the Pfefferman household finally ends when Sarah and Ali discover him as they’re crouched somewhere, hiding in the sardines game. They bring Nacho back to the family and Josh greets him by name almost tearfully, even though he’s now, as one of the kids yells, “huge and ancient.” Maura simply stares at the turtle, deep in thought.
Nacho the turtle is peak Transparent, so silly and sad and visually arresting as he shambles through the vents, so over-burdened with memory and meaning that his montage sequence could easily tip over into the ridiculous if it weren’t already teetering on tragedy. It’s all tied up in the show’s obsession with time, with memory, with lineage, and — sure, let’s point out the literal pun — with having a shell. Undoubtedly, Nacho has gotta be up there with the Grapes of Wrath turtle for Most Metaphorical Turtle in Fiction.
As the episode concludes, it’s clear that the tensions revealed by Maura’s birthday will unspool throughout the season. Ali and Josh’s relationship certainly comes to mind, along with Sarah’s adrift status, Vicky’s unease with Maura’s physicality, and Buzz’s chaps. But it’s hard to move past this excellent, troubled, full-to-the-brim birthday party. At least we’ll always have Nacho’s emotional reunion.