It’s time to talk about politics and narrative. It is always time to talk about politics and narrative, but after “The Open Road” and recent interviews given by Jill Soloway, it’s definitely time to talk about how Transparent approaches both.
Let’s start with the obvious: It is a very complicated thing to reconcile an artist’s politics with the art they create. It’s equally difficult to look at the thing in front of you and interpret it in the context of its political moment, or your own contemporary moment, or some hopeful future political paradigm. But when an artist talks openly about what they’re trying to accomplish, it becomes tough to separate those statements from a standalone interpretation of what they’ve made. It’s bad enough when creators offer up an inept defense that sticks uneasily in the mind; it’s all the more knotty when they wade into an extensive, passionate discourse that is also fundamental to the project they have produced.
The politics of Jill Soloway and of Transparent often overlap, but they are not necessarily the same. Soloway has said polemical, misguided, self-centered things, and those comments can be infuriating. But Transparent may not necessarily enact or represent those same views. It is a separate entity that exists on its own merit, and it needs to be considered as such. The author created it, and for all analytical intents and purposes, the author is dead.
So, what can we do? We can look at the way an episode like “The Open Road” presents its characters and its plots, the way it places its protagonists in the world, and how it prioritizes voices within the narrative. And most importantly, we can think about who gets power in that narrative structure, and who does not. In that respect, “The Open Road” is a solid example all the things that Transparent does remarkably well, and also how it can still undermine its own project. Even when it does give space to the voices it aims to represent, Transparent can be hampered by its own premise: An intense, intimate focus on a single family.
The episode has some brief side points, most of which involve Ali’s exploration of her grief and her relationship with Leslie, plus a return to the nitrous dentist for another hallucinatory experience. There’s also a new Shelly-Buzzy plot about financial profligacy, and Buzzy puts down a towel for the sake of his knees before showing Shelly a good time. But the main story belongs to Josh and Shea, who set off on a road trip to deliver some of Rita’s ashes to Colton. The previous episode’s final shot, with Josh watching Shea dance at Silver Reign, was the only hint of his choice for road-trip partner. (After Raquel turned him down, that is.)
The first part of their story looks like every road-trip story: Josh and Shea gaze thoughtfully out the windows, they stop at hole-in-the-wall diners, and they eat odd food. We’re shown countless, undeniably attractive images of the landscape, of trucks, of roadside attractions and the sunset. It’s not a wholly romanticized picture — there’s plenty of junk scattered along the way — but the trip has that rosy, great American West feel. Josh believes he’s on a meaningful trip with a beautiful, mysterious woman, and suddenly he’s the guy who plays an original song at a random diner’s open mic event. He’s on the road; he’s Bob Dylan; he’s wounded but he’s doing something noble.
Josh and Shea bond, of course. They share. It’s especially the case for Shea, who is frank with Josh about stigma in the trans community against bottom surgery, which would eliminate her earning power in sex work. She’d be giving up her “coin machine,” as she puts it: “A chick with a dick is always paid.” Josh responds the way you hope a person would. He’s angry on her behalf. You can see how Shea would warm to him, and how she would feel safe with him.
So they go running into an empty water park, with all the helter-skelter silliness of kids doing something they know is probably unwise. They run up and down the slides and race through the empty canals. They make flirty moves toward each other. And then, Josh says something monumentally dumb. Having sex with most women is so stressful, he suggests, because he’s always a little worried about an accidental pregnancy — but that’s something he’d never have to worry about with Shea. She’s understandably disgusted and starts to walk away. After all, he just did the exact thing that she was railing against and that he seemed to understand. In a single moment, Josh reduced her to the specificities of her anatomy. It’s not that he’d be relaxed because he’d be sleeping with Shea. He’d be relaxed because an aspect of her body is fundamentally unlike a cisgendered ideal.
Josh seems to realize this was a dumb thing to say, and after he admits as much, things pick up where they were headed. And then Shea really does have to cool things down: She tells him that she’s completely healthy, her viral load is undetectable, but she’s HIV-positive. There are options, she says. They can use condoms. Or if Josh is actually interested in a long-term relationship with her, he can take a preventative pill. “Long term,” he says, his voice wooden.
Shea realizes he’s actually angry, and unleashes a furious tirade on him. Josh says she just sounded like fun. “Like a sex worker, fun?” she spits at him. Things get ugly — even uglier — when he points out that he has paid for this whole trip, which leads Shea to pull out the underlying issue: He is not treating her like a person. She’s just an adventure to him, an exotic road-trip experience to have and dispose of.
And that’s exactly where the tangled snarls inside Transparent get so thorny. In some ways, this is a tour de force of an episode, one that directly addresses the most vocal criticism against the show. Shea, a character played by marvelous trans actress Trace Lysette, is finally humanized. She is given time to actually speak — much more time than she’s ever had in the past — and the content of her speech is an impassioned portrayal of her specific, marginalized issues as a trans woman. She’s not a sex worker, but she is a dancer. There’s ample evidence that she did sex work in the past. We know she’s had suicidal thoughts. She has HIV. She’s struggled mightily to get anyone to recognize her as a person. It is an amazing, powerful moment for trans characters in fiction.
So why does “The Open Road” pull away from her?
As the episode ends, Josh puts Shea in a cab and she goes back to the Denver airport. The final shot is not of Shea — it’s of him continuing his drive. In spite of Shea’s vital, moving case for personhood, the episode’s conclusion makes one thing very clear: She is still a minor character on this series. This is where the narrative structure of Transparent ultimately undermines some of its own message. Shea gets a voice, finally, but she is not the protagonist. Hers is not the voice we’ll be left with. And by putting this entire interaction inside Josh’s road-trip experience, Transparent risks committing the same mistake he did. Depending on how the episode reverberates through the rest of the season, Shea might be treated as a brief detour. Her experiences might actually be reduced to a mere road-trip adventure, just as she feared. We’ll find out soon enough.
Of course, other stories also develop in “The Open Road,” most notably Ali’s tripped-out nitrous dream about Jewish numerological symbolism, Rita, and her dentist/god. My feelings on that sequence are mostly delight — and relief — that unlike Shea, Ali’s dentist has a chance to roll her eyes at Ali’s revelation. Even better, the last image does not land on Ali. It’s the dentist herself, leaning back to partake in some nitrous relaxation.
That’s not the case in the Shea plot. I don’t want to minimize the undeniably powerful and important aspects of this episode, or what it means for the series and the broader landscape of trans issues on TV. It is a step in an important direction. But unfortunately, it also reveals Transparent’s limitations in representing trans issues. Because this fictional story is told through the perspective of a well-off Jewish family, it inevitably undercuts some of its own potency.
So often, Transparent is complicated and gutsy and gorgeous. In its best moments, it finds universal truths about humanity in beautifully specific experiences. (See: Nacho the turtle.) When it falters, as it does here, it’s because the show is so rooted in specificity that it cannot escape the Pfefferman frame. Does it need to? Is it possible for any work to speak to every kind of voice, every kind of experience? Is it fair of us to expect that? And at the same time, when a series aims for such lofty goals, how can we not?