Uh, what just happened? I get that the Pfeffermans are searching for meaning, and can be receptive to some pretty out-there worldviews. As Sarah points out, chipper with the prospect of 68 RSVPs to her next Hineni event, cults can bring some good things — like vegetarians. But of all the ways Transparent could have taken its characters, Josh Pfefferman getting up in front of a church, renouncing Satan, and accepting Jesus Christ as his lord and savior is not one I saw coming. To be fair, in response to Colton’s question about accepting Christ, Josh answers with a hilariously Josh-ian ” … okay.” Even that, though, is a pretty stunning turn of events.
It is frustrating as well. After his massive blow-up with Shea, Josh has continued his trip to Kansas to see Colton and tell him about Rita’s death. When he arrives in Overland Park, he is surrounded by the instantly recognizable Midwestern-flavored evangelicalism of it all — and say what you will about some of the big tensions and politics of this show, its set design is on point. Pastor Gene and Blossie’s house is perfect, from the collection of Bavarian beer steins on the bookshelves, to the faux-leather-upholstered chairs in the breakfast nook, to the open gallon of milk sitting on the table at dinner.
We were introduced to Colton’s family in season two, when we learned that Pastor Gene is a minister with a decent-sized television audience who occasionally gets recognized at the Sizzler. Colton has returned to his family and been fully reintegrated into his Kansas life, including (as we learned from the video Josh helped Rita watch) preaching at his church. He has the gift, Blossie and Pastor Gene insist.
Colton is shaken by Josh’s news, all the more when Blossie suggests that, sometime between when Rita jumped and when she hit the floor of the mall, she realized the error of her ways and accepted Jesus into her heart. (Quite a prayer to say before dinner, Blossie.) In the way of many intensely religious statements about other peoples’ lives, this is both well-intentioned and deeply disturbing. Colton, though, is haunted by the possibility that Rita may not be going to heaven, and Josh does his best to reassure him. Of course she is, Josh promises.
Josh has been off-kilter and unmoored since the end of season two. Like Raquel, who we’ll get to in a bit, he’s never recovered from the miscarriage and the dissolution of their relationship, or from Colton moving back to the Midwest. His career does not satisfy him. As Shea made amply clear, he’s not really capable of seeing anything outside his own perspective. Given those emotional roadblocks, perhaps others weren’t as surprised as I was about his conversion. After all, he’s leaping into a new vein of comfort — something that might give him simplicity, answers, and a new way to connect with his son (while disconnecting from the rest of his family). What he had before was obviously not working for him. Why not try something else?
The problem is that I’m not sure Transparent has done enough work to really establish that perspective for Josh. You can read the last episode with Shea as stemming from Josh’s pain, which rendered him incapable of behaving toward her like a compassionate person should. In spite of that, he came off as so thoughtless and self-focused that I mostly just regretted being stuck with his story rather than hers. Meanwhile, this episode feels muddled because it’s difficult to understand what’s going through Josh’s mind during that church service. Is he honestly exploring Christianity? Is he doing it because he thinks it’s what Colton wants? His tears at the end are real, but he’s not crying for joyful religious bliss. It’s much more like relief — he’s finally found something new to grab onto.
It is also frustrating that after the events with Shea, Transparent decides to follow Josh as he leaps into something else to help ease his pain, rather than confront what happened with her.
Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to watch Josh in parallel with Rabbi Raquel’s story in this episode. Where Josh is diving headlong into the farthest thing he can find from his Jewish/L.A./music-industry world, Raquel is also undergoing a crisis. At Sarah’s insistent goading, she finally moves things forward with Duvid, the new cantor played by Kobi Libii. Unfortunately for Raquel, it does not go well: He’s solicitous and precious and poetic (“your areola is a relief map”), and it is exactly the opposite of the escape that she seems to want.
Finally, after parroting back Sarah’s chirpy enthusiasm about things heating up between her and Len, and after Sarah shoves aside her obvious reservations about Duvid, Raquel has had enough. She goes off on a high-volume tirade against Sarah’s wishy-washy, Jewy-vibed faith, a blistering screed against feel-good spirituality that requires nothing from you, asks only that you follow your bliss, and allows you to change your mind whenever you feel like it. She is not doing this stupid seder, and she doesn’t care if the Pope, if Donald Trump, or if Moshiach himself is coming. (“Who’s Moshiach?” Sarah asks, in delightful, perfect cluelessness. “HE’S THE MESSIAH, SARAH,” Raquel bellows.)
The third story in the episode is the one that gives it its title — Maura and Vicky visit Maura’s mother, Rose, in the hospital, and end up spending the day with Maura’s sister, Bryna. All of the old wounds are there, all of the old resentments and grudges and slights. Except the atmosphere is different now. Bryna is still unquestionably sniping at Maura, and not exactly charitable to her desire for gender-affirmation surgery. But Maura is condescending and thoughtless, and no more generous toward Bryna’s position than Bryna is to hers. “Life sucks and then you die,” Maura spits, seemingly uninterested in Bryna’s patent loneliness and her own tragedies.
Outside, Maura rails against Vicky for taking Bryna’s side, and Vicky shoots back that everything always has to be about Maura. There is never any room for anyone else’s story, or anyone else’s pain. After confirming that they have “different worldviews,” the fight dissolves into something altogether more mundane and less insightful — Vicky is cheap, Maura says. “I always give 15 percent!” Vicky protests. Fifteen percent is the tip you give when they stab you, Maura replies.
But for a minute there, it was almost as if Transparent decided to wrestle with the implications of its own narrative premise — a little, meta-moment where Vicky, a minor character, protests against the inevitable, inescapable gravity of the protagonist’s story. But while that moment is interesting, there’s not really anywhere else to go with it. Maura, and Josh, and the Pfeffermans are the central story, self-centered and self-interested though they may be.
Basically what I’m saying is: Forget it, Vicky. It’s the Pfeffermans.