When Transparent explicitly tries to escape the Pfefferman’s familial history and address bigger questions, it can feel admirable, but also disappointing. When it takes a deep dive into the Pfefferman’s past, though, exploring the generational trauma that’s still being visited on the family in the current time, the reverse is true. The story feels smaller. It’s a story about them, and about the very specific echoes within their family, and about Maura’s distinct, personal pain. And in its smallness and precision, Transparent often succeeds in achieving something much more universally meaningful.
Plus, the show’s flashback game has always been insanely good. The flashbacks woven through season two were often dreamlike, more feeling and tone than plot. The third season’s contribution, “If I Were a Bell,” picks up a few years after those flashbacks left off, following young Maura and her sister Bryna in 1958 as they live with their grandparents, Yetta and Haim, as well as their mother Rose. It is a strained household. Rose is patently unhappy: When she gets home from work, she almost immediately turns around to go out socializing for the night. It doesn’t seem to bring her any happiness — just an escape from her family and her life.
Yetta’s no happier, fretting constantly about Rose and particularly about Maura. As an adolescent is still firmly stuck as Mort, Maura often sneaks down to her grandfather’s atomic bomb bunker, dresses up in her mother’s nightgown, and twirls around happily, envisioning herself dancing in a pink sparkling dress. In one of the episode’s many interesting choices, young Maura is played by a young transgender actress, Sophia Grace Gianna, who gives a remarkable performance. She embodies Maura’s transcendent happiness in those fleeting minutes when she can be herself, and her deep anger and suffering when she’s forced into another identity. Much of the episode’s power rests on Young Maura’s emotional reality: She’s stuck inside the hell of needing to be a boy at school and a boy at home. Only in the briefest of moments is she able to be her happy self.
It’s a nice detail that Maura escapes to the nuclear fallout bunker, the place her grandfather built to keep the family safe from the end of the world. It’s Maura’s safe place, too. It’s also the place where her safety is violated — when a test siren goes off, and Haim ushers the whole family into the bunker, Rose and Yetta frantically try to get Maura dressed back into her Mort clothes before Haim descends the latter and realizes what’s going on, but it’s too late. Her privacy and her sanctuary have been punctured.
And this is perhaps the most effective, most complicated, most remarkable element of the episode. Haim shuts down Maura’s self-expression because he’s disgusted by her, and because he’s caught in stereotypical understandings of sex and gender that are entirely in keeping with his historical moment. He’s also more interested social respectability than he is in Maura’s happiness. Haim is not a good person here — there is no doubt that his prejudices are crushing Maura, and it’s beyond wrong.
But it is also not hard to understand why he’s behaving this way. All three of the adults in this home remember how they got there, and arguably it is Rose’s trauma to cling to, not Haim’s. Regardless, the memory is there — like Maura, Rose’s sibling Gershon had found a safe place to explore identity, and wanted to be called Gittel to escape the conventional binary boundaries of gender. And like Maura, Gershon/Gittel’s safe space was violated. “Gershon,” Haim yells, “burned to death in the oven, because your mother and grandmother let him run around in a skirt.” Weakly, Rose tries to argue for Maura’s happiness: “It makes him happy,” she says. “It’s nothing.” “Is Gershon happy?” Haim retorts.
In this horrible family showdown, there are no easy answers and no one is completely unsympathetic. It’s easy to wish that Yetta and Rose were better able to stand up for Maura. It’s easy to wish that Haim were somehow able to see outside his time and recognize his grandchild for more than what he would call “deviance.” It’s especially easy to see the unbelievable trauma of the Holocaust as something in the past, something that has no bearing on their American lives anymore. But it’s not a wound that occurred generations ago. They’re talking about Rose’s sibling; they’re talking about was Yetta’s child. The real, life-threatening risks of a queer identity are freshly stamped on their psyches. And even if it were something that happened many decades in the past, Transparent draws a persuasive, elegantly drawn preoccupation with historical trauma.
Of course, this does not make it fair to Maura. Nor does it make it fair to poor young Shelly Lipkind, who has experienced severe trauma of her own, and whose Holocaust-survivor parents are utterly baffled that their daughter could accept her American life with anything other than happiness and endless gratitude. I understand that the episode is centered around young Maura, and that her trauma and the Pfefferman family’s pain are the most vital components of this story. But as a result, the revelation that young Shelly was likely sexually abused gets almost no further exploration. That’s unfortunate, to say the least.
The story, or what little we see of it, follows a very young Shelly as she sings “People Will Say We’re in Love” in front of her music classic, and her teacher invites her to stay after school and work on it some more. We are left to fill in the blanks. Later, in a doctor’s office, we learn that she has stopped eating. “Do you know how lucky you are?!” her father yells at her, angrily. “It is not the Holocaust!” she bursts out. When Shelly later encounters Maura at an art opening, fully suppressed within her Mort identity, we understand what these two people really share. Both of them have experienced a painful childhood trauma, and both of them carry the burden of their parents’ suffering on top of their own pain.
It is too bad that Shelly’s story gets the short end of the narrative stick, but the episode nevertheless works well on a large-scale, thematic level. It is full of tiny, perfect moments. We’re shown early seeds of Maura and Bryna’s falling out, as Bryna betrays her to the girls at school and Maura pelts her with a rock. There’s the pearl ring, which featured so heavily in the flashbacks of season two, returning to adorn and haunt the family once again. Maura suggests that heaven sounds more interesting than some vague Jewish afterlife, and Haim tells her that maybe she should just convert, then! (“Eat a Waldorf salad!”) And when Yetta muses that men wanting to be women is a curse on their family, Rose replies wearily that it’s not a curse. It just is their family.
The last thing I want to mention is that Transparent often makes interesting choices for episode titles. (The peak of this is surely “Oh Holy Night,” which becomes a pun on Leslie’s pratfall.) Here, the title comes from the name of a song Maura dances to in the bunker, “If I Were a Bell.” It’s from Guys and Dolls, and it’s a happy song about a woman trying to find a metaphor for how joyful her relationship feels. Maura dances to it that way, spinning blissfully in her fantasy world. But in the context of her story, the title’s conditional quality is sweetly sad. If she were a bell, she’d be ringing. Unfortunately for Maura, in Boyle Heights in 1958, she’s not a bell. She’s told to be a boy.