Ali and Maura are off to Israel for Maura’s Gender and Judaism conference, and the experience can be summed up in what happens to them immediately after exiting the airport. Moved by the emotion of arriving, Maura and Ali kneel down to kiss the ground. “Do you feel that? Israel.” And then two men nearly run them over with their rolling suitcases. We get their reverence, and we get the joke of it being interrupted by these two rude men. We get the bigger frame of the trip they think they’re taking and the fact that this place is not going to just open itself to them. We get the humor and also the seriousness of it, and when it works, that’s the best of Transparent.
They both arrive in Israel with a few preconceived ideas about what’ll happen, and it’s fun to watch their expectations get shaken in big and small ways. It is a more familiar place than they expect: Maura compares it to L.A., and Ali says the café in Ramallah reminds her of Brooklyn. But after the initial impressions, both Pfeffermans end up swerving off course in Transparent’s two favorite directions. Ali, who’s out on a sort-of date with minor internet celeb Lyfe, feels her world expanding outward as she sits and listens to all these attractive young people explain the lived realities of one of the oldest political conflicts on the planet. And Maura, who keeps getting derailed by people singing a commercial jingle for an air-conditioning salesman, finds herself being dragged backward through time, toward her long-lost, presumed dead father.
Ali’s experience is a magical fish-out-of-water day. First, she meets up with Lyfe, the person responsible for getting Maura’s airport security video retweeted by Solange. Lyfe then informs her that they should do everything possible to comply with the boycott against spending money in Israel, so they cross the border into the West Bank, eventually ending up at a farmhouse outside Ramallah. It’s lovely and enlightening, even if it also feels a bit like a well-known genre of reporting (“I, an uninformed person, traveled to X to talk with people actually on the ground in Y situation, and here’s what I learned”). The dinner is illuminating in its details and also deeply familiar in its broad strokes: the boycott, the checkpoints, the travel prohibitions, the detentions, the weaponization of identity as a threat, the denial of citizenship rights. The oppression, the exhaustion, the sense of futility.
A few minutes in an episode of Transparent are not going to give anyone a well-rounded, complexly argued, comprehensive understanding of … well, anything, but especially not of something as complicated as the Israel-Palestine conflict. But it does deepen and extend our understanding of Ali, for whom this kind of experience is now a recognizable pattern. It happened when she sat in Leslie Mackinaw’s hot tub, trying to immerse herself in a culture of academia and lesbian intellectualism. It happened when she traveled with Maura and Sarah to the Idlewild festival, as she sat in front of the bonfire and absorbed the atmosphere. This feels like an extension of that: Once again, Ali sits with a rapt face, listening to ideas and ideologies she’s never really considered before. It’s admirable and even impressive as a fundamental character trait. But once again, it’s also Ali on the outside of something, never fully engaging or identifying. Nothing is ever quite her. She loves to be immersed in something new, but she can never seem to stay there.
Maura, meanwhile, is connecting with her birthright in a more literal way than she might have expected to on a trip to Israel. Before and after her keynote (subject: misogyny was the real source of the rage against Ethel Rosenberg), people keep singing a song from air-conditioner commercials, a song which Maura finally googles when she gets back to her hotel room. And then she video-chats with Bryna back in California, because there, to their astonishment, is the father who’d abandoned their family and supposedly died some time decades earlier. There are a bunch of air conditioners stacked around him, and he’s sitting next to two scantily clad women — because he’s a “cool guy,” after all.
Back in California, Sarah’s doing the most Sarah Pfefferman thing imaginable. First, she borrows a parenting technique she learned from her kids’ former teacher, a teacher she connected with at a sex addicts meeting and is now having sexual fantasies about. Second, the technique is basically an adaptation of sexual dominance play, wherein Sarah explores the efficacy of topping her children from the bottom. “Sir,” she asks her son, “could I possibly put [your shoes] on for you?” And third, after two very brief successes with this technique, Sarah decides to write a book on it. (Kids on Top, an upcoming parenting manual by Sarah Pfefferman.) I am sure this is going to go great.
In spite of Ali exploring the West Bank and Maura’s shock about her father, the most wrenching story of “Pinkwashing Machine” is also the most mundane: Josh and Shelly finally come to blows about some of the most fundamental Pfefferman dysfunctions, spurred by some innocent observations from Josh’s former pot doctor. (This episode has a few laugh-out-loud funny lines, but my favorite is from Retired Pot Doctor Steve, who admits he used to date Sarah. “Was that before or after the lesbian thing?” Shelly asks. “I think it was during?” he says.) Shelly has been thrown off by the experience of an improv class; she can’t control the scene, and her entire personality is the negation of the “yes, and” perspective. She comes home, ignores Josh’s simple requests, and he explodes. “You’re a boundary pusher!” he tells her. “I have no idea what boundaries are!” she yells back.
The fight escalates from there, with Shelly refusing to understand Josh’s perspective and Josh insisting that even though he’s yelling, he does care about her. (“This IS caring!”). It’s yet another moment where you’d hope they could figure out how to move beyond some of these achingly well-worn grooves in their relationship. Shelly’s performance at the end of season three felt like a monumental shift, ideally a shift that would’ve helped the family see Shelly more clearly, and also helped Shelly see herself.
There are glimpses of something like progress in these scenes. Even Josh’s exclamation that he is caring for her feels like an important bit of growth. Plus, Steve is there offering some real wisdom about boundaries as crucial to any relationship, no matter how close: “Boundaries,” he says, “are how people tell other people what they need.” But none of this gets them anywhere. Shelly storms off, informing Josh that she’s going to stay at the W Hotel. He finds her later, unconscious in her car, assuming she’s killed herself. In the end, they both stagger back into the house where she was never invited and where he doesn’t have the wherewithal to stand up for his autonomy. So they both go back into the same cycle, with little hope that anything will change anytime soon.
It’s fascinating, really: In conjunction with characters who are congenitally incapable of moving forward in their relationships with one other — stuck forever in these horrible wrenching loops through guilt and attachment and repulsion and then back again — Transparent is also caught up with explorations of the past. And the Pfeffermans least interested with reckoning with the traumas and patterns that defined their ancestors and their own childhoods (Josh, Sarah, Shelly) are the ones most stuck in their patterns.
But there are also moments when it feels like Transparent is stuck in some of the same loops that keep recurring in the Pfeffermans’ lives. This show loves to fold back onto itself, returning to themes and patterns we’ve visited before, even when they’re now in new settings. That’s not necessarily a bad thing! Transparent is firmly, unquestionably itself. It just has the additional responsibility of figuring out how to make the familiar new again.