After the glorious family dinner in the season premiere, Transparent has been in a building mode. A few big story moments finally come to fruition in this episode, and they fall into a classic Transparent range of experiences. In Israel, Maura is reunited with the father who abandoned her when she was 4. She learns some shattering information about her family tree, and she struggles to cope with the father standing in front of her, explaining calmly why he deserted her. Ali’s there with her, trying to support her mother and gently interrogate her grandfather.
Meanwhile back in California, Sarah, Len, and their kids’ former teacher Miss Lila all get high on a vodka bong and have a threesome. This is pretty normal operating procedure for an episode of Transparent, but even using that yardstick, I have some whiplash.
I wrote in my recap for episode three that Transparent is circling around some familiar thematic territory this season. Much as it has in the past, the show is exploring parallels between the current generation of Pfeffermans and their mid-century ancestors. I’m not frustrated that they’re coming back to this well once again — it’s a theme the show is good at developing, after all. Hoffman and Tambor both do great work in the scenes with Maura’s father, ping-ponging back and forth between shock and disgust and curiosity. There may even be some glimmers of compassion, if only because the analogies between Moshe’s life path and the stated desire of many in the Pfefferman clan are too hard to ignore. He just wanted a clean break, a fresh start, a way to begin again where no one knew him and he could be anyone he wanted to be. Surely this is analogous to all the times each of these characters tried to make a fresh start. Yes, it was monstrous of him to leave. But who among any of the Pfeffermans has not been a monster at one time or another?
There’s a lot that works about this plot, and about the scenes that unspool when they confront Moshe: Maura and Ali’s shock; the almost surrealist setting in Moshe’s fantasy paradise home; Jerry Adler’s absolutely straight, unapologetic performance. More abstractly, it’s a nice new angle on some of Transparent’s favorite ideas. Here’s Maura, trying to figure out how to reinvent herself without throwing out everything about who she is, and without losing her relationship with her family. Here’s Ali, completely obsessed with the idea of inherited trauma and how the past can affect the present. And here’s Moshe, who’s apparently managed to set aside his entire life and start again from scratch, without ever thinking about the family he once had. They’re like three test subjects in Transparent’s favorite thought experiment: How do you cope with the past? Ali’s embrace of it on one side, Moshe’s negation of it on the other, and Maura’s careful mediation in the middle.
It’s an interesting experiment, and the show is great at setting up these kinds of parallels. But it’s also distinctly weird to see Transparent take something that’s been so oblique in past seasons and suddenly just … say it. Remember season two, when the whole season was threaded with barely explained scenes from Gershon/Gittel’s life in Germany, and we got all of those dreamy, stream-of-consciousness cuts back and forth between the show proper and echoes from the past? Remember how we had no idea what was going on until Ali stared into a bonfire and the echoes manifested themselves all around her? Now, it’s Maura and Ali sitting in a beachy modern living room while Maura’s estranged father tells her right out: Oh, yes, Gershon and Gittel were the same person. The sibling Rose lost in the Holocaust was also transgender. And just in case you didn’t pick up on the thesis here, Moshe will lay that out for you, too. “Why was she so depressed? Because of the fucking Holocaust! Ever heard of it? No family ever got out clean!”
On the one hand, it’s remarkable to watch this information hit Maura like a tsunami, and to watch her nearly buckle under the sudden weight of it. On the other, Transparent hasn’t done a great job of preparing us for the idea that this knowledge was a gap in her life. It’s been a part of our awareness of the Pfefferman history for so long, and it’s been a vital, hallucinatory, imagistic undercurrent in the series. To see it suddenly surface into Transparent’s present in such a blunt, direct way … well, it feels like a loss. It was information Maura desperately needed, and learning it has been a seismic event in her life. But we also lose some of the tragic inaccessibility that fueled this particular aspect of the story for so long.
Rather than dream-sequence reveries from 1930s Berlin, what we’re getting this season is the ghost of Rita, mocking Josh for being unable to masturbate without her. Once again, I know Rita’s role in Josh’s life is something he’s still trying to come to grips with, and he’s only now learning how to unwrap. I hope that we’re getting to some important self-knowledge for Josh. I am still not into Ghost Rita.
I am slightly more into the Sarah-Len-Lila poly-hearted stonerfest — definitely more than I might’ve thought. The reason for this is not the beginning, where they all awkwardly circle each other and Lila is hilariously chill and unsurprised about the idea of writing a parenting-through-submission advice book. It’s not really the middle, either, where things get increasingly weird and Len gets pretty hostile about the sex-addict idea (which Lila assesses quite accurately). My favorite thing about this vodka bong afternoon comes when they finally agree to just make it happen and Sarah Pfefferman suddenly exerts her will. “I’m going to tell you what to do,” Sarah tells them both. “I want to fuck this beautiful thing, and I want to use your dick.” (Len: “Good thing I brought my dick.”)
Is it great that the only moment Sarah actually seems happy, in a way that feels neither performative nor self-righteously good, is in the midst of sex play? Probably not? And yet it feels surprising and freeing to see her so happily in control. There are fewer ties between Transparent and Soloway’s other Amazon series, I Love Dick, than you might think. But this scene, where Sarah gets to play out her sexual fantasy with Lila, and where Len is involved rather than in the dark about Sarah’s desires, feels like something out of that other series.
Each of the stories in episode four has moments when they feel like they’re clicking, and moments when Transparent feels a little adrift. For as much as I dislike Ghost Rita, Josh’s monologue at the sex-addict meeting, intercut with Moshe talking about the past few decades of his life, is a pretty effective bit of editing. The Moshe, Maura, and Ali scenes are fabulous, even though I mourn the loss of the show’s heady, strange unspoken undercurrent. I wish Sarah Pfefferman had something in her life other than sex, but I’m glad she enjoyed herself.
There is one purely good event in episode four, though: Shelly playing the character Mario in her improv class. “I’m MARIO!” she yells. “FUCK THAT NOISE!” When she later goes to her deli buffet, instead of a tiny bird-like serving of some underwhelming salad, she orders “a big, long, hard roll with a lot of stuff on it.” The shot of Judith Light holding a hoagie as big as her torso, and taking a magnificently satisfied bite out of the end? That’s my favorite moment of the season so far.