The whole Pfefferman clan arrives in Israel, ready to meet Moshe and a whole branch of their family they never knew existed. From the moment their car pulls up outside Moshe’s house, it’s a classic Transparent family gathering. Everyone speaks on top of everyone else. There are intense, overwhelming emotional moments all layered together with laugh lines and murmuring and constant noise. Bryna has a tearful, shattering reunion with her father, moments after Moshe mistakes Shelly for Bryna and the Los Angeles Pfeffermans gawk at the size of Moshe’s home. (“It’s like Daddy fucking Warbucks!”) It’s beautiful and awkward and a mess — always Transparent’s strengths.
I cannot get over how much it feels like Lost, though. The show has been caught in repetitive loops, revisiting themes and stories it’s not quite sure how to develop any further. The Pfeffermans’ personal and relational dysfunctions are all fairly well explored at this point, and although there’s surely more stories to tell about them, the series has a really hard time integrating outsiders into the group. They’re an insular bunch. Again and again, people come in, try to become part of the family, and then wash out. (I miss you, Rabbi Raquel.) The show wants to tell other stories, especially stories that provide more diverse perspectives on a trans experience — witness the previous episode and its lengthy Davina digression — but it always ends up with just the Pfeffermans again, circling back to their same obsessions and concerns.
What to do except find a whole new bunch of Pfeffermans? Maura stumbles right into them, like the tail section of a plane she just happened upon while exploring a new bit of the island, and voilà! A whole new angle on things, playing out in the wary unity and unavoidable competition between what Moshe calls “Team One” and “Team Two.” “It’s not weird,” Josh says, wryly. “Nothing weird about it.” Shira and Ronit are, as Sarah mutters to her siblings, like a better-looking, happier, healthier version of the “Team One” Pfeffermans — they’re more successful, younger, and maybe even smarter.
Shelly gamely comes to Maura’s defense when everyone declares Ronit to be “a genius,” but the weird mortification and anxiety just gets deeper. Nothing is quite safe to say. The “Team One” Pfeffermans don’t have one mom; they have two. Josh apparently looks just like a cousin on the “Team Two” side — a cousin who killed himself. The Israeli sisters can’t understand why Sarah would ever recommend giving her children control, but little do they know how funny the idea of Sarah Pfefferman, Parenting Expert really is.
They sit out on a windblown balcony overlooking the water. (As Shelly’s horrible, amazing Mario alter ego notes, it is “very Mediterranean.”) It’s a fantasy meal out of a travel magazine photo shoot, except no one can keep track of whether they’re aunts or sisters. Service staff stand quietly off to the sides; there’s one very brief, pointed shot of the kitchen after dinner, showing the staff as they clean everything. Meanwhile, the four Pfefferman sisters all sit upstairs staring at a picture of Moshe, Maura, and Bryna from the year Moshe left. Everyone feels too many complicated things all at once, and no one can say much about it.
In the second half of the episode, the Pfeffermans begin the tourism parts of their Israeli trip, beginning with a bus ride to Jerusalem. Their debate on the bus almost comes off like a bit of The Carmichael Show, with each character taking a stance mostly for the purpose of representing the debate. Moshe’s security man says “Palestinian” is a made-up word (as though all names for all groups of people aren’t “made up” at some point, or as though this makes the word less powerful). Bryna chips in that the Jews “needed somewhere to go” after World War II: “We couldn’t just hang around in Poland!” Maura mentions that there were Jews in the region long before the war, and Ali pushes back against all of it. It’s ridiculous to claim that they needed to make the Palestinians unsafe so they could feel safe, she says. The binaries are absurd. There are human rights issues at stake. And Sarah, who’s thought about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict about as much as she’s thought about her parenting book, has had enough. “Let’s just enjoy the ride,” she interrupts, before taking over the bus’s sound system.
The Pfeffermans may not agree on much, but they can unite around the score of Jesus Christ Superstar.
On foot in Jerusalem, the family walks through a market and eyes the various things for sale; it is familiar and foreign at the same time. Josh looks at some of the light-up knickknacks and declares that he might as well be in Venice Beach, while Ali fruitlessly tries to stop anyone from buying anything in her new dedication to the Palestinian boycott. They pause at the Via Dolorosa, examining the fifth Station of the Cross where Jesus is supposed to have paused for a moment, resting a hand on the wall. Maura declares it “very moving,” as the rest of the family puzzles over the exact mechanics of the immaculate conception behind her.
The family meal is the episode’s first major set piece. The second comes at the end, as the Pfeffermans go to pray at the Western Wall. (Or as Sarah puts it, they’re going to get their “prayer on.”) The Wall is Ali’s nightmare of borders and binaries made almost comically literal. Men go to one side, women to the other. The male side of the Wall is far more spacious, Ali notes, and from the women’s side, she stands on tiptoes to look over to where the men are celebrating and praying raucously, singing and cheering. Meanwhile, the women sit in silent reflection.
You’d expect Transparent’s trip to the Western Wall to be another scene like the one at LAX, with Maura walking into the women’s section and finding that she’s not allowed to enter. It’s been a subject of some controversy in the past few years, in fact: In 2015, a trans woman was prevented from approaching either the men’s or the women’s side of the Wall, sparking much debate and protest. But Maura enters the women’s side of the Wall with no remark at all; the camera barely even pauses to register anything unusual about her presence there.
Our point of view is all with Ali, who is overcome by the intensity of the place, by the stark divisions all around her, by the displays of devotion and joy and sorrow. Wary, unsure, and patently thrilled by the transgression of it, Ali wanders over and places a yarmulke on her head, crossing the boundary into the men’s side of the Wall. There are men everywhere, walking past her in prayer shawls and black brimmed hats. There are soldiers with massive guns. There are young boys. And there’s Ali, standing bemused and smiling a little, with her men’s blazer and a hairstyle someone this season has already described as a “wo-man bun.”
For a show that’s been so comfortable with elliptical, oblique storytelling in the past, Transparent has taken a swerve into the explicit, sometimes for the worse and occasionally for the better. This may be a “for the better” moment, an unexpectedly direct statement about characterization and desire that feels earned by its setting and its structure. It’s hard to imagine a more overt set of parallel themes and images: Israel/Palestine, male/female, boundaries and borders and binaries so plentiful you’re practically tripping over them. And there are few places in the world where Ali’s transgression could ever be as satisfyingly shocking.
Who wants to guess how their “overnight with some real bedouins” is going to go?