The first part of “Babar the Borrible” is a story where the seams are showing just a little too much. It’s yet to be especially clear what the Sarah-Len-Lila relationship is bringing to the season: I’m happy that Sarah and Len seem to be in a consensual if unconventional sexual relationship with a young woman who also seems to enjoy their company, but it doesn’t seem to be pushing Sarah to explore her sex-dependency issues any further. Instead, it’s created a pressure for Transparent to figure out how to integrate the Lila story into the Pfefferman’s Israel experience, to mixed results.
On their way to a “real Bedouin experience,” the Pfefferman tour bus pulls up in Tapuz, an Israeli settlement where Lila’s mother lives, so Sarah and Len can drop off a hand-knit sweater that Lila made for her. Lila’s mother, who doesn’t seem to have much of an idea who they are, greets them warmly. She forces them to wait while she finishes baking some lemon bars to take back to Lila. Outside, the rest of the Pfefferman group paces around in a bare asphalt cul-de-sac, waiting for Sarah and Len to finish. It’s not hard to empathize with them — I, too, was not really sure what we were doing here, waiting for Sarah and Len.
The sequence ends with a moment that feels more like a gesture toward a breakdown than any actual conflict. Josh susses out the truth of Sarah and Len’s relationship with Lila and tries to make a big deal out of it, but (like this plot itself) there just isn’t much there there. It’s consensual! It’s probably not doing Sarah many favors, but she’s happy right now! They’re having hilariously awkward webcam sex that stalls at exactly the wrong minute, and the most Maura can muster on the topic is an elaborate shrug.
You can feel Transparent trying to figure out how to knit this little digression together with the season’s bigger ideas. Lila’s mother doesn’t just live in Tel Aviv; she lives in an Israeli settlement, a little pocket of land in territory that’s considered part of Palestine, and is nevertheless being occupied by Israeli citizens. (If you don’t have a sense of the boundaries and checkpoints and settlements throughout the West Bank and Jerusalem, it’s worth checking out a map.) Ali is obsessed with borders and crossings, and it’s not hard to see how appropriate that is within this setting. There are borders all over the place, there’s a sense of transgression and occupation everywhere Ali looks, and it’s all caught up with names and labels and cultural associations that are pure constructions and also incredibly powerful.
Maybe this Lila story doesn’t have much going on, and maybe I am just as frustrated with waiting for Sarah and Len to hightail it out of that house as the rest of the Pfeffermans. But the plot also gives Ali an excuse to cross into a settlement and experience the way it makes her skin crawl. It gives Transparent a chance to depict another border crossing, and for yet another “it looks just like L.A.!” comparison: The settlement “looks just like Park La Brea!” And it lets Maura and Ali sit next to each other and talk about how Ali is feeling. “I don’t feel right,” she tells Maura. “I don’t feel good.”
The experience at the Western Wall, of putting on a yarmulke and crossing over into the men’s side of the prayer wall, seems to have broken something open in Ali. She’s always been the Pfefferman family member who most openly struggles with how to present her own gender to the world, and how to understand it for herself. But when presented openly with the question — when Maura asks her outright, “Do you think you’re trans?” — Ali doesn’t know what to say. She doesn’t know. It’s tempting to align Ali’s life with Maura’s, and to make the same kind of parallel assumptions the show has teased out over the past several seasons — as with Maura, so, too, with Gershon/Gittel, and now it is once again with Ali. But the series has also been explicit that Ali’s experience is not the same as Maura’s history. Maura, for all her pain and for all the trauma she’s experienced, has been clear from a young age that she’s a woman. Ali has no such clarity.
She can go as far as telling Maura that she doesn’t think she feels “like a woman, whatever that means,” but she’s not leaping to call herself a man, either. The most she knows for certain is that she does not feel good in her body, and that it’s been exacerbated by the intense binaries surrounding her in this intensely divided place. “I don’t feel good,” she keeps telling Maura, and Maura absolutely understands how terrible that feels. “Go,” she tells Ali, who absolutely cannot stand to be in the settlement any longer.
(As a note: I’m going to keep referring to Ali with female pronouns unless/until Transparent has her express a preference for a different pronoun.)
So Ali splits away from the family to go rejoin Lyfe and the group of Palestinian hipsters in the West Bank, while the rest of the Pfeffermans continue on to what Moshe promises will be an authentic Bedouin experience. It’s basically a theme park, featuring a camel ride around in circles in the parking lot, and a tent conveniently located right next to the end of the road. Shelly and Bryna sing another number from Jesus Christ Superstar as they try to pay off the camel “driver” to take them deeper into the desert. No one has much interest in the “authentic” meal. Josh pouts about Ali’s absence.
But Ali is off somewhere else, more deeply in tune with what Transparent really wants to be about. She’s telling her new friends the story of Moshe, the Cool Guy, and she’s trying to pull off a joke about a bartender and a grasshopper that really doesn’t work. She’s following Lyfe into a greenhouse, all ready to turn their flirtation into a physical relationship, but she’s suddenly stopped at another border: the firm demarcation of Lyfe’s breast binder. “I don’t take this off,” Lyfe tells her.
It’s not that Ali is thrown off by the idea of not being able to touch Lyfe’s breasts, or that Lyfe’s gender queerness is unattractive to her. It’s that Ali had never considered the idea that she could declare her own breasts off-limits, or that she could decide that one part of her anatomy was not going to factor into her understanding of herself as a sexual person. Her revelations are nearly identical to the ideas Josh wrestled with earlier in the season: He was blown away by the realization that bodily engagement was not the same as consent, and he’s been desperately seeking a way to establish boundaries in his relationship with Shelly. (In his relationships with everyone, really.) For Ali, those same ideas are less about her relationships with her family, and more about her fraught bond with her own body: Can she draw boundaries between her self and parts of her physical form? Will her body feel more like hers if she can figure out how to delineate some borders? (By the way, if you’re interested in reading more about binders and the way they can shape ideas of the self and how to feel good in your own body, please go read Mallory Ortberg’s recent piece on the subject. It’s great.)
Ali and Lyfe don’t push things any further, and the episode leaves them in the greenhouse, with Ali uncomfortably cracking jokes about the great “branding” for 69s and Lyfe trying to let Ali have some space. While a lot of the rest of this episode feels trivial, the greenhouse scene and Ali’s scene with Maura feel like little earthquakes. I hope the remaining episodes of the season turn more in this direction, and maybe let Sarah and Len and Lila just have their NRE in peace.