Ever since we first saw the Pfeffermans as children, I’ve been waiting for an entirely flashback episode set in 1994. Today we get it, with an episode exploring the lost weekend that was to be Ali’s bat mitzvah.
With his daughter’s Jewish coming-of-age ceremony canceled, Mort is free to take off for Camp Camellia, the drag camp in the woods he saw a flyer for a couple episodes back. He and his cross-dressing buddy Mark, a.k.a. Marcie, had dreamed of being able to attend, and now, with the weekend free, Mort tells Shelley he’s going to go to a conference where there might be new information about the 1951 trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. The Rosenbergs were executed as traitors for providing American secrets to the Soviet Union. It’s a subject of intense debate even still six decades later whether their indictment was truly based on evidence or on blatant anti-Semitism. Were the Rosenbergs spies, or were they the victims of a witch hunt against anyone different? It’s exactly the kind of historical event a closeted Mort would be interested in. But he’s not going to study the Rosenbergs. He’s going to a safe haven from another witch hunt: his life.
Sarah, home from college for Ali’s special day, decides she doesn’t want to stay and watch her baby sister. She’s taking off on a bus to a protest. Shelley bitches on the phone to her sister that Mort is an absentee co-parent.
At drag camp, Maura and Marcie drive down the yellow brick road into Oz. The roads are lined with happy, free, laughing, cross-dressing men. “Mark, we’re mother-effin’ here,” Maura says. Neither of them can believe it. They just might meet the wizard and get everything they’ve ever wanted.
This episode has a different theme song: “Oh, Sister” by Bob Dylan. The lyrics are:
When I come to lie in your arm
You should not treat me like a stranger
Our father would not like the way that you act
And you must realize the danger
Over white wine, Shelley complains to her oh, sister Judy that she doesn’t have a partner in her husband and believes Mort is perhaps cheating with his TA, Eve. (Nope. Guess again!) Judy asks if they’ve ever gone to counseling, and Shelley snaps back, “I’m not throwing away money to have a Ph.D. tell me to give my husband more oral sex.” The delivery on this is stellar because Judith Light is too good for this world.
Shelley confides in her sister about Mort wearing her underpants to have sex. She also mentions Eddie Paskowitz from the school board, who keeps inviting her over. In 2014, we know this is her future second husband. Judy says she should hang out with Ed, and Shelley is shocked. Judy says of Mort, “You don’t treat yourself as well as he treats himself.”
It’s true. Mort is treating himself to a weekend as Maura, to the detriment of his relationship with both his wife and his youngest daughter. He’s not around to stop Rita from molesting Josh; he’s not present enough to see that Ali shouldn’t be canceling her own bat mitzvah; he doesn’t care that Shelley’s feelings are clearly hurt. I remember when my father got sober nine years ago, it was a decision he had to come to on his own. He had to own his shame and stop drinking for his own good. It was the first time it occurred to me that parents had their own shit going on. They don’t just take care of their kids and then shut off like robots the rest of the time. They’re still people, still learning and growing and being imperfect and selfish.
This secret is Mort’s obsession, and his alone. It’s a solo journey that Maura is on, not unlike my own father’s road to recovery. He almost lost my mother and sister and me a few times along the way, and that risk is what Maura brings with her, too. The idea hearkens back to what Davina said in an earlier episode about losing your family in this long, long process of finding yourself as a trans person. The seeds of resentment in the other Pfeffermans are already being planted.
Maura and Marcie get name tags, and Jackie, another cross-dresser, introduces them to her wife, Connie (Michaela Watkins), who is totally chill with the whole wearing-women’s-clothing thing. Now is a good time to mention that it seems most of the men at this camp don’t identify as “trans,” a word that became popularized in the late 1980s and is very separate from the cross-dressing community. Many of these guys are straight. Some will come out later. Some are gay. Gender performance and sexuality are not connected. (More on this later.) Connie says she has a “Wives’ Bill of Rights,” which stipulates that cross-dressing husbands can not “borrow our clothes without asking us first.” Maura is in awe of Connie. They all have a great time dancing, and it’s in sharp contrast to how reserved and false Mort would have had to be at Ali’s bat mitzvah. Here he is overjoyed to be Maura.
Back at home, Ali and Josh eat leftover pizza. Rita comes over and, like the tiny man he thinks he is, Josh charms with, “You look nice.” It is so gross. He already really, really cares about looking cool. Ali straight-up tells him they are a disgusting couple. “It makes me wanna vomit,” she says. It makes us all wanna vomit, Al.
The next day, Marcie and Maura ride bikes to the one pay phone at camp so they can call home. This scene is one of the reasons Transparent is such an amazing show visually, and also a miracle show in that it hinges so hard on the performances of not just the main characters, but every single cast member — and it delivers on all of them.
Bradley Whitford as Marcie absolutely nails this monologue. He’s dressed as a woman, standing in the middle of the woods, speaking in a put-on, hypermasculine voice into the phone, bald-faced lying to his wife and child about where he is and what he’s doing. He poses as the husband, performing the male gender vocally while presenting the female gender visually. It’s striking. His son gets on the phone and Mark advises him sternly to fight back against a sports coach who won’t put him in the game. “You gotta man up,” he says, wearing heels and a wig, “You just can’t take that crap.” It’s a perfect look into how even those of us in the community are victims of gender roles. By forcing the existing gender binary on the next generation, we are damaging them like we’ve been damaged. As soon as he hangs up, Marcie says in a breathy Marilyn Monroe voice, “Your turn, baby girl.” Maura looks like she might throw up everything she’s ever eaten. I totally get it. What we just saw was so deeply twisted and disturbing. Mort chickens out of calling his family.
Ali’s home alone now, and the bartender for her party, a young, skinny, pierced teenager named Jules, shows up. She didn’t know the bat mitzvah was canceled, and she needs to use the bathroom. Ali is like, “Sure, come in,” because everything she does is out of the loneliest cry for help ever. Who is watching this child?
Back at camp, my description for these attendees is getting really confused. Turns out not only are they not trans, but they HATE trans people. The male-identifying cross-dressers disparage a former member named Ramona who started on hormone injections, changed her name legally, and started dressing as a woman full-time. Ramona clearly I.D.s as trans, but the others are judge-y jerks who are like, “We’re cross-dressers, but we’re still men.” Oh, hey, patriarchy. Because God forbid anyone with that kind of male privilege would ever WANT to be a woman? What a silly idea. Why wouldn’t you want to be a man? This is another heartbreaking scene for Maura because still, after everything she’s gone through and all the bridges she’s burning in her personal life, she has not found a community.
I am fascinated by this revelation that the other “men in skirts” would kick out a campgoer for being trans, as though that were a cardinal sin. “Transvestites are not transsexuals,” Marcie says. Ramona’s kind is not what this camp is for. Maura disagrees. Shouldn’t they all be able to get along? Nope! Not all gender-nonconforming people are alike, after all.
Later, Connie shows up to Marcie’s and Maura’s cabin to ask if they want to go in the lake, and when Maura declines, Connie jokes, “Why? Do you have your period?” Maura loves that. “Our wives are not like you,” Maura says wistfully. She’s glimpsing a life she wonders if she could have someday. Connie suggests they drink.
Bartender Jules is still hanging out with Ali, which I can’t get a read on. Is she meant to be creepy, or just bored? Why is she indulging this 13-year-old girl alone in her house? She asks Ali why she isn’t having her bat mitzvah. “I didn’t think I could memorize it all, so I said I didn’t believe in God, and they canceled it,” she says. Is she lying to seem cool the way Josh does? The young actress playing Ali has the most piercing eyes; you can tell she sees you, but you get nothing from looking at her. Her face is an unsettling tabula rasa. The bartender tells her most kids would do it for the cash and says, “You’re a badass.” Suddenly, Ali stands up on the furniture and loudly performs her entire Torah portion. The bartender is very impressed. So if she did know the Hebrew all along, then what’s the real reason Ali cancelled her party? Where are her parents? We Need to Talk About Ali.
On the bus, Sara pushes a sleeping dude off her shoulder and catches the eye of a cute lesbian with a shaved head. In her car, Josh and Rita hold hands while she steers, because, you know, Josh can’t drive. Because he’s a child.
Bartender Jules gives Ali a ride to the beach because sure, there’s no supervision, so why not? She meets a hipster, before hipsters were cool, I guess, with a toy airplane and a pair of overalls. They have a sass fight where she lies and says she’s 17. She asks to fly the plane, but it costs more than $300, so no. He tells her she can grab a beer from the back of his truck and watch him, though. “I love beer,” Ali says, which is a totally cool, not-suspicious thing people who love beer definitely say all the time.
Connie, Maura, and Marcie drink, and Maura tells her she looks like an Italian movie star. Michaela Watkins is intoxicating in this scene, and Maura is drowning in her acceptance and freedom and beauty.
Ali and Toy-Plane Guy go under a bridge at the beach and they dance around each other in a choreographed flirtation that carefully doesn’t go too far. Maura and Connie do the same, not wanting to do anything too overtly sexual that would constitute cheating on their partners, but they definitely cross some lines. Marcie is a fuming not-so-cockblock. Ali and Toy-Plane Guy wrestle each other in the sand. The camera pans across her straddling him. It’s a somewhat innocent play on intercourse. It may not be her bat mitzvah, but Ali is still becoming a woman this weekend.
In a moment of startling magical realism, Older Ali watches Younger Ali frolick in the sand. She sits sadly on the sidelines until Toy-Plane Guy kisses Older Ali, and younger Ali pulls at him to get his attention. Up until these last couple episodes, Transparent has ventured into the mumblecore territory of hyperreality, so these diversions (this and Dale’s house, both involving Ali) indicate a break from the real world. They throw away the notion that anything that’s happened so far has come from an omniscient, reliable narrator. We know Ali see things differently than other people, maybe deeper than other people, so these moments might be meant to show the difference between reality and her perception of things. The two are not the same, and because of her self-centeredness, she is often the victim of events of her own doing. Is she watching herself be molested on the beach? Did she badly want Dale to be a rugged man, so she “saw” him differently to fit her needs? How far will she go to convince herself the world is as she sees it? We Need to Talk About Ali.
Marcie is trying to break up Connie and Maura, but they don’t want her to. Connie suggests Marcie is in love with Maura, even though for Marcie cross-dressing has never been about sexuality. Gender performance and sexual interest are two different things, girl. Connie and Maura kiss. Marcie leaves in a huff. Maura is so starved for love, as herself, in this form, that she is willing to get it from the mystical unicorn dream-woman she’s deemed Connie to be. The way Jeffrey Tambor looks at Watkins in this scene is like he’s seen an angel. Connie represents what Maura hopes Shelley could be, but, uh, good luck with that.
In his truck, Ali and Toy-Plane Guy drive on the highway with her lying in the bed. She yells for him to drive faster. As mentioned before, is this what is actually happening, or is it an extended sexual metaphor? Are they driving, or are they having sex? Ali’s sections of the show have transitioned fully into being suspect.
The next morning at camp, Maura wants to drive back dressed as a woman, and Marc is confused. They fight and call each other the C-word, which is ironic because it turns out their friendship is over because only one of them is a woman.
Ali wakes up in the back of Toy-Plane Guy’s truck as he’s peeing beside some migrant workers. It’s again a great visual of their sort of privileged sadness and disregard for problems outside themselves. Toy-Plane Guy needs to piss, so he pees where these men have to toil. Ali is a spoiled child, and it’s gonna be a long time before she comes to grips with the world outside herself.
“Why didn’t you try anything?” Ali asks, because they spent the night sleeping in his truck.
Toy Plane shrugs, “I don’t think you’re 17.”
Ali admits to being younger and younger until she finally says, “I’m 13.” Then, she moves closer to him and tries to tongue-kiss him. The final shot of the episode is dark, inside her mouth.
So what does this movement into the surreal realm mean for the show? My thinking is that Ali is breaking from reality, and a lot of this episode in particular is her remembrance of how events unfolded. Even Maura’s parts are from her point of view, so maybe they’re not painting the full picture. Is anything we’ve seen so far actually how it happened? Who exactly is telling this story?
Transparent is traditionally Maura’s story, but she’s also the trans parent, so is it the children’s story? Is Ali our protagonist, and if she is, what does this mean for “reality?” Ali might be losing it mentally. Was Maura’s prediction of Ali’s “gender confusion” meant to be foreshadowing? One theory is that Ali could also turn out to be trans, which might explain her strong aversion to her father’s transition and her interest in Dale.
I’m not entirely sure why Ali is experiencing these moments of fantasy so vividly, but I am interested in finding out.