Hi! I’m Kathryn VanArendonk, and I’ll be covering the second half of Transparent. I also review Jane the Virgin, so feel free to check that show out for a completely different angle on the “complicated family relationships” genre.
This season, Transparent keeps returning to the concept of ritual. It’s a tremendously useful framework for developing each character: Rituals help the Pfeffermans create meaning for themselves, and the show explores the ways they struggle against the prescribed roles imposed by those rituals.
This idea was foregrounded from the season’s very first moments, with that incredible scene of the wedding photograph. Everyone’s wondering several different things: where to stand, who belongs in the family photo, how they all should be arranged, and how this static image will flatten and disguise the jagged dynamics lurking beneath their smiles.
Those themes appear in big and small ways throughout “Mee-Maw.” Each of the Pfeffermans struggles with social customs, and inevitably, they all find themselves at odds with the roles they’re expected to perform.
For Sarah, who has already detonated her wedding and soured the school gala, the set roles of “life coach” and “client” prove equally hard to play. Her life coach, Dr. Laura Milton Kaufberger, kicks things off by noting that Sarah should’ve come to see her before she won the sessions in the gala’s raffle, because people need to ask for change themselves. Sarah quickly points out the absurdity of this idea, given that Dr. Kaufberger donated the sessions to the fundraiser. After Dr. Kaufberger insists on the accuracy of the phrase “for all intensive purposes,” it’s clear that the line between useful therapy and absurd self-help cliché has been completely destroyed.
The total dismantling of Sarah’s familiar functions — wife to Len, fiancée to Tammy, and full-time mother — leave her flailing in the wind. She tells Ali that she dreams about being watched by school disciplinarian Mr. Irons, which can be read any number of ways, but may very well be a desire for a strong authority. She feels no confidence in her sexual identity, asking Dr. Steve, “How do you even know, really, if you’re gay?” The episode leaves her getting high in her car, alone, eating a burger.
Ali and Syd’s ritual experience involves showing up at Leslie Mackinaw’s Full Moon Festival, ostensibly to improve Ali’s chance of being accepted as Leslie’s student at UCLA. While Sarah has been unable to play the role she’s chosen, Ali has thrown herself into a specific portrayal of queerness — playfully slapping Syd in the face with her strap-on and arriving to the Full Moon festival wearing dramatic, costumelike eye shadow. Leslie further develops the otherworldly feel of the event by “holding court.” As Ali tells Syd, “She’s exactly the one you think she is.” In this show, everyone is trying to signal their identity to the world and to themselves.
The bulk of “Mee-Maw” involves playacting of a different sort. Colton’s adoptive parents arrive from the Midwest in an RV to meet Josh and Raquel. Although the visit is largely civil, it’s also an uneasy clash of cultures, disguised as polite and friendly conversation. When Pastor Gene and his wife, the inexplicably named Blossie, pull up, they let their other two children out of the RV before the adults warily circle each other.
The height of this encounter occurs as they sit together in the living room, where Pastor Gene explains that his mid-sized congregation is supported by a weekly television show. (People recognize him in the Sizzler!) Things are going all right. And then Maura, who stops by to pick up some childhood photos, helpfully points out that “we’re Jewish.” Josh adds, “including Colton,” at which point it gets tense. Raquel’s obvious (and reasonable!) discomfort with Rita comes out as Blossie wonders how much time she’ll have to help Colton with the SATs, and then Pastor Gene buttonholes Josh to accuse him of abandoning Colton.
Maura, still hanging around in the background of this gathering, once again interjects to reveal that the Pfeffermans knew about Colton long before Josh did. Not only that, they helped support him with a “sizeable” donation to Pastor Gene’s church. Josh is devastated. Poor Colton can’t figure out whether he should stay with Josh or go back to Kansas with Gene and Blossie, and Raquel — who’s been placed in the worst imaginable position — has to step out her role as supportive not-quite-a-fiancée and stake her claim as future mother. Colton climbs into the RV. The play is done, and no one applauds.
One last point about rituals: The opening scenes of Ali and Sarah’s massage are about as ritualistic as they come, but even lovelier is the hymn that Colton’s siblings sing over the episode’s closing montage. It’s a sequence that reminds me of the Mad Men episode “Babylon,” another television episode about cultural clashes and intimacy and Judaism. In that early moment of season one, Don’s working on a pitch for the Israeli tourism board. He ends up in a café listening to a lilting vocal performance of a Biblical-themed song. Like this episode’s “Humble Thyself in the Eyes of the Lord,” the song “Babylon” is loosely structured as a round, which is an interesting musical mirror for a set of character-based stories that weave in and out of the same thematic territory — something Transparent has in common with Mad Men. In “Mee-Maw,” though, the hymn is simple. Without the formal stage setting, its performance feels subtle and all the more arresting.
We finally come to Maura, who plays an unusually brief part in this episode. She gazes longingly at the pictures Davina has had made, transforming her little boy self into a little girl. The combination of the photos, the tension at Raquel and Josh’s house, and Shelley’s suffocating insistence that they fall into their old patterns compels Maura to insist that she’s moving out. Shelley’s retort is pained and painful — “How dare you do this to me, twice in my lifetime!” — but it’s Maura’s anguish, yelling “Please help me!” to the gate guard at the condo association, that truly resonates at the episode’s end.