After the gorgeous and emotionally dense fifth episode, “Bulnerable” is a long, slow burn. It’s no less effective or striking, but it’s not built around the same theatrical set pieces that have driven earlier installments. Instead, we deal with the fallout of unmet expectations and private struggles with dashed hopes. It’s an unhappy coming to terms.
You can see this best in the horribly sad loss of Josh and Raquel’s pregnancy. The sequence begins with Raquel’s mysterious rash, then comes into focus as the nurse does that horrible thing where she makes a face and refuses to say aloud that there’s a problem, even though everyone knows something is wrong. Raquel is devastated, and her grief turns to shock and dismay as Josh pulls away from the entire experience. When Raquel says that they’ll just need to try again, Josh interjects that maybe they should just “breathe for a second.” “I just need a break,” he keeps telling her, and once he realizes how astonished she is, he doubles down, forcing her to thank him for his honesty. Josh may be right about the importance of honesty, but that doesn’t mean it’s not also a monstrous thing to say.
Ali’s disappointment takes another form, which begins under an altogether happier circumstance. After talking through ideas for her graduate-admissions essay with Syd (and rejecting a proposal about Jew Shoes), she decides to ask for help from Leslie Mackinaw — whose house is covered, from bow to stern, with pussy. Ali finds Leslie upstairs, where she’s trying to find clips to play during a poetry reading. The clips come from very classy lesbian porn. Ali, uncomfortable, tries to draw her eyes away. Her gaze lands, over and over, on other images of the naked female form.
This scene is an unmistakable wind-up for a sexual encounter. As if the house’s décor were insufficient, Leslie invites Ali out to her “barrel,” where they proceed to get stoned and chuckle about the idiocy of the patriarchy. The end result of this encounter becomes increasingly obvious, up to and including the moment when a hook-up seems so likely as to be cliché. And then, just as Ali admits that she’s only been “out” for about a month, Leslie flips a switch. “Did you meet my cats?” she says, turning away from the pussy in front of her to face a houseful of felines out of frame. Later, still unclear about what’s happened, Ali makes her hopes explicit: “Really?” she asks, after Leslie announces that she’s going to bed. “I’m sort of wide awake.” Unceremoniously, Leslie leaves her in the company of the cats.
Sarah, meanwhile, is experiencing a similar sexual disappointment. She shows up at Dr. Steve’s apartment, clearly angling for sex. After some embarrassment, she gamely explains her fantasy about Mr. Irons and his paddle. To his credit, Dr. Steve takes this in stride, offering up a goofy imitation of Mr. Irons’s voice (“something less … Julia Child,” Sarah suggests), but otherwise follows her lead. Unfortunately for Sarah, Shelly punctures the fantasy by calling repeatedly — she wants Sarah to come deal with the kids. When Sarah gets home, Shelly’s coping with her own potent disappointment that Maura left yet again. They can’t even comfort each other: When Shelly tries to rest on Sarah’s lap, Sarah shifts her body to avoid the full weight of her mother’s head. (Parenthood is another theme running through this episode. Raquel wants the responsibility and cannot have it, Josh and Sarah are running away from it, and Shelly cannot be a caretaker but wants to take on the child’s role.)
Maura’s version of this experience is less pointed, but contains its own arc of disappointment. After leaving Shelly’s condo and moving in with Davina and Shea, Maura is anxious to see what the house will feel like after Davina’s lover Sal gets out of prison. She and Shea wait up with their carefully-made lasagna … only to watch Davina and Sal stagger in after eating dinner by themselves, give the briefest of hellos, and then run upstairs to the bedroom. This is not the comfortable, sisterhood-driven safe haven Maura hoped it would be, but watching Davina with Sal does give her some helpful clarity: “I love every part of women,” she says, “from head to … vaginas. I love vaginas.” “There’s no shame in that,” Sal says, to which Maura thoughtfully responds, “No.”
This brings us to the final shot of the episode, in which Josh, who has put on a half-hearted show of support before running away from the deep well of Raquel’s pain, returns home from his industry party. He’s wasted, and trips through the house before turning on the lights. When he does, he discovers that the bed has been meticulously made, removing any trace that someone ever shared it with him. A pearl ring sits on the covers.
In an episode where everything seems almost overdetermined — Sarah’s painfully detailed explanation of her Mr. Irons fantasy, Maura’s clinical observation of Davina and Sal, Ali’s romance-novel foreplay with Leslie Mackinaw — the abruptness of Raquel’s departure is striking. It isn’t exactly out of the blue, particularly in light of Josh’s less-than-stellar behavior, but on Transparent, characters’ decisions are analyzed and pulled apart and lingered over. When a move this dramatic occurs entirely outside the narrative, it feels like a gut punch. And even more remarkably, it pushes the audience to sympathize with Josh. We’re left standing there with him in his empty room, wondering where he went wrong.