The last few episodes of Transparent stick to a similar structural pattern: They follow the Pfeffermans in smaller groups, telling discrete stories about each character that occasionally overlap with one another. While Maura has been off in Davina’s turret, Josh and Raquel are watching their relationship implode, and Ali is exploring cultural lesbianism in L.A. Who even knows what Sarah is doing.
I bring this up because “The Book of Life” is the first episode to break that pattern since the season’s earliest installments. After spending the day apart, the family comes together to break their fast around a table, and it’s the most intimate Pfefferman gathering we’ve seen for quite some time.
Before we get there, though, the episode follows each family member as they fast and observe the Day of Atonement in their own ways. Sarah begins by arriving unannounced at Tammy’s design firm, insisting that Tammy absolve her of her sins. It’s not clear to her why Sarah is even asking for forgiveness, and Sarah explains, “It’s kind of like trick-or-treating; you, like, go, and people that you hurt, you think about your wrongs and apologize and ask for forgiveness.” Tammy isn’t buying it, and Melora Hardin plays her blunt refusal to participate in this exercise with perfect chilly dismissiveness. “Cool,” she says. “Happy Yom Kippur.” (This phrase will return throughout the episode, as the Pfeffermans police their own demonstrations of Judaism by, among other things, correcting each other for saying “Happy Yom Kippur” rather than “Good yontif.”)
Sarah then finds herself in Dr. Steve’s office, getting high and desperately trying to communicate her desire for a particular kind of sexual encounter in which Dr. Steve plays “a rapist who just wants to make sure you come, you know what I mean?” At this point, Dr. Steve nopes out of the mess that is Sarah Pfefferman, and she slinks off to deal with the remainder of a day on which she’s gotten insanely high and cannot eat.
Maura starts off in her turret at Davina’s house, where Sal’s return from prison has become even more uncomfortable. It begins when Sal brings an air conditioner to Maura’s room and quickly discusses, in painfully personal detail, exactly what she should do to alter her body. He apparently played a significant role in Shea’s physical feminization, and confidently recommends that Maura get “500 CCs in the titty area.” Stunned, Maura greets this suggestion with the amused conversational distance of someone who’s suddenly found herself in the company of a crazy person. Sal doesn’t help his case by leering that Shea’s procedures made him feel like “fucking Michelangelo,” and he “wanted to sign my name on her ass.”
Maura can’t help but confront Davina with her concerns about Sal. She’s confident that if she can just explain his boorish behavior, Davina will side with her. Of course, that doesn’t happen. “I’m a 53-year-old ex-prostitute, HIV-positive woman with a dick,” Davina snaps at Maura. However Maura may feel, she’s entered into a new world — and there’s still a stark divide between her experience and the lives of most trans women. Maura, Davina concludes, “should probably sleep somewhere else.”
We pick up with Josh and Shelly as they stand in line at the synagogue, when Josh sneaks off to confront Raquel about her sudden departure. The scene exactly mirrors Sarah’s encounter with Tammy, except the latter is a mess of emotional manipulation and sad desperation, while this one is just anguish. Josh tries to step back into some of his familiar linguistic patterns — the qualifying, the deflection — and when Raquel quickly interrupts him with an ice-cold “We’re over,” the confusion and pain on Josh’s face is clear. He has been awful, and it’s a testament to this amazing episode that it both dignifies and condemns his sadness.
The first moment of this ambivalence comes during Yom Kippur services, as Josh watches his ex-fiancé call for the entire congregation to atone for their sins, and he is forced to beat his breast along with the crowd. In spite of himself, Josh is overcome by the ritual of the services. As the prayer builds to a fever pitch, he’s incapable of standing calmly in the synagogue. As he walks out against a drumbeat of fists, Raquel intones, “We have sinned against you, we have sinned against you.”
The Yom Kippur services are gorgeously and movingly edited, a high moment in the season’s exploration of the ways ceremony shapes meaning for the Pfeffermans. We get a parallel in the even better scene that follows, as the family gathers to break their fast. Syd and Ali have been preparing for the meal all day, with Ali trying to defuse Syd’s growing anxiety about their uncertain relationship. Shelly has roped Buzz (“Jewish Santa Claus”) into their family meal, and they immediately step into well-worn character patterns, like two clockwork pieces who snap back into their grooves. Josh arrives, still shaken from the synagogue, dreading the questions about Raquel.
This meal creates the perfect level of friction for the Pfeffermans. It’s an intimate group, but there are enough outsiders — Syd’s parents, a few friends, Buzz — that they’re expected to perform their parts as functional family members. They also get to snicker condescendingly at the non-Pfeffermans, especially in the delicious moment where Sarah snorts at Syd’s mother, who asks for atonement for being “so controlling about the parking space.” The moments of stress and relief ebb and flow, moving back and forth among Josh’s distress, Sarah’s munchies, Ali’s attempt at a meaningful toast, and everyone’s amusement and anxiety about who will say the prayer.
Finally, in perfect parallel with the synagogue scene, the drumbeat of the conversation crescendos to another swell, forcing Josh to break the rhythmic chatter and announce that he and Raquel have broken up and the pregnancy has ended. It’s heartbreaking to watch, and clearly hard for him, then made so much worse as Shelly breaks down into deep, racking moans about how she brought the evil eye and killed the baby.
This moment is one of the most amazing mosaics of emotions I’ve ever seen: Shelly’s histrionics, Buzz’s Jewish Santa Claus attempts to soothe her, Josh’s fury at his mother’s melodramatics (“This is not yours!” he spits at her), Maura’s overparental sympathy, the venom that meets her sympathy (“I don’t need your permission [to be sad]”), and the rest of the family’s stunned sorrow. And then, to top it all off, my very favorite moment in the episode: Buzz offers to take Shelly home, to which she responds, wonderingly, as though the Most Eligible Elderly Jewish Bachelor in the shul just announced he has superpowers: “You drive at night?”
The episode closes with two lovely shots of food. First, we see the food consumed at the Yom Kippur meal. There are half-eaten bagels topped with lox, disordered deli platters, and haphazardly piled dishes that signal the end of this painful holiday, then a wider shot of Syd and Ali beginning the slow process of cleaning all of the remnants. Next, at last, we get Josh, breaking his fast in the most furious and defiant way imaginable, by cramming his face with ham in the middle of a grocery aisle. Good yontif, Pfeffermans.