“Oscillate” opens with a surprisingly clear account of the flashbacks to 1933 Berlin. As the narrative takes shape, the Pfeffermans’ ancestors transform from dreamy and suggestive images into full-formed individuals. We’re finally getting a chance to understand their stories.
Gittel arrives at her mother’s house with money for the visas that they’ll need to leave the country, and Yetta begins harassing Gittel about her name and appearance. Michaela Watkins turns in an amazing performance here, an intricate blend of distaste, urgency, love, and stereotype. (“Did you hear about Sheila’s sister? She had to give birth through her face.”) Regardless, Rose follows Gittel back to the Institute, where she’s patently attracted to its freedom and atmosphere.
The next sequence is quite lovely, cutting back and forth between Rose’s time drinking and dancing at the Institute, and Yetta’s preparations for leaving the country. These golden-hued scenes are deliberately abstract, showing close-ups of hands and faces and bodies piled languidly at odd angles. These are actions without direct explanation: Yetta, setting the family jewelry into a chocolate mold; Gittel, painting cat whiskers on Rose’s face.
The evocative mood at the Institute is ruptured when Yetta arrives, visas in hand, ready to bring Gittel and Rose with her. Yetta ends up face-to-face with Magnus Hirschfeld, played by a returning Bradley Whitford, who pulls off a Garret-Dillahunt-in-Deadwood thing. (Also, Michaela Watkins and Bradley Whitford? Trophy Wife reunion!) Gittel is furious that the visa was made out in Gershon’s name, and Yetta insists that Magnus keep the visa in case Gittel later decides to leave. Yetta’s final line in the scene is perfect, an encapsulation of her fury and confusion and pain about Gittel’s abandonment, masked by her strong maternal instincts: “And if you’re gonna be a girl,” she tells the half-naked Gittel, “Cover your tits. Shameful.”
In episode four, Transparent suggests that explicit echoes may exist between these flashbacks and the Pfeffermans’ lives. That’s something the series will continue to explore in the final episodes of this season. These scenes lay plenty of groundwork for Gittel’s sexual identity, and illustrate the forces that tug Rose in different directions. She has to choose one way of life or follow another, crossing familial boundaries between the three women, all while protecting her humanity against a growing threat to her existence.
Until those parallels are made more explicit, though, we return to the Pfeffermans, who are recovering from their unfortunate Yom Kippur. Josh, understandably, is the worst off: “Oscillate” moves from the self-destructive intensity of his Crossfit workout, to his manic and worryingly indifferent purchase of a tour van for Fussy Puss, to, finally, his mental breakdown on the side of the highway. Margeaux pets him soothingly, but poor Josh is clearly struggling to cope with the complete collapse of his personal life.
Out for a hike, Syd and Ali are still in the throes of an argument raised before the Yom Kippur meal: Syd’s utter frustration that Ali refuses to commit to their relationship in any meaningful way. Ali throws out a lot of grand lines about how she’ll just start “shutting down” if Syd forces some kind of commitment, asking why Syd wants to “burden [them] with expectations!” Syd is having none of this, says she won’t be going to the Idyllwild Wimmin’s Festival, and tells Ali to “figure it out!”
Rattled by her meeting with Davina in the last episode — and obviously struck by Davina’s reminder that Maura is far more fortunate than many trans people — Maura asks how she can volunteer at the Los Angeles LGBT Center. She discusses the Trevor Project with a member of the center’s staff, which leads to a scene where Maura and Shea talk about how hard life can be for a young LGBT person. They do some imaginary roleplaying to prep for an actual conversation with a suicidal LGBT teen, and Shea’s right — Maura is terrible at it. But when Shea herself talks about her own experiences with suicidal feelings, Maura is instantly supportive and concerned. Shea’s dialogue here is so effective; it’s a devastating, slow avalanche of depression. Her suicidal feelings, she says, happened in “freshman year of high school. Sophomore year. All of high school. And into college. Pretty much until three years ago … and … I guess I still have my days.” Maura is stunned.
This moment of frank despair is leavened by one of the season’s most unambiguously comedic scenes to date, when Ali and Sarah go to have dinner with Shelly and Buzz, who now “has a drawer” in Shelly’s condo. The whole place has been remade; Ali and Sarah look around with wonder at the fact that there are colors inside. Shelly’s making margaritas with a machine Buzz got for her, Buzz is grilling (on a grill he also purchased). There are live plants in the bathroom and a bidet.
During the meal, which features steaks branded with “Buzzy Meat” (Buzz bought it from SkyMall, no doubt along with the margarita machine), Shelly proudly announces that she’s been elected as president of the condo board! Ali and Sarah clap half-heartedly, then listen with barely-repressed glee as Shelly then announces that she quit after the first meeting. “Sitting around listening to a bunch of alter kockers talking about what color they wanted to paint the farkakte speed bumps” was apparently not up her alley. And now, Buzz is taking Shelly on an Alaskan cruise, where they serve shrimp “the size of your ARM!” The new Shelly isn’t entirely to Ali’s taste, though. Thanks to Buzz’s KonMari-ing influence, Shelly threw away the Pfefferman kids’ remaining childhood possessions, including all of Ali’s artwork.
Upset about her mother’s complete lack of nostalgia — and by Syd’s refusal to participate in an open, un-labeled relationship — Ali begs Sarah to tag along with her to the Idyllwild Wimmin’s Festival. Sarah, still thrashing around for meaning in her life, finally relents. She’ll go. As they practice setting up a tent in the family house, Maura comes in to show them the childhood photos she’s had retouched to present herself as a young girl. (Note the nice echo between Ali’s lost artwork and Maura’s treasured photos.)
And so, the three Pfeffermans set off for the festival, belting Indigo Girls in the car. “Oscillate” is a transitional episode, and you can feel the series gathering up its pieces for the season’s final push. The growing strain of the 1933 flashbacks, the mess that’s surely to come at the festival, Josh’s collapse — it’s all building to a slow and inevitable crash.