It’s hard to come away from an episode like “To Sardines and Back” and not feel a bit of a letdown, especially as we reenter the more familiar Pfefferman happenings. Although “Just the Facts” has some interesting pieces that swoop toward a tragic ending, the story is woven together with other moments we don’t really need. Zackie’s Squatty Potty, I’m looking at you.
As it often is on Transparent, the problem is that even necessary, important character-building work takes glee in its ability to unnerve. Josh bringing Ali a cup of juice when she’s lying in bed immediately post-coitus comes to mind. Sarah’s really frightening interaction with the woman whom she pays for S&M experiences is another, as is her decision to track down Len’s girlfriend, Una the 22-year-old spin instructor.
In the best Transparent scenes, these moments are brief, often imagistic, and not necessarily coherent. They communicate enough to justify their presence, even if they’re not fully formed narrative conceits. Ali and Leslie’s conversations are like that — they exhibit the show’s love of sexual frankness and intense, slightly misplaced intimacy. When Leslie tries to explore Ali’s propensity to disassociate during sex, the scene stands alone as a memorable and useful dissection of both characters: Ali admits that she has deep feelings for Leslie, but when Leslie tries to interrogate how those feelings might translate to actual openness, in bed and elsewhere, Ali completely shuts down. It works because it’s part of a bigger story Transparent tells about Ali’s easily wandering brain, and it reminds us that she won’t actually share herself in relationships. Instead, she props up a new avatar.
I suppose the same could be said for Sarah taking Una’s spin class, then questioning her about what, precisely, she finds appealing in Len. Sarah’s always been frustratingly incapable of picking a side. She divorced Len but never fully separated from him; she came to the brink of marrying Tammy, blew it up, and then tried to ask for forgiveness. But where Ali, Maura, and even Josh’s scenes often involve dialogue with someone who’s actually interrogating and engaging them, Sarah tends to meander through the world and only ever encounter herself.
I keep waiting for her to be shaken by something. For her to scream, “I should fucking cut off your fucking head,” until her sex partner uses a safe word, and for that to really open her eyes. For her to realize, Oh yeah, if I’m sending my kid to school with relaxing music and a Squatty Potty, maybe that falls on me more than his teacher. Instead, she skitters on to another project, one that sounds like it’s meant to combine her communal experience at Idyllwild, her brief love affair with Tammy’s design aesthetic, and her new interest in pursuing Judaism. Is there anything more Sarah Pfefferman than pointing to an asbestos-filled gymnasium and declaring it to be her space, only for Rabbi Raquel to point out that she meant for Sarah to explore a space inside herself? But no matter — Hineni, the temple without walls, it will undoubtedly be. I’m sure there’ll be a “torah box” and everything.
It’s not that these scenes don’t fit in the story Transparent tells about Sarah Pfefferman’s identity, or that the moment when Josh walks into Ali’s bedroom and they greet each other like lovers isn’t absolutely a part of their trajectory this season. It’s just that sometimes you get beautiful, opaque, sad, funny moments — the flashbacks, Ali’s hallucination, Josh’s scene with Rita — and even when they resist easy interpretation, they speak for themselves. Sometimes, though, you get Sarah Pfefferman threatening to beat her S&M partner to a pulp, and it does not feel complete without any further examination. We’re left hanging, and not in a good way.
Meanwhile, Maura continues to pursue the big decision she made during her birthday party. When she consults a surgeon about what her facial reconstruction might look like, she’s extremely taken with the altered image he shows her — aghast at what the surgery might do, even. By the time she gets to the Facts of Life: Live! show with Vicky, Davina, and Sal, the doctor’s printout is rumpled from being handled so much. The episode slips in a pointed jab about how frustrating and patronizing it is for a 70-year-old woman to have to ask a psychologist permission for gender confirmation surgery, but the real tension still lies with Vicky.
While several performers put on a live drag version of Facts of Life (A+, would attend), Vicky leans over and asks Maura about the surgeries. Sal offers his suggestion: In order to get a psychologist to agree, Maura would need to give a standard spiel about how she hated her penis, how she always felt wrong in her body. Vicky’s question to Maura is — does she hate her penis? Maura says no, and when she then asks Vicky if it “would be okay,” all kinds of previously unseen currents begin to surface.
Despite her thrilled, headlong rush into transition and feminization, Maura has not put much thought into what it would mean to actually change her sex organs. She certainly hasn’t considered what that process would be like while she’s also in a committed relationship with someone. Maura is so overwhelmed and freed by the knowledge that she can live as a woman that she’s struggling to connect what’s happening in her mind with what she wants for her body.
In a way, that struggle calls to mind the Pfefferman daughters. I do not mean to suggest that Maura’s identity as a trans woman is analogous to Ali’s many varied relationships, or to Sarah putting on massive boots and trying out being a top. But all three woman battle with a gap between how they see themselves and what their bodies feel. And they often resist efforts to bridge that gap.
The final story line in “Just the Facts” is the shortest, though it may be the one to finally jostle Josh out of his depression — if it doesn’t sink him more deeply into it first. After an offhanded reminder of Josh and Rita’s backstory in episode three — thanks, Nacho the turtle! — Josh goes to visit Rita so that he can help her download a video of Colton preaching a sermon. Rita’s moved by the experience, and she also gives Josh a tape of a song he wrote for her as a teenager. (The Josh-as-songwriter drums are beating; we can all hear them.)
The scene throws up some alarming flags about Rita’s current state: She tells Josh she’s on a new medication, and her apartment is uncharacteristically clean. It is still a surprise, though, when the final shot of the episode follows Rita robotically making her way up to the top of a mall escalator, then calmly pitching herself over the railing.
I am honestly not sure if it’s better or worse that Josh forgave Rita before the end. In a tragic circumstance like this, is there any actual “good” to be had? I don’t think so.