Throughout this third season, the Pfeffermans have hung their hopes on opportunities that will pull them out of their bodies and their lives. It’s not hard to see why. Particularly for Maura (and Shelly), the flashbacks in “If I Were a Bell” grounded their desires to break free from real, never-addressed traumas. The season’s penultimate episode collapses nearly all of those avenues for escape, forcing everyone to deal with themselves — unless they find some new avenue for avoidance.
The first and most tragic is Maura’s meeting with the doctor, where she learns that her heart isn’t healthy enough to undergo cosmetic or reconstructive surgery. It’s a message people in her life have been trying to suggest for a while — little though Maura wanted to hear it, Bryna’s surgery horror stories and Vicky’s refusal to get reconstructive surgery were real concerns, not jealous claims for attention or self-centered diversions of the narrative.
Together, the episode’s writing and Jeffrey Tambor’s performance make a nuanced, careful, complicated portrayal of Maura. Vicky was not wrong. It is always about her, even when it shouldn’t be. Maura’s all-consuming preoccupation with her transition is understandable, but it has blinded her to almost everyone else. In some ways, she is as self-focused as any teenager whose world begins and ends with themselves — their bodies, their lives, their shifting identities. As Davina tells her, she is a “baby trans.” She’s picking up her life at the moment Haim shut it down in her early adolescence, resuming the playful, confused, half-terrified, half-courageous self-discovery she couldn’t have in her actual teenage years.
Of course, it’s endlessly tragic that these are not Maura’s teenage years. She has a family she loves beyond words, but who have only ever known her as someone else. She’s led a whole life as someone else, for better and for worse. Being Mort for decades has done immense damage, but it’s also steeped her in the distinct privilege of being a white man. And now that she’s finally trying to pick up where her childhood development left off, she can’t just discard everything that’s happened. She’d love get this surgery and push herself that much farther from her life as Mort, but she can’t. Your name, your gender, your identity, your relationships — technically, even for Maura, all of these can be discarded and she can start over. But age is inescapable.
It would be unfair to say that Josh’s own escape attempt is entirely devoid of the tragedy that marks Maura’s story in this episode. He lost Rita; he has no idea how to feel about that. He’s been trying to cope with losing Raquel and Colton; obviously that’s not going well either. But it’s hard to feel as badly for him. He’s threatening to buy a house in Kansas and … what, exactly? Take up the ministry? Go to church every week and devote his life to becoming Colton’s Cool Dad? Organize the local open mic night, and keep his fridge stocked with domestic beer?
Ali, who’s been eerily wife-like to Josh for a while now, immediately realizes what’s going on and hops on a plane to rescue him from declaring Jesus as his “personal pan pizza.” She’s trying to escape her relationship with Leslie, of course. And to Transparent’s credit, that impulse has its own complications. Ali has a real problem with maintaining emotional intimacy outside her family, and Leslie is right to point that out. But Leslie is also awful. Her scoffing shutdown is terrible, and so is her insistence that constantly pointing out Ali’s flaws is just the best way to love her. “Just sit in the discomfort” yourself if it’s such a loving gesture, Leslie.
(Quick aside: Ali’s idea for a graduate thesis that follows a kind of “wheel-like” structure and adheres to Jewish numerological symbolism while also sweeping every form of marginalized group together into a giant, messianic fever dream is a very bad idea. Aside from the fact that you’ll never, ever actually figure out how to write it, the only way you’re getting that thesis proposal approved is if you somehow stumble into inter-departmental politics and enough people sign off on it just to spite some other academic faction.)
When Ali shows up in Kansas, the writing is already on the wall for Josh’s imagined new life as an Overland Park Protestant. It’s heartbreaking that Colton has to be the person to disillusion Josh about his new life/escape pod, and it’s to Josh’s credit that he holds it together long enough that Colton can’t see his grief. But one way or another, it needed to be shut down. Josh and Ali end up driving back to Los Angeles, silent and morose.
I suppose I should also mention Sarah, who’s trying to escape by pretending to have a sexless non-marriage with Len, while getting serviced by Pony and throwing herself into “spirituality.” Well, Pony moved to Denver to work in a candle store, Sarah. You’re going to have to figure out something else.
For quite a while now, Shelly’s attempt to get away from her marriage and her former life as solo Pfefferman matriarch has been pretty successful. She’s had Buzzy, a real-life Jewish Santa Claus, whose ability to invigorate her life, as well as her orgasms, has been a welcome portal to a new place. In the season’s third episode she was wearing leathers and riding on a motorcycle — my God. Alas, Jewish Santa Claus was not paying for all those presents himself, and Shelly’s grown increasingly concerned about his spending.
Finally, she confronts him. And boy, it would be easy to find Shelly endlessly laughable in this moment. It’s partly Judith Light’s fault for being so funny; she plays Shelly with such magnificent self-delusion and feeling. The performance could so easily tip over into caricature, but Light keeps it persistently grounded, in spite of also being hyperbolic and overdramatic and wry. We saw a different side of Shelly during her too-brief flashback in episode eight, and now, as she listens to Buzzy’s sob story about his first wife, we see the other Shelly who has always been there. We know she’s happy with Buzzy. We know she would love nothing more than to let him stay in her life. She even says as much, telling him that she wouldn’t have cared if he were broke.
But she doesn’t let his story sit for even a moment. Everyone else in the family has watched their parachutes come crashing down, but you’ve got to love Shelly, who pulls the ripcord herself. “You didn’t have a wife,” she flatly concludes, before telling Buzzy to GTFO. After all this time, it’s amazing that Transparent has transformed Shelly into a downright courageous character. “Off the Grid” affirms her strength even as it constantly ridicules her.
The last shot of the episode is a return to a frustrated Maura, who decides to go out dancing. She hooks up with an older man named Donald, and at the end, we watch her in the club bathroom, with Donald kneeling between her legs. Knowing Maura, and knowing Transparent, it’s hard to know how to read this scene. In one sense, it’s another form of escape, a new way for Maura to avoid her feelings about herself. But it’s also easy to see this as something altogether more hopeful — she’s doing exactly what Davina suggested she do near the beginning of the season. She’s enjoying her body as it is, and openly accepting pleasure. I hope it is what she wants.
There’s one more member of the extended Pfefferman clan in this episode. While everyone else tries to cope as their hopes collapse around them, “Off the Grid” begins with a brief, standalone cold open: Rabbi Raquel submerges herself in a mikvah, a ritual cleansing meant to recenter her in her faith. After the undisciplined spirituality of Sarah’s Hineni, Raquel is returning to traditionalism and her roots. It is her own form of escape, I suppose. But this escapism looks a lot like a homecoming.