Writer’s note: While it seems inevitable that Ali Pfefferman (Gaby Hoffmann) will soon begin identifying as nonbinary (as creator Jill Soloway does), in this interview Hoffmann uses she/her pronouns to refer to Ali, which this review does as well. Should the character Ali begin using any other pronouns, this writer will of course respect them.
The new season of Transparent premiered on Friday, September 22, during what’s called the Days of Awe – the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur on the Jewish calendar. On Rosh Hashanah, the tradition is to bake a round challah, symbolizing the way the Jewish calendar operates – every year, Jews return to the same holidays to experience them firsthand (for example, the Passover tradition is for Jews to speak of the story of Exodus as though it had happened to them). Similarly and likely deliberately, this season of Transparent, like the last couple, allows the Pfefferman family to revisit familiar patterns through new eyes.
Though the whole family spends most of the season in Israel and Palestine, it’s primarily Ali who digs deep into the experience. They’ve always been somewhat rudderless, moving from impulse to impulse, and the beginning of this season finds them trying to escape the fallout of another ill-advised experimental relationship. Like seasons past, Ali finds someone new here (in this case, an activist named Lyfe played by Folake Olowofoyeku) who creates space for Ali to explore their relationship to the gender binary and teaches Ali about Israeli oppression.
Ali, and by extension the Pfefferman family, have never been Transparent’s Trojan horse, opening up space for stories to be told outside of their affluent white bubble (not to mention the privilege of being American Jews touring Israel). Instead, they’re more like a tour group, taking audiences to visit different types of people, but mostly still see them through the Pfeffermans’ eyes. Season 3 opened with Maura trying to chase down a young trans woman of color and getting lost in the Slauson Swap Meet. The closest Ali comes this season to seeing Israel’s violence is waiting outside a checkpoint. While the season does a truly admirable job exploring the complexities of colonial apartheid – better than any individual character does – the audience is still on the tour with the family.
The family’s trip to Israel is itself instigated by Maura being invited to speak about Ethel Rosenberg and the intersection of red-baiting, anti-Semitism, and misogyny. It’s no coincidence that Maura comes to Israel to discuss the history of gender and Judaism. Israel holds a major revelation for Maura’s backstory that has the characters again revisiting the story of Gittel, Maura’s ancestor who was killed in the Holocaust (played by Hari Nef in season 2 flashbacks). Through Gittel, Transparent was able to explore one of its most recurrent themes: destroyed queer histories. In Gittel’s case, much of the research done by Magnus Hirschfeld into sexual orientation and gender identity was destroyed by the Nazis. Now, Maura learns at last, her own personal familial history was nearly destroyed through her father’s absence and her mother’s silence.
Maura’s flashbacks take on a new energy, both through her new understanding of her own past and through a casting choice. In the third season, young adult Maura was played by cis male actor Jimmy Ambrose. This is of a kind with Transparent’s original issue casting Jeffrey Tambor to play a trans woman. He’s won multiple Emmys for the role, and this year was one of three cis men nominated for Emmys for playing women (along with B.D. Wong and Louie Anderson). It’s a hurtful and damaging portrayal that gives voice to the fallacy that trans women are cis men in disguise. In season 4’s flashbacks, young adult Maura is played alternatingly and occasionally simultaneously by Ambrose and by trans actor Zoe Van Brunt. Similarly, series regular Davina (the always terrific Alexandra Billings) is played in flashbacks this season by Jaime Navarro when she identified as male, and by Billings herself in flashbacks where Davina is in drag.
Through a Davina flashback episode, the series opens up another world of destroyed queer history – that of communities with HIV and AIDS in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Her flashback takes the audience to the Queen Mary, where Trace Lysette returns to the show, playing an entirely different character than in past seasons. Flashbacks are often populated by regular cast members – Bradley Whitford, Michaela Watkins, Gaby Hoffmann, and others have pulled double-duty in these. As it’s said, when Jews remember the past, they should remember it as though they lived it.
As in previous seasons, things don’t get neatly resolved on an episode-by-episode basis or season-by-season. Perhaps more than any other streaming service, Amazon series embrace the marathon model, so individual episodes rarely have complete arcs. In the case of Transparent, this contributes to the disorienting way characters travel through history, memory, and fantasy. The show is following these characters in 2017, but also in 1966, and in 1958, and in 1933, and in 1981. In this season, Maura uncovers a few secrets from the past that shake up her identity in the present. On Transparent, history is not something static in the past – it’s something constantly sending messages to the present, rocking characters’ worlds as they revisit milestones that once felt familiar.
For both Shelly and Joshy, this also means revisiting their respective histories of childhood sexual assault (between this and One Mississippi, it feels a bit like Amazon is attempting to balance out the scales against their repeated hiring of a child molester). In Josh’s case, he’s haunted by his family refusing to see a problem while he was being abused. For Shelly, the problem is that nobody will ask her what happened to her, and she can only express herself through over-the-top performances that turn from goofy to poignant through Judith Light’s great skill. In season 3, this manifested through Shelly’s one-woman show, To Shell and Back. In this season, Shelly begins channeling a caricature of a young Italian man, Mario. But as we learn more about her childhood traumas, we can see more clarity in why Shelly performs to feel empowered. That she and Josh – who live together now – find one another so irritating is one of the tragedies of the show’s transparencies. This family knows each other so well, but they mostly refuse to engage past superficial choices to tolerate each other’s idiosyncrasies or not. As they bus through Israel, including spending time at a settlement, it’s only Ali who engages with the politics that surround them. The rest of the family mostly bickers in public places about food and transportation.
Despite the Tour Group Model of exploring Israel (and of storytelling in general), the season includes some exciting angles on Israel rarely shown on American television. Checkpoints, BDS, communal living, and military pinkwashing all get attention alongside the cast spending time at the Dead Sea. A trip to the Western Wall is marred by its discriminatory gender divide, which seems only to trouble Ali. Seeing women poke their heads over the barrier to watch men celebrate, Ali puts on a yarmulke and sneaks over to the men’s side. Though she isn’t there to pray (as many women fighting back are), she is transgressing: Is she crossing over a gender divide because it’s unfair that women are second-class citizens, or because the binary is increasingly too small for her, or both, or something else?
With each season of Transparent, we return to the Pfeffermans and watch them make almost exactly the same mistakes as they have in previous seasons (Sarah’s storyline this season is primarily about another ill-advised sexual relationship that has her questioning what she wants in bed). They attempt to grapple with the past, both by traveling to sites of past trauma, or by entertaining visits from old ghosts. What keeps it from feeling too repetitive is the same thing that makes holidays feel different every year – even if the characters haven’t grown enough, you have. And there’s always an opportunity to learn something new from an old story.
Harry Waksberg is a writer and lazeabout based in Riverside, CA. He is the creator and writer of the web series Doing Good.