Photo: Jennifer Clasen/Amazon Video
This is a TV episode about a Jewish trans woman and her daughter traveling to Israel for a Judaism and gender conference, scored to music from the Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. Ali and Maura eat some pot gummies, and then Ali ascends an airport escalator, her arms thrown wide, bathed in a golden light as Orthodox Jews look upon her with wonder. Maura gets caught up in an uncomfortable airport security snarl, and the music playing over the scene is Jesus Christ wailing that his temple should be a house of prayer.
In other words, never say Transparent doesn’t have a wry sense of humor.
After the delights of the first episode, which featured the Pfefferman family meal and a BuzzFeed sex-addict quiz, “Groin Anamoly” fractures into individual character threads. This is par for the course with Transparent, since the Pfeffermans on their own often spur moments of beauty and surprise. Maura walking into Donald’s worn apartment building and steeling herself for the journey up the stairs is a great one. Then there’s Shelly, eating buffet food and then wandering into an Upright Citizens Brigade performance. The little moment with Sal giving Davina a massage and Davina mentioning how hard hormone replacement therapy has been on her kidneys is yet another.
But we also get the beginnings of a Sarah story and a Josh story, and neither feels like as much of a step forward as I’d love to see for either character. It’s early in the season, but they both feel trapped in the same circles we’ve seen them explore in the past. It’d be nice for a hint of something new.
To no one’s surprise at all, Sarah Pfefferman has come away from her sex-addict meeting with a yen for someone she met. A former teacher from her kids’ school, Lila (played by the always excellent Alia Shawkat) seems to mostly humor Sarah, who giggles and flirts nervously around Lila’s apartment. Sarah swings on the swing, she babbles about her family, she tells Lila she’s not sure she knows how to love someone. Lila is not unsympathetic, though, offering to give Sarah some tools along with a bit of wisdom about lying: “It’s the perfect stand-in for boundaries,” and it “gives you a permission structure to decide who you want to be that day.”
Sarah is completely taken with her, going so far as to enact a Lila-endorsed secret inside her new relationship with Len. In the first episode, she claimed to enjoy the comfort of her “standing order,” but after a particularly explicit fantasy about sex with Lila, she tells Len she’d been thinking about him. It’s not that I want Sarah Pfefferman to suddenly do a 180-degree turn and become the perfect housewife she once pretended to be while in her marriage to Len. Far from it. But she’s gone from her almost-marriage to Tammy to exploration of S&M relationships to a flirtation with spirituality, and now we’re back into relationships that look more like defensive playacting than they do real emotional bonds. There’s nothing wrong with performativity, but at this point, the novel thing for Sarah would be to just admit she loves performing.
Josh came away with a different lesson from the sex-addiction meeting. The line about bodily response and consent clearly made an impression on him, and he returns to the meeting — except this time, he’s greeted by a vision of Rita, wearing a formal pink pantsuit and holding a massive leaf-blower. (Quite literally blowing him, as it were.) She taunts him about deciding that he was a victim, and tells him she wants to make sure he isn’t changing the story of what happened between them. While other attendees share their thoughts, Ghost Rita bangs on a piano behind him.
I feel for Josh. I understand the series wants to address what was clearly a trauma for him, which he’s taken a long, long time to accept as something other than a formative consensual relationship. But I’ve already seen The Leftovers, you know? Rita will never hold a candle to Patti Levin.
The more successful story in this episode is Ali and Maura and the start of their trip to Israel. Like her siblings, Ali is clearly dealing with some blindness about her sex life and the power dynamics at play in her relationship with Leslie. Unlike her siblings, Ali then has the opportunity to read a poem Leslie wrote about Ali’s sex organs, published in The New Yorker. Although I’m sure I could find Ali’s continuing immaturity as exasperating as I do Sarah and Josh’s, the experience is leavened by Leslie’s poem, which is brutal and petty and hilarious. “You are a child without a booster chair,” Leslie writes. “I didn’t know you had the intellect of a commoner.” And then, the gloriously bizarre: “Your pussy ate the salad fork, then the dessert fork, then the fork fork.” As Maura so succinctly sums it up in a later scene, “What’s with the forks?”
There’s another difference between Ali’s story and the narratives we get for Josh and Sarah: Ali has always been the chosen one. She’s the child who feels the spiritual connection to the Pfefferman ancestors. Unlike her siblings, Ali has always been more tuned in to the idea of her self as a performance. Even when she’s making mistakes, even when she’s behaving selfishly, even when she’s aimless and anchorless, Ali has always been the sibling whose perspective gets the most interesting, experimental attention.
In “Groin Anomaly,” we see her cosmic kaleidoscopic vision inside the womb, kicking her tiny fetus feet while Shelly calls for sauerkraut and Maura sways dreamily to “Everything’s Alright.” We see Maura looking on in awe as her daughter rides up the escalator. Ali is the one wearing a third-eye bolo tie in an episode shaped by a woman crooning, “Close your eyes, close your eyes and relax.”
The episode closes with Maura, pulled aside by LAX security personnel for exhibiting a “groin anomaly” in the airport’s full body scanner. She is high as a kite on Ali’s pot gummies, riding a wave of Jesus Christ Superstar, and she suddenly finds herself caught between two airport security officers perplexed over whether to screen based on her gender or her genitalia. Supervisors are called. Alarms are rung. Ali films it all with her phone, surprised that no one has been trained in this. (Yes, she’s also pretty high.)
It felt novel and surprising and radical for the season’s first episode to integrate Maura’s identity into the fabric of the family, without remark or particular focus. Episode two returns to some attention on Maura’s life as a trans woman, but it also feels like a shift away from the kinds of stories Transparent told in its earlier seasons. The security people are flustered and the camera spins around wildly, moving swiftly from Maura to Ali, cutting into a frame from the perspective of Ali’s phone and then back around to the tense security personnel. The music is anxious. But Maura isn’t hesitant or ashamed or embarrassed. She’ll be whatever she wants to be, she tells them. She’ll be a fucking chicken. The whole thing is absurd and infuriating, but Maura’s face is mostly amused.
To be fair, she is really high. Still, this looks like a different Maura than the one we saw stumbling and disoriented in the season-three premiere. A Maura who is no doubt furious, but unfazed. She’s come a long way.