I’ve had mixed feelings about one of Transparent’s narrative devices this season. More than once, ideas and memories and traumas that we’ve known about for quite a while have suddenly surfaced in the current Pfefferman stories. Josh’s childhood abuse now literally follows him around in the shape of Ghostly Rita, laying next to him in bed and mocking his masturbation habits. Maura is completely blown away by the knowledge that her mother’s sibling was also a trans woman. We’ve known about that character for a while, but it’s not just dreamy flashbacks anymore. Now, it’s all getting said out in the open.
By the time we get to episode eight, Transparent’s new “say it out in the open” tendency becomes a full-fledged pattern. When Josh nearly shoots Shelly in the desert, she falls apart, wrenched into openness about her anorexia and the teacher who molested her as a girl. It all comes spilling out, intercut with flashbacks we’ve seen of Shelly as a young woman, sitting silent and very still. Everyone is horrified; Josh didn’t pull the trigger, but everyone nevertheless looks like they’ve been shot. Judith Light plays Shelly’s pain like it’s ragged and fresh, and Josh goes spinning off into the desert in despair. Once again, old traumas and buried pain come out into the open.
My concern about this structure is that it takes the show’s delicious, dreamy, otherworldly obliqueness and makes it much less abstract. In the past, tenuous connections and unspoken parallels sat quietly next to one another, floating around in the same space, waiting for you to notice them. Transparent is unafraid of implicit, circuitous storytelling, but in season four, everything is much more unambiguous. Davina’s flashbacks might once have just lived by themselves, happily set off into their own little unapologetic digression, but instead they got the full voice-over treatment. Transparent has taken to saying the quiet thing out loud.
In the season’s earlier episodes, the pattern wasn’t clear yet. It just felt like a somewhat jarring shift toward obviousness, in a way that seemed underwhelming. But the more this keeps happening, the less it feels like Transparent circling back to old stories for the heck of it, and more like the show’s structure is itself a form of therapeutic uncovering. We get hints and whiffs of unhappiness; we get little burbles of unease; we learn about things in the past and the role trauma has in the present. We keep returning to it and circling around it, and after seeing it again and again out of the corners of our narrative eye, suddenly it bursts out into the open.
All the anger, miscommunication, aggressive boundary transgressions between Josh and Shelly back in Los Angeles — not to mention all of Josh’s pain and Shelly’s constant smothering closeness — get funneled into Josh literally pointing a gun at his mother in the middle of the Israeli desert. It’s an act not just of Josh’s frustration with Shelly’s overbearing closeness, it’s also wrapped up in Josh’s fascination with masculinity as performed by Moshe’s incredibly macho security man. We’ve seen a few “there’s only women in your family!” digs for several episodes now, and Josh’s sense of his own masculinity is feeling more and more threatened and unstable.
Shelly’s sudden revelation is a similar result of long-simmering resentment. She told them she had a secret in her live show at the end of the last season. She literally stood up in front of a crowd and performed her need to talk about her life, to become explicit about the things in her past. But no one asked her, so here she is, staring down the barrel of a gun in the desert.
Meanwhile, Ali’s just trying to get out of Palestine and back into Israel. There are stark borders all over the map: All of this land that’s neither one thing nor another, except for the fact that people put giant demarcating lines everywhere Ali looks. It’s her own growing unease with identifying herself as a woman, playing out in the shape of an ancient religious geopolitical conflict. The world keeps insisting that the land must belong to just one side, and Ali is deeply uncomfortable with the idea of picking a side. Firm lines make it easier to put people on a different side than your own, and Ali is overwhelmed by all of it. She’s pressed into a crowd at the border crossing in a way that’s patently dehumanizing, and she watches Hussen get pulled out of the security crossing as they travel back into Israel. The drama of border crossings — the act of drawing lines and creating binaries — has real, personal stakes.
Meanwhile, Sarah and Len’s relationship with Lila is predictably undermined by Sarah’s insecurity, as she dreams about young, nubile Lila/Hagar having dozens of babies with Len while they send Sarah off into old age with the gift of a bottle of Ensure.
Several episodes back, Doctor Steve was the one trying to drop relationship truth bombs into the Pfefferman family, attempting to explain personal boundaries to Shelly and Josh. This time, the role falls to Len, who tries to get to the bottom of Sarah’s deep inability to feel settled. “Love is not being high all the time,” he tells her. “Sometimes I just want to hang out and watch TV and love our kids.” Sarah, who Len accurately burns as “the most unsatisfied person I know,” has little to say in her defense. “I like TV,” she tells him.
Before any of this happens — before Josh shoots at Shelly and Ali tries to get back into Israel — the rest of the Pfeffermans are in their “authentic” Bedouin tent in the desert, eating snacks and participating in the favorite Pfefferman pastime: trying to understand their relationships with one another. Maura sits with Moshe, attempting some kind of delicate intimacy during the one moment they’ll likely ever have with one another. When she initially explained to Moshe that she used to be Mort and was now Maura, Moshe’s response was remarkably placid. Now, though, the reality of his outlook becomes clear, and he apologizes to Maura for abandoning her. Maybe if she’d had a real father figure, he tells her, she wouldn’t be this way. She would’ve learned how to be a man.
Maura could’ve been horrified by Moshe’s words, but instead she’s resigned and sad. Shelly tries to comfort her, insisting that Moshe is “a schmuck,” but this gets buried in Maura’s revelation to Shelly. She thinks she might be a heterosexual woman, and she tells Shelly she’s been dating a man. Shelly shakes her head, surprised and unsure how to respond. “If only you’d known then what you know now,” she tells Maura. Later, as Maura walks out into the desert and her past self chides her mistakes, Shelly’s seemingly off-handed line comes back. Young Maura tells Older Maura, “You know, you abandoned me,” and Maura has no choice but to agree. She felt like she had to choose.
But when the Mauras say to one another, “I’m here,” and “We’re here,” those words echo in more than one direction. For Young Maura, “I’m here” is what it’s always been. It is an assertion that she does exist, and that she cannot just be denied. For Older Maura, “I’m here” is both a victory rally (I’m finally here, I made it, I transitioned, I am me), and a simple statement of fact. If she’d known then what she knows now, would she be the Maura we see today? Would she be herself, the Maura we see now? Or would she be some other, happier, less traumatized, less self-doubting Maura?
“I’m here,” she says. And the “I” is not Young Maura, the person who could’ve existed if Maura had never been forced to be Mort. The person who’s here is Older Maura, the one who lived through it all, the one who’s hearing all the things that went unsaid for so long.