“This isn’t about correct, Joshua. This is about grieving, mourning.”
The two embrace. Josh starts bawling.
* * *
It’s a brutal season, one that I binged quickly in large part because I wanted to see just how far Jill Solloway and her team would go. Again and again, the audience was made to root for a relationship to bloom, only to be crushed when it self-destructed. And again and again, there were indications that the Pfeffermans justified their flakiness righteously, under the idea that one’s own fulfillment is the highest aim in life—rather than, say, honoring commitments or helping others. The show is not quite Seinfeld in wanting its characters to be understood as caricatures of unlikability. But I often felt less sympathy toward them than toward the people they hurt. Was Transparent, all along, meant to subvert “if it feels good, do it”?
It’s certainly more nuanced than that. The season’s threaded through with flashbacks to 1933 Germany, where the Pfeffermans immigrated from. We meet Maura’s grandmother, who wants to bring her family to America out of fears about the political climate in Germany. Her trans daughter, having found a queer community in Berlin where she feels accepted, refuses to leave. The other daughter, Maura’s mom, goes with her to America, where they find out that their would-be patriarch has started a new life with a new woman. They strike out on their own.
In the present, Ali goes down the rabbit hole of Jewish history, and talks about the idea that trauma is passed down through generations. There’s also a subplot in which Maura has her childhood photos retouched to show what she would look like if she’d been raised as a girl and not a boy. “Just imagine if you could have been her, your whole life,” Sarah says, flipping though the album. There are also clear indications that the three Pfefferman kids weren’t parented very attentively. These are all reminders that the Pfeffermans’ issues are specific, acute, not very generalizable—inflicted both by social oppression and personal betrayals of the kind they now commit on others.
The end of the season doesn’t quite deliver redemption for anyone, but it does suggest that some falling-outs or failures that seemed apocalyptic in the moment really weren’t. Each of the characters gets a small moment of hope, a new beginning, in the season finale, and there are great scenes showing the resilience of family bonds. Sarah mentions that she might start getting into religion, which is a callback to some haunting sequences earlier in the season where the Pfeffermans’ impetuousness was contrasted with devout Jews, Christians, and mystics who swear fealty to something bigger and more eternal.
I like what Jamieson Cox wrote at The Verge about the selfishness of the show’s various characters as being presented not to be judged, but rather as a fact of life that must be embraced for many people:
It’s depicting transition as such a fundamental, bone-shaking act of self-determination that there’s no use pretending or compromising in its wake. It explains Maura’s lingering haughtiness and the way she treats Shelly; it explains Davina’s reaction when Maura tries to butt into her life and question her decisions. And it explains the behavior of all the other Pfeffermans, too: They follow Maura’s lead.
This seems right. But sometimes, the consequences of the Pfeffermans following Maura’s lead seem so grievous as to be unforgivable. Transparent, thus far, is not interested in offering comforting dogma about a utopian, fluid future; it does not say everything will be okay once people start following their own truths. It has succeeded in forcing viewers to think about what a new world might really look like, and whether it would be better than the one left behind.