Transparent’s Third Season Is a Powerful Plea for Compassion

The Pfefferman family has exactly the wrong idea about spirituality.

Jennifer Clasen / Amazon Prime Video

Have you heard of the Tzadikim Nistarim? It’s the Talmudic term for the “36 people whose righteousness sustains the world,” an “insurance policy” against the apocalypse, as Transparent’s Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn) explains during a worship ceremony midway through the show’s third season.

“Who are these 36?” Raquel asks as congregants link arms in candlelight. “We don’t know. Even the 36 don’t know. So what is the lesson? The lesson is to treat each other as if we might be one. Or who knows, we might be standing next to one right now.”

It’s a tale out of Judaism, but the underlying message is familiar across belief systems. Christianity’s Golden Rule gets at the same idea. So does Transparent’s poignant and clever third season, which fixates on the notion of reserving compassion and dignity for all, whether when dealing with estranged relatives or dominatrixes. The tension of the ever-more-compelling Amazon dramedy lies in the fact that its central family, the Pfeffermans, seem unable to muster anything like true kindness for anyone. They wrongly believe happiness must be extracted from others rather than arise from generosity.

The first season humanized a well-off and deeply flawed Los Angeles family reacting to its longtime patriarch identifying as a transgender woman named Maura. The second season portrayed the Pfeffermans blowing up their lives and using the trappings of social progress as a pretext for selfishness. The third season is gentler yet somehow more piercing: These characters have amassed some wisdom but are still missing the most important lessons. Early on, Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) marvels that she has everything she once hoped for but still burns with the question,“Why am I so unhappy?” Transparent goes on to answer this, amply.

The excellent and tragicomic first episode establishes the season’s central struggle while showing a deepened interest in economic disparities and race. Maura is working at a help line for LGBT youths and fields a call from a young trans woman in a poorer part of L.A. They establish a connection but the woman hangs up, sending Maura to break protocol and seek out the caller in real life. By the farcical end of her journey, Maura has collapsed due to stress and is pleading to be taken to the Jewish hospital rather than the overcrowded county one. It’s clear that her supposed humanitarian mission has only been a burden on others, and it’s clear that she undertook it more for her own sake than anyone else’s.

It’s a pattern that recurs through the season, as attempts at connection backfire for reasons of selfishness. “I’m not your fucking adventure!” screams Shea, a trans sex worker played with serene confidence by Trace Lysette, to Josh Pfefferman (Jay Duplass) after his offer of friendship has taken on a tinge of voyeurism and disgust. At another point, Sarah Pfefferman (Amy Landecker) realizes that she has never performed a true charitable act in her life according to the Jewish doctrine that says philanthropy is invalidated by talking about it. When Ali Pfefferman (Gaby Hoffmann) goes out of her way to help Josh in a difficult time, he can’t be certain that she doesn’t have an ulterior motive. And in the masterful finale, set on a cruise ship, the long-suffering matriarch Shelly finally gets some encouragement from the one person paid to show her unconditional kindness: a butler, or as he’s referred to, “the gay who comes with the room.”

This may all sound bleak and meanspirited, an exploration of human nastiness. But the show creator Jill Soloway’s deeply empathetic filmmaking style and her writers’ penchant for fine, funny details give the series soul and prevent the characters from tipping over into full monstrousness. The performances are more precise than ever, naturalistically portraying people who are neither wholly good nor wholly bad. Most impressive is how Soloway’s team keeps finding fresh angles on the same characters navigating the same big existential questions, whether through novel settings (an abandoned waterpark, a middle-American evangelical service) or points of view (one episode opens through the eyes of a turtle, and another is entirely a flashback to Cold War-era suburbia).

The grace of the show partly lies in the fact that the Pfeffermans are not quite an every-family: As viewers come to increasingly understand, they’ve been shaped by inherited trauma and haven’t quite figured out how not to responsibly enjoy the benefits of social liberation. Always, though, there are perfectly cast secondary characters standing by to give some perspective. In one of the best scenes the show has ever provided, the normally reserved and gracious Rabbi Raquel erupts in frustration at one of the Pfeffermans who’s been talking about “spirituality.”

“Can you clarify for me really fast what spirituality is for you?” she spits. “I can tell you what it’s not. It’s not changing your mind whenever you feel like it. It’s not following your bliss. It’s not finding yourself by climbing through your belly button and out your own asshole and calling it a journey.”

The questions of what spirituality actually is goes unanswered. But the show has made the truth of the matter plain enough, and enlightenment feels like something that the Pfeffermans could access were they able to treat others as they so desperately ask to be treated themselves.