This article contains spoilers for the series finale of Transparent.
In the “Musicale Finale” episode of Transparent, Shelly Pfefferman (Judith Light) tears off her bra and wishes her children had never been born. “I’m waking up from a 40-year nightmare … If I could, I’d shove you back inside me,” she sings in the number “Your Boundary Is My Trigger.” In her head, she’s standing on a Broadway-style set with staircases and platforms and purple-pink lighting and a troupe of backup dancers in bunny slippers. In reality, she’s in a synagogue auditorium, addressing her three aghast adult kids. “You stretch out my vagina,” she belts in the grand climax. “My boundaries stretching wider / And I would clench my thighs and keep you there forever!”
The shock value of this moment doesn’t need much unpacking: Shelly is using the medium of Rodgers and Hammerstein to cheese out about her uterus, and if you want more naughty yuks along those lines, queue up Avenue Q. What’s more head-spinning about Shelly’s song is the sentiment. Between meditation sessions and takeout dinners in their comfy L.A. digs, the Pfefferman family has squabbled and reconciled and squabbled and reconciled over four seasons. It’s still a bit extreme for a matriarch to openly wish nonexistence on her offspring, on this show or anywhere else.
Then again, who would expect anything but horrifying honesty from a Pfefferman? The pathbreaking Amazon original series has been battered by scandal and missteps, and its movie-length finale ditches its onetime star and morphs from mumblecore dramedy to an entirely more bombastic genre. But Transparent’s essence remains intact: It’s about saying the unsayable and trying to be whole in the aftermath. When the well-off professor and granddad Mort came out as the trans woman Maura, she broke with a lifetime of shame and with centuries of taboo. Maura’s children felt spurred to rethink their own sexualities, genders, relationships, and worldviews. Everything solid in the show has been under review. Yet family stays family.
In real life, the show’s credibility has been under review, too. Jeffrey Tambor’s portrayal of Maura earned wild accolades as he spoke out for LGBTQ causes. Behind the scenes, though, he allegedly belittled and harassed trans colleagues, according to his former assistant Van Barnes and the actor Trace Lysette. He denied the allegations and was dropped from the show, but the way that Jill Soloway (who is gender-nonconforming) spoke of the situation made it seem as though the showrunner cared more about optics than about justice. Soloway’s 2018 memoir is arguably best known for a viral pan of it by Andrea Long Chu, who suggested that Soloway sees “trans people as creative oil to be fracked.”
Any other show faced with a scandal so existentially troubling—suspicion that its overtly political essence masked hypocrisy—might have just called it quits then. But Transparent has always been about surviving cataclysms and leaning into change. “Musicale Finale” makes a bighearted attempt along those lines, if not an entirely successful one. Songs written by Soloway’s sister Faith pleasantly sing-rather-than-show a series of final transformations for the characters. The lyrics get so hyperbolic as to seem trolling, but there’s just not much drama. Fine actors who once expressed complex emotions in charmingly messy cross talk now spend too much time shouting out slogans as if they were Elsa of Arendelle.
The ideas powering the show remain interesting, though, and one of the biggest ideas is about Judaism. Maura dies offscreen very early in the episode, and for the rest of the hour and a half, her loved ones—her ex-wife, Shelly; her kids, Ari, Sarah, and Josh (Gaby Hoffmann, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass); and her friend Davina (Alexandra Billings)—move through their faith’s mourning rituals. Each stage is complicated, however, by this family’s unconventional demands. Maura, it turns out, asked to be cremated, violating Jewish customs. Ari, once named Ali, wants to perform the funeral service and dreams of becoming a rabbi, but will need a pan-gender bart mitzvah first. As the Pfeffermans sit shiva, they encounter exes who, at various points in the series, suffered from the main characters’ selfishness.
“Run from your father’s house” goes a lyrical refrain that weaves through the episode like some fine, soft ribbon. It’s a reference to Genesis 12, in which God promised Abram blessings and “a great nation” if he left behind all that he knew. Ari at one point invokes the passage to get at the idea that change is intrinsic to tradition, a notion that is potent enough to explain—excuse, even—every transgression within the world of Transparent, past and present. Maura seems to have betrayed her own family members from beyond the grave; Shelly and her children seem, for a time, trapped in a spiral of resentment because none of them will compromise on what they want. Every individual follows their bliss, regardless of every rule, obligation, and expectation. But the enlightened tribe survives. In Transparent’s hopeful view, a thousand-year-old institution that often fosters repression can actually enable liberation.
It is in the spirit of such reformist optimism that the show’s creators have attempted this wacky finale. The closing song sees Soloway’s addiction to portmanteau—see: the title Transparent—reach crisis levels with the song “Joyocaust,” a brassy and upsettingly catchy call to replace the memory of historical tragedy with a pastel-costumed party. Sample lyric: “Take the concentration out of the camps / concentrate it on some song and dance.” Another sample lyric, bellowed into the camera: “Hell, yes, we crossed the line.” Are you scandalized? That is, Transparent says, just fine. From the shards of norms that the show leaves behind, may a greater nation be built.