Transparent: “Wedge”/“The Wilderness”

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Transparent: “Wedge”/“The Wilderness”

Sarah and Tammy host Shabbat dinner, baruch HaShem

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Transparent

"The Wilderness"

Season 1 , Episode 6

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Transparent

"Wedge"

Season 1 , Episode 5

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“Wedge”

For the first half of the season, the Pfefferman family home has been a bit of an easy symbol for the show. Maura uses selling the house as cover for calling a meeting the first time she hesitates about coming out to her children, and her later decision to get out of the house and move into a friendlier, communal space is indicative of where she’s going now that she’s more fully embracing her transition. The house is, by its nature, representative of the family’s history. But just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it’s not useful—all of the kids want different things out of the house, and examining what they want out of it—what they want out of their pasts—is powerful.

Josh is mired in the past, trying to keep everything the way it was, preventing Tammy from “updating” the house. But he’s still in favor of selling the house and copping the profits for himself, and he gets to combine both of those attitudes in his dalliance with Kristin from Sotheby’s who claims that maintaining the past is better “from a value standpoint.” Meanwhile, Tammy wants to modernize the house, but that doesn’t come without cost, even if it’s just to Josh’s memories of his childhood. And “Wedge” closes out the first half of the season by starting to show us the cost of change; starting with the way Josh and Tammy’s feelings on the house reflect their attitudes toward Maura. Tammy, of course, has been one of the most progressive presences in the extended family since day one. But Josh finally finds out about Maura from a drunk, confused Ali, and the description in last week’s episodes of outing a trans person essentially amounting to schoolyard bullying ring painfully true as he treats the whole thing as, basically, a joke. It’s as good an argument as any for taking the past out into a trash heap and setting it on fire.

Another good argument for eliminating the Pfeffermans’ history entirely (instead of leaving it festering under the surface)—“Wedge” also gives us our first major look at Mom, and boy, is it scary. (I know her name is Shelly, but calling her Mom just seems more appropriate.) As terrifyingly embodied by Judith Light, Mom is pure acid, a congealed morass of social norms. She cares far more about her reputation at the synagogue than about whether or not her husband safely makes it back home (another lost relic of the past)—he might usually turn up after he disappears, but that’s the attitude you have about a cat, not a person, let alone the one you exchanged wedding vows with. In her initial conversation with Ali, she’s not even really clear how long Ed’s been gone. “A couple of hours.” Maybe.

But that’s all worth it for Mom’s interactions with Kathryn Hahn, Single Female Rabbi. Hahn is fantastic as Raquel Fein (more on this in episode six), but Light steals the show here. Her reading of “Look at you, a lady rabbi!” upon opening the door is easily the funniest moment of the show for me so far (someone make a Vine of it so I can die happy), and really, pretty much everything about their conversation is pure comedy, filling a Judith Light carrying a Vitamin Water-sized hole in my heart I didn’t know I had. The setup couldn’t be simpler—Mom is trying to prevent Kathyn Hahn, Single Female Rabbi (sorry, it’s just too perfect) from discovering that Ed is missing, and also maybe convince her to marry her son? Mom attacks head-on, pawning off Josh like a pack of cigarettes (in exchange, I assume, for the respectability of having her son marry a rabbi) and aggressively trying to make Raquel insecure about her singlehood. And yet even though Mom is piggybacking on the prestige of the rabbi, she’s still skeptical of religion: “Are those Jewish books?” Ed doesn’t like Judaism. He likes Dean Koontz. Throughout this assault, Hahn’s nervous enthusiasm is clear—Raquel is sensible, devoted to her job, and caring—which defines her pretty clearly against the Pfeffermans.

And the only Pfefferman standing with Raquel, at least in “Wedge,” is Ali. As the search for Ed gets pushed off, first by Mom and then by Sarah and Josh, Hoffmann increasingly plays Ali as a raw nerve, overcome with empathy. (A sort of dark manifestation of her reaction to the moon rocks in “Rollin.”) The extreme seriousness with which Ali takes Ed’s disappearance is a source of comedy (particularly in the ultra-serious golf cart meeting), but it’s also the most selfless any of the kids have been so far. Ali has expressed concern for Ed before, though she treats him as more of a pet than a person, something that comes out in both here and in the pilot. Ali sees death and sadness in everything here—beyond the lobsters at The Warehouse, she even has empathy for Mom, saddled with all three of the children before they reached her age. (Can you imagine Ali raising a child?) And that, too, has costs. She wants to find Ed, sure, but mostly, she wants out of her family (the Weisbergs do sound like nice people). “You two are sociopaths,” she tells Josh and Sarah, before getting sucked into a Bloody Mary brunch.

That brunch is a fantastic showcase for the episode’s core—the relationship between Sarah and Josh. (Note that “Wedge” opens with each of them having sex.) The easy sibling sniping from the pilot returns with a vengeance (over the same issue—the house) when Josh brings Kristin over to appraise the property, and though his obvious dislike of Tammy is funnier, his fighting with Sarah has far more emotional fruit. Josh and Ali are close, and tender, but Landecker and Duplass do a great job giving Josh and Sarah more realistic sibling chemistry, complete with lots of good-natured ribbing. The entire buildup to the pair joining Ali is great, from Josh’s mildly uncomfortable but mostly blasé reaction to thinking Ed had died to the way Landecker says “asswipe” and drags him down. Their casual rapport at the marina gets captured in a great shot of them casually standing by some boats, taking in the breeze and totally ignoring Ed. Even the way Sarah says “I love you” when Josh suggests The Warehouse is great, positioning him as the immature but vital, fun-loving younger brother in a way that at least somewhat blunts the impact of how utterly horrible he is reacting to the news about his father.

And it’s hard to imagine his father handling that reaction well, given Maura’s story in this episode. She has another, this time more personal, encounter with transphobia and ignorance in the form of an old acquaintance from her days as Mort. Confronted by this dude (who’s been hitting on yoga instructor Shay after their class), Tambor switches seamlessly into his more masculine voice, from laughing about the weight gain caused by hormones to reminiscing about the squash courts. Where Maura needed Sarah to defend her in “Moppa,” however, she fends for herself without Divina or Shay, acting coolly and treating the questions as ridiculous (they are). When she shakes hands with him and spits “No hard feelings” through her teeth, you can practically see Maura willing the rest of her body to submit to the estrogen placebo effect she joked about earlier in the episode.

Luckily for Maura, she’s left out of the end of “Wedge,” the major Pfefferman blowup we’ve been waiting for (or, at least, the first one). Lots of things the characters have been keeping from each other come out into the open when the kids stumble into Mom’s house, drunk on Bloody Marys and on secrets. There’s a family discussion of Maura’s gender identity (which Mom claims to know about as a sex thing), Josh accuses Mom of “paying Rita to distract” him sexually (from what?), and Ali tries to get Mom to admit she lied about a doctor’s appointment and doesn’t really care about Ed (she’s expertly deflected). Everything explodes, showcasing as effectively as this show has so far the effects of tightly held information. But Jay Duplass’ wide eyes as he begs Raquel for help suggest a way forward—as horrible as he is, he’s just a drunk puppy here. Then, of course, Ed walks back in. Childlike, happy, he’s a representation of the natural conclusion of Josh’s side in the argument over the house. If you don’t change—if you don’t willingly pay the price of staying sharp—time catches up to you. If it’s not Mom’s arthritis, it’s unwitting trips to the boardwalk. On the other hand, you get balloons and an adorable caricature. Maybe Ed does have the right idea.

Stray observations:

  • “Namaste.” “Hey girl, hey.”
  • “I’m not joining your lesbian underground railroad.” It really does seem like Sarah and Tammy’s relationship has progressed almost scary fast. Also, we’re introduced to Tammy’s pseudo-stepdaughter Bianca, who is, I think, intentionally unsettling.
  • “Mr. Pibb if you’re real lucky…” Even the peripheral characters on this show are funny.
  • “Please, who am I to stand between a congregant and her vitamins?” Just two hours of The Rabbi Raquel And Mom Show, please.
  • “Are Jews more anxious than the average person, or do I just notice it because I know more Jews?” I ask myself this all the time.
  • So Mom obviously lied to Ali, and is almost on Len’s level for characters the show has demonstrated little empathy for. Seriously, I’m sure she’ll have some redeeming qualities at some point, but for now…?

“The Wilderness”

Last Friday night through Saturday night was Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day Of Atonement. For the Gentiles among you, that basically means all the Jews spend a day in change in temple, praying with abandon, trying to make things right with God for the past year of sinning (think a single day of Catholic confessional), and trying to achieve as much of an ascetic state and closeness to God as possible—primarily through fasting. It’s the day you’re, hopefully, written into the Book Of Life for the upcoming year. But even at services on basically the holiest day imaginable (it was Yom Kippur and Shabbat), everyone still managed to sneak out of the sanctuary to catch up with old friends. Kids hid from their parents in nooks and crannies of the synagogue so they could play cards or gossip. Parents used their kids as an excuse to duck out of temple, wiping off their umbrellas and children at the same time while scrambling to walk back to their cars. It was home. And I spent most of the day watching and rewatching these two episodes of Transparent. That’s just to start to get at why I found “The Wilderness” so effective. Your mileage may vary (especially for the goyish among us), but this episode of television contains one of the most heartfelt, resonant portraits of modern (read: mostly lapsed) Judaism that I can remember.

In large part, that comes from Raquel, who comes into her own as a powerful, vital member of the ensemble. We get to see in her element, leading a Shabbat service that Josh crashes (his first Shabbat service ever), and Hahn is even better than she is reacting to Judith Light in “Wedge.” She delivers a sermon with an ease that suggests how comfortable she is, both with the stories that compromise most of Judaism and with the people who are actually a part of her congregation. Our brief glimpse of her temple tour has flirty undertones, sure, but Hahn also gives off a pride at the spiritual and social community she’s helping to build that’s eerily reminiscent of the way my own rabbi talks about our congregation. (It helps that Hahn imbues Raquel with a very recognizable sort of liberal Jewish sincerity.) When Raquel and Josh are standing in the mikvah—the Jewish ritual bath—and she admits to having spent much of her life with “the wrong person,” it’s clear that Raquel is basically a grown-up good girl who’s just reaching the point where she’s starting to question whether the life track she’s followed is going to pay off (not that she needs kids to be happy, but it does sound like that’s what she wants). She’s on the opposite side of the moral tracks from Josh but approaching the same place. Like the Jews in Egypt, a part of her needs to die off in order to make room for something new—a transformation (hey, that’s what the mikvah’s for!).

Tammy and Sarah’s Shabbat dinner that provides much of the narrative spine of the episode presents several elements of transformation, both healthy and potentially damaging. Tammy has already done a lot of work on the house, making it look much nicer (more sanitized), and installing a massive television. The dinner itself is a really beautiful spiritual moment for the reconstructed Pfeffermans-plus, bringing together Tammy and Sarah’s new family unit (including the still slightly off-putting Bianca), Divina, and Maura, who lights the candles as the chosen mother of the family. It nails pretty much everything about the way many Jews use Shabbat as an attempt to create a spiritual oasis in their week, from the “no phones” rule to the way the candlelight seems to warm the entire house. It’s a really astonishing and, yes, intimate portrayal of healthy Jewish ritual, even if none of the characters are particularly observant. And the creation of the big, sprawling family here also helps answer something else: why I tear up every time I watch the opening credits for this show.

The home videos that make up the credit sequence, which look like they could have come straight out of my grandparents’ wedding or my dad’s Bar Mitzvah or ten other family celebrations, never fail to make my eyes water. It packs a remarkable punch in such short time, and effectively it effectively gestures at both the the major milestones in the Pfefferman family’s history and the emergence of a new sort of femininity (there’s something especially beautiful in the way the videos capture bodies moving). More importantly, the credits clarify what Transparent is about. Yes, on one level it’s Maura’s coming out story, but she’s not quite the main character of the show—the whole Pfefferman family and their shared past is (not for nothing does the sequence stop on three children lighting candles). Maura’s narrative is important, but it’s also a catalyst for the forced openness and a renewed lack of secrecy that she’s brought into the family.

That messiness gets a fantastic showcase in the scene where Tammy and Sarah try to explain Maura’s gender identity to their (Sarah’s) kids. Writer Ethan Kuperberg deserves an enormous amount of credit for how well this works, with Tammy and Sarah trying to use an androgynous teddy bear and ultimately telling their children that their grandfather is magic. (Honestly, you could probably use this scene to explain the difference between biological sex and gender to adults as well.) Though this leads to a subtle moment of pain on Tambor’s face when Sarah tells Maura she tried to “explain” what was going on to her children, it’s not the worst way of thinking about it. The more-or-less open emotional connections they’ve established are magical, and would probably appear especially so to Maura in this episode’s flashback, coming up against Ali’s bat mitzvah as a conflict with a “summer camp” where she can truly be herself.

And seeing the Pfeffermans react to the way that information frays what their prior understanding of their lives is just another reason to love this cast even more. Dialogue like Ali saying, “We all have to start over” could sound hammy or overly precious in another context, but it’s perfect coming out of Gaby Hoffmann’s mouth (it doesn’t hurt that the scene is taking place at a dilapidated playground). Jay Duplass has to work with Josh continuing to be an asshole, sinking into himself as he struggles with his father’s new identity. It’s easy to call him horrible (and his claim that Maura is demented is pretty horrible), but it’s also easier for us to say that from the outside looking in—his real worry, expressed in that same playground scene, is that everything he knew is a lie. So his attempt to pay a trans sex worker to videochat with him and explain her gender identity is discomforting, but it’s also kind of sweet in a way? (After all, being Jewish is all about asking questions.)

It would be sweeter if Josh managed to get over his issues with Maura, though. At the beginning of the episode, he tells her he’s “cool” with her dressing as a woman in private—it’s behind closed doors. It’s her business, and it’s not in public, where Josh’s image-consciousness reigns. But Maura doesn’t, or shouldn’t, need her son to be “cool” with her identity. She’s patient with him in “The Wilderness,” letting him do his own wandering, but eventually he’ll just need to be accepting of who is she is, on her terms. In that respect, it’s telling that by the end of the episode, Maura proclaims to the ever-douchey Len that “Baby, you—you need to get in this whirlpool, or you need to get out of it.” This is the tail end of another fantastic speech for Tambor, who has gotten to emit an increasing level of confidence from Maura, one of the more optimistic threads of the show so far. Amazingly enough, though this scene makes Len a huge jerk—it’s a deeply painful moment for everyone, and certainly was one for me—it stays at least somewhat sympathetic to him. “I don’t understand this,” he says, eventually apologizing and showing a sliver of understanding. Not everyone will be able to immediately accept Maura, but at the very least she’s mostly surrounded by caring people.

It’s funny that Maura finds herself secure in Tammy and Sarah’s extended family at the end of “The Wilderness,” because she spends the rest of the episode overly eager to please, promising each of her children money in exchange for secrecy and the assumption that they’re each receiving special treatment. On the other hand, she makes Ali uncomfortable in their interaction—maybe getting a little too much in her space, suggesting that gender confusion “runs in the blood.” (I’m not sure I blame Ali for being upset at this suggestion—it’s less transphobic and more just being embarrassed by your moppa.) The flip side of that is that in flashback, she’s easy to please herself, giddily laughing with Marcie when a waitress calls them “ladies” while telling them to enjoy their Caesar salads. It’s a testament to the powers of Transparent that it manages to make this simple pleasantry such a victory.

If there’s a weak spot to “The Wilderness,” it’s the mockery of gender studies academics in the person of Celeste, the professor of the class Ali is auditing. Celeste engages in lots of name-dropping, saying things like “my good friend bell hooks” and going on about how exclamation points are small rapes. She even tells Ali that, “It’s very feminist to audit. It’s not unfeminist to audit,” which, okay, I know a few gender studies academics, but I have never met anyone who actually talks like this. Admittedly, this is all a bit of an in-joke on the show, since Celeste is played by showrunner Jill Soloway herself. But Transparent is, generally, too emotionally earnest to pull off this kind of winking effectively, and the character is still a little broad for the universe the show has created for itself (even with the priceless awkwardness between exes Syd and Celeste). Thankfully, Celeste’s teaching assistant Dale (Ian Harvie), a trans man and love interest for Ali, justifies the introduction of this storyline, having a somehow warm, flirty, and informative conversation that gives me great hope for a double date with Josh and Raquel in the near future.

With two couples in the tentative stages of forming, our third pair seems to have settled in especially nicely to their new digs if the Shabbat dinner is any indication—Maura giving Sarah and Tammy the house has a sense of finality (as well as coming in a very sweet, gorgeously shot moment between Sarah and Maura at the pool), and I’d be a little disappointed if something else ended up happening with it. Lots of modern Jews are very fond of talking about keeping their traditions modern and “refreshing” our understanding of God. With that in mind, it’s nice to think of the house (with some slight changes) as continuing to be a base for the Pfeffermans—a rock on which the family can build, and maybe start to atone for its sins.

Stray observations:

  • “Is it because I’m a renowned scholar and academic?”
  • “I love books… as a design element.”
  • “Leonard, would you like some raisin challah?” God, yes. Basically all of the small details here are just perfect.
  • “I bet your eggs are super moist.”
  • “Politically, I’m basically a lesbian.” Yeah, I don’t know, that uterus-shaped spaceship sounds pretty awesome.
  • Someone paint my nails cherries on fire, please.
  • As best I can tell, there are actually no outside music choices from these episodes (someone correct if I somehow missed something). But won’t you stay and listen to Dreamboat Annie?