“None of these words end in a smile,” Ali Pfefferman mutters to no one in particular. She’s frustrated with Reggie—the gratingly white-bread gentile photographer trying to capture her family’s presence at her sister’s wedding—but she might as well be lodging a complaint with pretty much anything anybody says over the course of this episode. Sarah and Tammy’s wedding, which takes up the whole season premiere, should be a happy occasion for the Pfeffermans. Instead, they’re as ecstatically miserable as they’ve ever been, facing a host of old and new problems, occasionally arbitrary life challenges, and potentially false epiphanies. And it’s a good thing they’re unhappy: “Kina Hora” is not only a masterful episode of television, it’s easily Transparent’s best so far, even surpassing the highs of “Best New Girl.” Shalom, everyone.
And it really is everyone (or close to everyone—see you soon, Syd). Where a season premiere that tried to slowly ease us back into the world of Transparent might have zeroed in on Sarah and Tammy’s issues surrounding their nuptials along with the nuclear (and nuclear) unit of Maura, her ex-wife, and their children, we instead get the whole extended, messy Pfefferman family. Jill Soloway (who both writes and directs) is expansively concerned with and interested in as many of the people present as she can capture, a priority established by the four-minute long, fixed shot of everyone trying to get into place for the family portrait that opens both the episode and the season. This shot is one of several wonderful pieces of filmmaking by Soloway, and a fabulous showcase for the cast. Let’s dig in.
The big statement here is that the show, as much as it originally appeared to be about Maura, is now emphatically about all of the Pfeffermans and the people in their orbit. And it’s made precisely by not moving the camera. If Josh were the central character (if the show were more interested in him than in anyone else), we might follow him as he goes off to get Raquel. If it were Ali, we could cut to her face registering disgust at the whole affair as it drags on and on. And if it were Maura, we might stick with her as she storms off in response to the photographer’s transphobic ignorance. But, as they add ever more people to the photo (Bianca, Colton, and Raquel), and therefore to the list of people who constitute the family, it’s clear: The important thing here isn’t any one person, but they way they act together as a self-hating, self-loving organism. The point is in the whole frame, rather than in any individual who occupies it.
Getting the image right, both for Reggie and for Soloway, stretches on for many reasons besides aggressive inclusiveness. There’s Maura’s vanity (or her self-love, or a messy blend of both), Sarah asking Raquel to get rid of her binder, a host of children, and, of course, Reggie himself. Over the course of the four minutes, Reggie moves from being “a little anti-Semitic” in his attempt to get the family to smile to straight-up transphobic, or at least deeply oblivious and dumb. And maybe worst of all, he tinnily shouts “Love wins” when the Cashmans take their photo. It says a lot that the only indication that the show won’t go on to be about the Cashmans comes when the camera focuses, briefly, on Josh and Ali stepping in front of it. By the time everyone has stalked off, the opening credits are a total relief, an excuse for everyone to catch their breath (there are several of these moments in the episode, each marked by an abrupt cut away from too-painful awkwardness).
Fixing the camera also creates a sense that something has been trapped within the frame (even if it’s just a pack of excessively vivacious Jews), turning the wedding into a sort of mirror of the ostensibly stoic life event that marked the end of last season: Ed’s funeral. This sense of impending doom permeates the episode, in Sarah’s ejector-seat escape from her marriage, Maura’s inability to escape her childhood, and the encroaching inevitability of Josh and Raquel ending their relationship, or at least being deeply unhappy parents. Everyone is caught by their role in what Raquel, sadly and correctly, describes as a “very expensive play.” The Pfeffermans want their various frantic gestures to definitively mean something—whether that’s Sarah’s marriage, Josh’s good intentions in telling Ali about the pregnancy, or Maura trying to at least nominally reach out to her sister—they’re all just outward signifiers, meant to tell the world that they’ve made some kind of inner change that might never be possible. Can they even convince themselves?
Maura probably has the easiest time convincing herself and others that she’s changed—she obviously has, appearing as close to fully comfortable in her own skin as we’ve seen her. But she also has the hardest time perceiving her own continued stubbornness and her own flaws. Her passive-aggressive (maybe more openly aggressive) attempt at interacting with her estranged, openly bigoted sister Bri (Jenny O’Hara) and her son Simon might be the most inconsequential part of this episode for its individual purposes, but it also seems like it’ll have the most far-reaching ramifications for the bigger picture of the season. There are skeletons in the Pfefferman family closet that have yet to see the light of day, and reasons why Maura hasn’t seen her mother (the kids’ Grandma Rose) in decades.
While it’s kind of astonishing that Rose is still alive given that Maura herself is about 70, adding in her own mommy issues certainly helps humanize Maura and put her on closer emotional footing to the rest of the characters. That’s most apparent in her and Shelly chastising Sarah and Ali for inviting Bri, which is funny but also a bit childish (also, one of the least groan-worthy Facebook references I’ve ever seen on TV). Judith Light and Jeffrey Tambor’s chemistry is easier than ever, as they press Sarah and reminisce about Shelly’s diet pill habit (and the way it led them to fire their housekeeper) on the way to the altar. They’re using each other as a support system, and while it’s very sweet, it could also lead to the sort of potentially fraught, quasi-romantic choice that tends to play out poorly for their children.
I’m optimistic about Bri, her “strange boy” Simon, and Rose. The show played a similar trick in the first season, keeping Shelly mostly hidden and presenting her as a bit of a caricature before humanizing her (she’s barely in the first few episodes!), so I trust that Rose, and the rest of Maura’s family, have a bit more to them than meets the eye. Still, it feels a little frustrating to have an unseen villain-type. (Does this show really need that?) I’m sure the way this plays out, perhaps with Ali getting to spend some time with her grandmother, will give us some insight into why Maura was so protective of her nuclear family, and so insistent that they remain a unit. The pair are more than off-putting enough for this world, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of them.
Another person I’m excited to spend more time with, somehow: Colton. The last-minute introduction of an All-American, Christian boy who turned out to be Josh’s long-lost son doesn’t really seem to have changed everyone’s lives all that much, other than giving Ali more material for picking on her brother. The Pfeffermans are obnoxious, nosy, frequently deeply narcissistic people, but they protect their own, and Josh means it when he tells Colton that “These are your people. They’ll love you no matter what.” He does still call his son “man,” which would be endearing if he were an adult dad with an adult son instead of an overgrown child with floppy hair, but taking the simplest, most earnest, approach to the twist looks like it’ll work out just fine. It’s a nice touch for Shelly to casually confirm that, yes, they had a DNA test, and Colton is Josh’s child. This season will be soapy enough without any intrigue over paternity—these people are stuck with each other, no matter whose Y chromosomes they share.
Josh is the kind of guy who would call his teenage son “man” and, of course, he is also the kind of guy who would say “we’re pregnant,” as he does confronting Ali about her dislike of Raquel (or, at least, her disapproval of their relationship). Because these are the Pfeffermans, information travels fast and dirty, and in a delightfully edited series of cuts, we see it happen—from Josh to Ali, to Sarah, to Shelly, and then to the entire wedding party when Sarah goes missing and Shelly breaks the news to fill the void. One of my favorite visual moments in the episode comes when Sarah, after telling Shelly about the baby, stays in focus like a grim action hero walking away from a social explosion (or like Carrie on Homeland).
What’s great about the pregnancy gossip, aside from the absurd ease with which everyone manages to make the news about themselves, is the way that both Josh and Raquel are actually at least partly in the right during their highly justified fight over a pregnancy that hasn’t moved much beyond the “peed on a stick” phase. Josh absolutely should not have betrayed Raquel’s trust, but he’s also trying, for the first time, to make someone feel at home in the family portrait. The whole thing is just a mess.
But nothing could be as big of a mess as the wedding itself. It’d be easy for this season to feature a slow decay of the Cashman-Pfefferman union, or for the premiere to have included Sarah getting normal cold feet—one of sitcom history’s most hackneyed, overdone plots that, of necessity, has to take place right before another hackneyed, overdone sitcom mainstay: weddings. Instead, Soloway blows the whole thing up, communicated almost entirely in images and off-kilter sound editing.
Pretty much everything about the spontaneous combustion of the marriage before it’s even begun is perfect, a gripping symphony of emotional destruction, the show firing on all cylinders. Everything about Sarah is on point, from the moment she has to explain to her daughter why she didn’t invite Len to the wedding (“But he’s still my dad,” Ella cries, at least somewhat fairly) to the masterfully disconcerting shots of her walk down the aisle. Uncomfortably placed at the center of the frame (and the center of attention), Sarah teeters, interspersed with Tammy’s face, which appears increasingly grotesque and wax-like face at the sides of the frame as Ms. Cashman beams at her bride-to-be. Snippets of casual conversation float in from the crowd, people talking about how beautiful the ceremony is. For anyone else, it would be.
The rapid editing during the actual ceremony makes everything about the setting conspicuous. It’s hot, Sarah is sweating. She’s bundled up into a wedding dress, wearing a headband, her hair gets in her face. There’s a plane overhead, dragging a banner reading: “WeBuyUglyHouses.com.” Sarah sees Tammy as if for the first time, as she’s pulled into Tammy’s side of the frame. (“You. You. You.”) In her mind, she screams, and when she steps on the glass at the end of the ceremony, it’s with a clear, direct, white-hot rage. The cut to the reception’s jaunty music and champagne glasses is just another opportunity to catch your breath.
Sarah can’t even look at her wife during the party and we’re left wondering what happened. The uncharitable (and likely mostly true) reading here is that it’s less about Tammy and more that Sarah is incapable of deciding on anything—she would see anyone’s face at the altar the same way, simply because it represents a commitment to a certain way of living her life without filling the emptiness she continues to perceive. “The whole relationship with Tammy was a moment,” Sarah proclaims during the sibling huddle in the bathroom. But her entire life is a series of “moments” like this, as are the lives of her brother, sister, and parents. Sarah is just the “responsible” one, so her “moments” happen after she’s already ostensibly made a choice and then has to back out of it, rather than Ali’s (she’s still finishing her bachelor’s degree in her 30s) or Josh’s (diving into becoming a dad because the fetus is just there).
I’m most excited for Sarah’s story this season, but I’m most perplexed by the flashback. We’ll get more later on what, exactly, is going on here, but I think it’s enough for now to say two things. First, the placement of the flashback—which finds, among others, Hari Nef and Bradley Whitford in a joyous, vaguely Jewish celebration in Berlin in 1933—within the larger context of an episode teasing at another generation of Pfeffermans suggests Grandma Rose’s involvement. Second, it’s of a piece with the opening shot as a way to consciously expand the world of Transparent. Soloway, Tambor, and the rest of the show’s cast and crew have been insistent that Maura is now just one of many characters, rather than the center of the show. There are probably more dramatic ways of announcing that than an erotic flashback to Jewish sailors dancing in Europe on the edge of Hitler’s rise to power, but it’s hard to think of what they might be.
For now, it feels like enough to know that the show is still committed to infusing itself into every detail, by which I mean that it cares immensely about how each of these people look and is deeply invested in capturing each of them as fully sensual, alive people who are, in no small capacity, lovable. (That’s true even of Tammy’s mostly unheard family, who you could imagine being the subject of a spinoff powered by the best jokes left on the floor of the Modern Family writers’ room.) For all its loudness, the show often thrives in the quieter moments where it allows its characters to simply be, unobserved by anyone but us. Children run through the wedding screaming, the wind blows, and an old man eats while his sagging chin wags up and down.
All of these are equally beautiful things deserving of our attention, Transparent wants us to know. Even at their greatest level of emotional disharmony, everyone moves in unison, a fact made even more disconcerting by the way they’re all dressed in white like some kind of cult worshiping a god of flesh and neurosis. And it all brings us to the mesmerizing final shot, in the aftermath of the cult’s mass emotional suicide. The camera moves across the windows of the hotel as Josh proclaims to Raquel that they’re both lovable, Sarah tries to, somehow, explain to Tammy that she hates her wife and doesn’t want to be married to her, and Shelly assures Maura of her beauty as the embers of their own marriage are rekindled. Ali, alone, walks onto the balcony, only to be joined by a vision of Hari Nef’s character from the Berlin flashback.
Each of these windows both divides the family and provides a more focused way of looking at them for the audience, paying off the rhythms Soloway creates over the rest of the episode—people floating in and out of our field of vision while several other stories go on in the background. The shot could represent the tripartite conclusions of several distinct throughlines that we could in turn identify as independent sitcom plots through “Kina Hora”, but they’re more like intertwined strands that support and hold each other back at the same time. The Pfeffermans are divided for the moment, but they’ll be pulled toward each other soon enough. And in the end, they’ll fall together.
- Among other things, the new title sequence includes a shot of the Statue of Liberty, which makes the flashback material (and the show) even more timely in a moment when lots of people want to threaten the prospect of anyone else entering the country.
- “She’s a filing cabinet with a hairdo.” Don’t insult Maura, because you will get burned. (Also: “By all means, let’s do what they do at “Small World.””
- “Jewish-wise, you are married. But…” Never leave me, Kathryn Hahn.
- A few housekeeping notes: Welcome back for this season of Transparent! As you can probably tell, I absolutely adore this show (and this episode in particular), so I apologize for the (occasionally absurd) length of these reviews. I promise the next few reviews will be more manageable.
- And apologies for the rough nature of the screen caps, which I’m taking from my online screener shared in Google Drive. I’ll try to replace them with something a bit clearer and more pleasing when I can get to the episode itself.
- Chin up, or chin down?