“They’re totally going to bone, right?”
This is what I ask myself pretty much every time two characters who aren’t related occupy the screen on Transparent. Thus far this season I have had this thought about (non-inclusive list): Colton and Bianca, Syd and Ali (well, yeah, duh), Raquel and Colton (sorry, it was a moment of weakness), Sarah and Barb, and Sarah and Poppy. None of these pairings would be all that surprising—I mean, maybe Raquel and Colton, but only because it’d be just a little out of character for both of them.
Really, everyone on Transparent is openly governed by their dicks/pussies/whatever anatomy below the belt, and nearly any sexual pairing would make sense, both because everyone fucks like rabbits and because throwing some weird coupling into the mix would just steer the show in a slightly different soapy direction than the one it was already heading. On a normal comedy, there are maybe two or three possible romantic pairings between the characters (and perhaps a long series of rotating one-episode partners), and they’re teased over and over again for months or years. Here, they might happen, they might not, and if they do happen, there’s no guarantee anyone will ever feel compelled to talk about it again. Sex is everything to these people, but it’s really not that big a deal.
“Cherry Blossoms” is filled with the specter of past sexual relationships that threaten, in various degrees, to become a big deal. Tammy makes a very aggressive pass at Sarah, Rita shows up at Josh’s house to suck all of the oxygen out of his relationship with Raquel, and Ali, in the midst of the presently fulfilling relationship, evokes the memory of the analytic study of sex from almost a century earlier. Most importantly, Shelly and Maura continue to navigate the boundaries of whatever their arrangement is at present, fumbling through their shared loneliness.
Note how this conversation is shot—Shelly stares at Maura while trying to get her attention, looking like a ghost, while Maura continues to stare into her own reflection. There’s nothing wrong with Maura’s vanity and self-exploration (the last time she looked at herself in the mirror, it was beautiful), but it’s clear that she’s often myopic and selfish regarding Shelly’s needs, even when they’re as reasonably as simply going out sometimes.
That’s why it’s so heartbreaking to have this sequence, and the episode, open with Shelly saying “Good morning. Did you have any dreams?” It’s a stellar reading by Judith Light, capturing the level of casual intimacy that occasionally defines the best episodes of, say, Louie. But Maura was always a somewhat reluctant participant in this newest incarnation of their relationship, and it’s clear she’s looking for sex (and maybe emotional intimacy) elsewhere. As much as my heart breaks for Shelly, it’s not hard to understand why Maura might feel this way: She sees her marriage to Shelly as having been, in part, a waste—an illusion that sustained her previous life. Breaking free has been an invigorating process for Maura, but it’s also hurt people.
Becase Shelly’s life is happening largely in the background (she’s a candidate for president of the condo board, running against, or to spite, the dreaded, unseen Rosalie Rollman), both of the show and of Maura’s field of view. Shelly apologizes for making dry meatballs, offers to rub Maura’s back, and generally goes out of her way to try to make her ex-husband happy. (Does Maura want to watch Scandal?) It’s the kind of behavior that can be irrationally infuriating for someone suffering from mental illness, or even simply in the dumps—there’s something about having someone aggressively ask what you want that just makes you react negatively. It’s a sign, perhaps, of what their marriage was like, when Mort was off by himself lying and chasing other women.
Not treating Maura and Shelly’s age as central to their stories has been a bit of a mixed bag. On one hand, it helps contribute to the sense of their vitality, and Soloway’s ability to treat their plots as roughly equivalent to those of the children. But on the other, they’re simply at a different life stage, and their problems should be treated as such. (Josh having a kid certainly alters his story, why don’t Maura’s grandchildren? Or the fact that she’s pushing into her 70s?) That’s why it’s nice that the doctor she sees about tentatively exploring testosterone blocking is just not having any of her shtick. “Do yourself a favor and get to know your body,” she says. Instead, Maura tries to get to know someone else’s body by hitting on a lawyer named Cynthia in vain, in a scene that’s both funny, sad, and, quite literally, shows how separated Maura is from the possible fulfillment of her erotic desires.
We have another older character in Grandma Rose, who shows up mostly to stare at Ali and provoke another flashback. There’s a sense in which her presence feels a bit more like a plot device than the show normally allows for its characters, but I’m certain that I’ll regret writing this by the end of the season. It’s an opportunity for Syd and Ali’s relationship to deepen, and for them to be confronted with mortality and the regrets that come with aging. Rose is consumed.
Getting into the meat of the Berlin flashback story is incredibly exciting. For one thing, the cast is just wonderful. It’s good to know that Soloway and co. knew what they had with the fabulous Emily Robinson, who only appeared as young Ali in “Best New Girl” last season, and was still a serious contender for best member of the cast. Here, she appears as a younger Rose opposite a delightfully flippant Hari Nef playing her sister, Gittel, who the older Rose refers to as Gershon.
The siblings meet at the Institute For Sexual Research, a real place that helped pioneer the study of not only various types of “acceptable” sexuality, but also people we now consider transgender. Gittel appears to be at home here, at this place run by scientist Magnus Hirschfeld (that’s a photo of Bradley Whitford on the wall), but given when this story takes place, it’s not hard to guess where it’s going, and what kind of trauma Ali has inherited there in the library. No one in the Pfefferman family has ever really been able to be happy.
And the next generation probably won’t be too happy either, if the way Sarah talks to her kids on Wacky Hair day is any indication. Sarah has been having quite a few problems this season, which boil over in the admittedly somewhat cruel treatment she gets from her children. So she goes to see Raquel for spiritual help—“Heeeelp,” she cries with an affected voiced, as if a layer of irony will shield her from the fact that she’s genuinely in need of assistance from another person and in a position of weakness—and seems like she might be able to form a real relationship with the rabbi. But that attempt breaks down, because Raquel has her own problem—Rita.
The scene where Rita comes over to the house to have dinner with what she perceives as her family (and Raquel) is one of the most painful in the show’s run so far, and continues to walk a fine line of complexity. Rita continues to need Josh, and prey on him in ways that remind you that he was molested as a child. (It feels weird and unnatural to see her outside her apartment, as if she is a monster leaving her lair). Kathryn Hahn continues to be a national treasure, particularly her look of horror when Rita starts singing “Family Affair,” a music choice that would be distracting in how on-the-noise it is if it weren’t introduced diegetically. This is a character who is trying to provoke, whose each and every movements is deliberate, and scary.
Still, Josh firmly says he’s only allowed Rita into their lives for Colton’s sake, and I believe him. The growing, fumbling bond between the two men has been one of the sweetest, most unexpected parts of the season so far for me. It’s not even that the story the show is telling is new in any sense, more that their quiet ability to connect in spite of the vast differences in their approaches to life continues to be, in a sense, inspiring. Take Josh walking in on Colton praying instead of masturbating: It’s a pretty excellent joke, if also a slightly one. It says a lot about what’s important to the Pfeffermans, too: If Colton had been masturbating, it probably wouldn’t have been a very big deal at all.
The biggest deal of the episode is, of course, the phenomenal sequence at the gala for the school. Sarah is just beset on all sides here, encountering not one, but two exes. Len and Melanie isn’t so bad (Melanie is friendly, at least)—even if Len does confront her about the eye shadow—but Tammy is just kind of a nightmare. The off-the-wagon addict now has a neck tattoo and keeps saying she’s “becoming,” which basically means she’s going to turn into the Red Dragon from Hannibal—or at least do something kind of annoying like try to make out with Sarah in a classroom. Melora Hardin is great, as always, showcasing new corners of Tammy’s descent—note the way she leans into Tammy’s aggression (and weird “becoming stuff”), especially when she tries to make out with Sarah, while simultaneously shrinking away in something resembling shyness.
Still, Hardin is outshone by Amy Landecker, who cements herself as an early front-runner for season MVP. Her steely sadness is really fantastic, communicated with perpetually slight builds in her frustration (think about how many mood shifts she goes through in that scene early in the episode complaining about Spirit Week). And her desperation, and need to do something for someone, leads her to… waste a lot of money. By buying 19 raffle tickets (at $25 a pop!), Sarah ensures not only that the school can have organic lunches (thank God), but also that she’ll win basically all of the prizes. First, the TV, and second, a series of sessions with a life coach. Sarah erupts, for the same reason she evades directly and honestly asking Raquel for help—she doesn’t want to admit how fully she’s fallen. But, even eating alone, naked afterward, having accepted the sessions and coming closer to something like a resolution, Sarah hasn‘t succeeding in letting out all of the pressure. Not by a long shot.
- “Cherry Blossoms” is written by Arabella Anderson and directed by Jill Soloway.
- This week in weird Josh Pfefferman word choices: “Tootsies.”
- “Pajama Day, Favorite Superhero Day, the gala.” Spirit Week sounds exhausting.
- I’m really not into Ali’s look this season. What is up with that scarf? Am I missing something?
- Alex MacNicoll is very, very good.
- “Yes, somewhat. I mean, I would like—I want to do more.” The chemistry between Maura, who’s trying her “charming, elegant woman” thing on the no-nonsense doctor, is pretty uncomfortable, but also very funny.