Well, that didn’t take very long. We’re halfway through the season, and two of the biggest changes to the status quo going in—Colton’s presence and Maura’s renewed relationship with Shelly—have been blown up by two kinds of Pfefferman capriciousness. (Indecision and confusion in Josh’s case, hastiness and cruelty in Maura’s.) These are the kind of emotional fireworks the show excels at, which is to say that “Mee-Maw” is excellent, and the best episode since “Kina Hora.”
Transparent might engage in these emotional fireworks a bit too often (which is maybe just my way of saying I’ll miss Colton), but these big moments serve as valves releasing pressure built up from, often, years of tension and unhealthy connections, and the cast nails it. In particular, “Mee-Maw” serves as the definitive case for why, no matter how much you may want to, you shouldn’t hate Josh Pfefferman—but we’ll get there in a bit. First, let’s quickly look at Ali and Sarah, who have less dramatic stories this week, but at least go through them together.
The opening scene, in which the Pfefferman daughters go to a spa, is a very fun look at the kind of sibling emotional intimacy we’ve been lacking a bit this season. The way director Stacie Passion films their flesh, living but still malleable, adds some seriousness to a scene that is, otherwise, very funny and a little awkward, as Sarah interrogates Ali’s new-found queerness.
“You just changed?” It makes sense that Sarah would be skeptical of not just Ali’s relationship with Syd, but her entire new outlook on life. Not only is Ali the kind of person who throws herself into ways of being “different,” Sarah has had a hard enough time figuring out her own sexual identity to deal with her sister. She’s vaguely exasperated during this exchange, the way she and Josh got with Ali on the playground last year. Ali’s response confirms that she’s right to be wary: “I can’t have real emotional intimacy with someone who hasn’t suffered under patriarchy.” This might be true for some people! And maybe even for Ali! But also… it sounds like a classic load of her bullshit… remember last year when she wanted to get “spit roasted”? (Besides, Ali clearly isn’t deep enough into gender studies to realize that patriarchy hurts men too.)
Luckily for Ali, she is not even close to the most annoying person Sarah has to deal with during this episode. That dubious honor goes to the life coach, Laura Milton Kaufberger, whose sessions Sarah won in her school raffle. Their conversation is just painful, with Kaufberger tossing out empty crap like Sarah’s need to cultivate her “spark.” (The vaguely New Age quality of this stuff, wrapped in the package of a clearly not particularly intelligent, overly appearance-oriented middle-aged, proper Jewish woman, feels a bit like self-criticism, though the show is far more successful, earnest, and honest when it deals with this kind of vague spirituality.) Sarah asks totally reasonable questions about the sessions and calls out the life coach’s terrible command of the English language, like using the phrase “all intensive purposes” or calling Sarah “Sady.” This is, perhaps, the closest any of the Pfeffermans have come to being a purely comic protagonist surrounded by insane weirdos in the vein of a Seinfeld character or something—usually these people are the insane weirdos, but it’d be hard to top Laura Milton Kaufberger.
Sarah gets a far less obnoxious foil in Jason Mantzoukas’ moped-riding Dr. Steve, who shows up to sell Sarah weed in a parking lot before hitting on her. Matzoukas’ manic energy makes it hard to take him seriously in a show with real emotional stakes (or maybe that’s just my lingering memories of Rafi from The League), but he’s a good addition to the cast here, forced to play foolish in opposition to Sarah’s bluntness. Steve is a little awkward—tentatively asking Sarah out in a way that’s at least partly sweet in addition to creepy, and acting blissfully, childishly ignorant when he tries to discern whether or not she’s gay. “When you are in bed at night, are you thinking about getting your face in that puss, or thinking about that sweet, sweet D?” Great question, bro!
Steven echoes Ali’s rejection of that kind of questioning, a sort of emphatic, calculated apathy that comes out in even stronger terms during her interactions with Syd. The reveal of Ali flossing and wearing a strap-on is kind of incredible, showing just how easy it is for the youngest Pfefferman child to throw herself into any new identity that comes her way.
“Not meant for flossing,” indeed. This is the entire dynamic of Ali and Syd’s relationship in a nutshell—Ali will intentionally push Syd’s buttons by being adorably confrontational, knowing she can get away with it because Syd is deeply, painfully in love with her. It’s horrible, and casually violates Syd’s clearly established boundaries surrounding their sex toys. (It’s hard not to laugh at the sight of Ali waving the strap-on around, but that doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable for Syd.) Having a dick is a way for Ali to fuck not just Syd, but every other boundary that comes her way, which is perhaps why she’s so attracted to the idea of the moon ritual hosted by Leslie. Not a ton happens during the scenes at the ritual, though Cherry Jones’ charisma continues to suggest something nefarious, or at least not entirely on the up-and-up, directed at the increasingly curious Ali. (Also, her girlfriend is way too young, right? Or is that just flipping the standard “older dude preying on younger woman” dynamic?)
It looks like Leslie is around for the long haul, which is, sadly, more than we can say for Colton. I really think it’s worth taking a moment to compliment Alex MacNicoll here—I’ve said it before, but it’s truly remarkable that a character introduced as a twist at the end of the last season, who doesn’t fit with the rest of the cast at all, culturally or physically, and who could scan as just a human plot device, has become such a fun member of the ensemble. I will really miss having him around. Think about his wide-eyed delivery of lines like, “Uh, they don’t really trust the U.S. Postal Service,” when explaining why his parents are coming to meet Josh and Raquel. He’s excellent throughout this episode, displaying a level of naivete that both excuses his intrusions into Josh’s psychodrama and makes it all the sadder when he eventually leaves, evincing enough emotional maturity to seriously ask his father what he wants. And he’s funny as hell. (“And if it’s okay with you guys, Pappy might need to hook up the RV to your septic.”) What could Mee-Maw and Pappy have heard in Colton’s voice?
Colton’s family, composed of Pappy (aka Pastor Gene), Mama (Blossie), Becky, and Cliff, introduced in a static shot of the RV that calls to mind the opening shot of the season—this time with everyone bunched together, backs to the camera, unreadable. Who are these people, who love hunting and Jesus and need to hook an RV up to the septic tank at the Pfefferman house? They’re among the furthest things you could find from our exceedingly cosmopolitan, debauched, Jewish heroes.
Yet, in what occasionally reads as a slightly predictable reversal, Colton’s family is, generally speaking, quite kind. No one ever remarks on the fact that Cliff is black (which makes sense, since Colton’s family presumably adopted several children), and when Maura shows up, we worry that they’ll be intolerant of her gender identity. But Gene is happy to see Maura, and more than polite in interacting with her. “You know, we love the Jewish people.” (Maura raises her hand.) Of course, their tolerance only goes so far. Josh posits that “Colton’s Jewish—well, some Reform people would say he’s Jewish,” to laughter from Mee-Maw, who immediately turns to Colton and shuts down that possibility. And it’s hard to shake the feeling that the thing they may or may not have heard in Colton’s voice, as well as their “distrust” of the postal system, are at least in part covers for simply wanting their son back.
That’s a totally reasonable thing for them—imagine being a God-fearing Midwesterner and discovering that your child is living with the Pfeffermans—but it also makes it harder to get a read on them for most of the episode, and we’re never given a look inside their heads, while we know more than a bit about Josh and Raquel. Cards on the table: I’m inclined to agree with both Josh and Raquel in their argument at the beginning of the episode. Colton is lucky he gets to stay, and Josh and Raquel are lucky to have him. Both things can be true at the same time, and, I think, are. As terrible as Josh can be, I give him the benefit of the doubt in his relationship with Colton, which has never been less than genuinely sweet and loving, if a bit fumbling at times. Encountering people who are so different from his family would do Colton good in the long term, and can you imagine having Raquel as a maternal figure?
So Josh’s half-proposal as a way of keeping up appearances for Colton’s family—presenting “the right optics,” as he puts it—feels unbelievably lame and annoying. This is quintessential Josh, valuing the way things seem to others while expecting other people in his emotional orbit to do all of the work without much in the way of recognition. He’s been trying to do better, but he didn’t propose, even after he said he would do it (and after I stuck up for him last week, asshole). He’s like a nervous child around Colton’s family, literally wiping his nose while Raquel cleans the house. His indecision and unwillingness to commit to having Colton in his life is indicative of bigger problems in his life, and he basically buckles under pressure from Pastor Gene (who, again, seems like he may have planned this). This all could ostensibly confirm the worst opinions people have about him. But Josh is also, perhaps, the most sympathetic character, and the biggest victim, on the show.
I know this is a bit of a controversial claim—everyone loves to hate Josh, even people who can get over how unlikable the Pfefferman children often are—but I think it’s true, and important to understanding his role in the ensemble. The end of the episode is perhaps the most tragic moment on the show so far.
There’s a whole lifetime of messed-up stuff happening here, so let’s back up, all the way to the beginning. First: Keep in mind how terrible Shelly and Maura were as parents. Shelly can tell Maura at the end of the episode that she was protecting their son (and Raquel is almost certainly correct in saying that Josh’s life would have been immeasurably different, and worse, had he been Colton’s father from the beginning), but they still threw money at a problem which was, at its root, emotional, sexual, and deep-rooted, warping and stunting Josh’s emotional health for years.
Rita molested Josh, and that fact is undeniable.
This is, perhaps, the easiest thing to forget about Josh Pfeffrman. He has suffered the attendant trauma from sustained statutory rape, and no one in his life ever told him that he was suffering. He insists he loved Rita, but he was a teenager who was manipulated by his much older babysitter, period. He has never had an opportunity to confront this trauma, and work through the ways it changed his life in a healthy and productive manner. Because a teen boy sleeping with his babysitter is the kind of situation where instead of “that’s horrible, you need help,” telling a friend or trusted adult about the situation might elicit a drawn-out “…nice.”
Look at it this way: If it turned out Sarah actually had had an affair with the school disciplinarian, we wouldn’t hesitate to condemn Mr. Ironside. It would make sense to talk about her seeming need for punishment this season, and ask questions about the kind of scars it left behind. Maura and Shelly might even have gotten involved. Instead, no one said anything—Josh’s parents both knew that he was molested and not only said nothing, they donated to Gene’s church as a way of keeping the baby under wraps. There’s a double standard at play that not only explains how messed-up Josh’s relationship with women continues to be, it also explains, I think, part of why Transparent fans hate him so much. Josh is a straight cis white man, the most boring and privileged type of person. He is wealthy, rude, self-absorbed, and frequently juvenile. He sucks. But he is also a victim.
Consider how much Josh’s current shittiness is fueled by this experience. Josh’s impulse to try and start a family—his desire to be protective of Colton, and to have the boy be a part of his life with Raquel—leads him to think that it would have been normal to have a child as a teenager, and maybe a relationship with Rita that he thinks might actually have been healthy. Raquel is absolutely and unequivocally right to call this out— but Josh never been able to face the full weight of that fact, or figure out what it would mean for him to move past it. He’s still that cocky, slightly guilty, nervous teenage boy, and we should, if not forgive his behavior, at least understand it.
Josh fumbles toward maturity here, perhaps because he wants to recover the family he thought he could have had. (His excitement about the prospect of marrying Raquel and taking the house makes much more sense.) And that makes it all the more frustrating that Colton’s family loves Rita for some reason (maybe they’ve never met her), and puts Raquel in the deeply uncomfortable position of having to acquiesce to the other woman’s presence in her life as some sort of condition of Josh being “allowed” to be with his son. Josh is, admittedly, horrible to Raquel here, collapsing when confronted with the slightest pressure from Gene, fumbling to give excuses for his actions even though he doesn’t need any.
Ultimately, this is why Colton leaves. Josh feels like something is wrong in his life (“This is fucking insane right now”), but he’s incapable of identifying what it is or how he should deal with it, and allows the root of his trauma to infect everything from his anxiety around Gene and Blossie to his response to Raquel’s outburst at Colton (who should not, admittedly, be a part of this conversation). It’s okay for Josh to not know, but he’s put in the position of having to make a rapid decision in response to a lot of new information about his life, reevaluating nearly two decades at the same time as he’s been asked to decide definitively how much he values his new son. Can you imagine having to make the same decision? (I suspect not.) He doesn’t know, and he wants someone else—Colton, Raquel, anyone—to make the decision for him. Like Raquel says, it’s really bad. It’s heartbreaking when Josh says nothing, but it’s difficult to imagine what might have come out of his mouth.
Where Josh is left in silence, Shelly says… a lot when Maura comes home with the news. “He’s with a rabbi for Christ’s sake.” It’s easy for Shelly’s sharpness to rebut Maura’s guilt, and to allow her to justify their decision. It was for their son’s own good! But she’s also incredibly dismissive of something that should, at the least, be a big argument among their family. She doesn’t want to feel like anything is wrong, like anything is different. Which is perhaps part of why Maura leaves her again.
“I’ll be fine, I’m good.” Maura insists that she’s going to be okay, which is totally besides the point. Shelly is totally devastated by her ex leaving, and while Maura certainly has reasons to be frustrated with Shelly, Shelly is also absolutely right that Maura has decided, essentially on a whim, that Shelly isn’t good enough for her, and that the comfort of their relationship isn’t what she wants. This has been coming for a while, but that still doesn’t make it any less abrupt, or any less cruel, for Maura to make this major life decision for no particular reason. Judith Light looks absolutely crumpled in this scene, which is hard to take emotionally given how much of a powerhouse she’s been so far this season. As stifling as she can be, she’s still the most supportive Pfefferman.
In her interjection to Gene and her decision to break up with Shelly, Maura continues to assert herself above everyone else and insert herself into their lives (consider the way she turns Davina getting to look at gender-swapped photos of herself as a child into an opportunity to loudly proclaim that she’s going to do the same thing). When she screams for someone to help her by opening the gate to Shelly’s community, Maura should be sympathetic, but honestly, she’s not—she’s left her wife again and, like Josh, just expects that everyone else around her will do the emotional work of dealing with that decision. But Maura is unwilling to accept any responsibility, lashing out in anger at the poor guy sitting in the attendant booth. Maura asserts to Shelly that they’re “broken.” At least Josh knows enough to know he doesn’t know anything.
- “Mee-Maw” is directed by Stacie Passion and written by Our Lady J, the trans performer hired in the writer’s room as part of Soloway’s “trans-affirmative action” program. It’s a very good script!
- “I’m going to do the New York Times crossword puzzle with a dick on.” Aw, Syd! (Also: the way Carrie Brownstein says “womyn.”)
- Go put on some Sade. Or some, like, roots reggae.