With its title at least, “Born Again” pushes the themes of Transparent’s fourth season right to the fore: It’s about defining moments in transitioning lives, and more specifically the deals that people try to make with God in their most difficult moments. Whether that divine force guides or threatens, it’s clearly felt for both Maura and Davina. (For Davina, it’s even right there in her name.)
It starts, though, with young Mort seeing a terrible psychiatrist in 1981, in what we can only assume was a fairly common conversation: The shrink wants to cure Mort of the desire to dress in Shelly’s clothes, and he thinks that an admission of homosexuality will do the trick. “Don’t you want to find peace?” the doctor asks, and director Marta Cunningham brings Young Maura into the picture to increase the tension. Young Maura is played with incredible vulnerability and fear by Zoe Van Brunt, who was apparently plucked from her behind-the-scenes role as a camera operator to play the part. She looks enough like Jimmy Ambrose, who plays Young Mort, that it took me a minute to suss out whether they were actually the same actor.
Confused as always, Young Mort decides to test their own sexuality at a cruising spot, but half-fumbles through a sexual encounter before giving up. It’s Young Mort that we see at the beginning, but Young Maura who walks away defiantly. It’s a powerful moment in Maura’s growth, but it’s quickly stymied, we learn, by that deal with God. After sex with a kvetching Shelly (“Oh God Mort, now with the sex? Just don’t wake me all the way up.”), a third Pfeffer-child is conceived.
Ali’s difficult birth sends Young Mort reeling and dealing in a heartbreaking moment that pushes the transition into Maura far into the future: “Is it because of me?” Mort asks God. “If it is, I promise I’ll stop everything. I’ll stay, I’ll be a good father. Please God, let Ali live.” She does, and Maura stays mostly hidden for decades.
In the present day, Maura seems to be dealing with Moshe in a strangely subdued manner, which has a lot to do with how Moshe has reacted to his former family suddenly showing up. He doesn’t seem to feel particularly guilty, nor does he do what might be expected in that situation—slam the door. Instead, he invites the whole Pfeffer-clan to Israel for a “no expenses spared” tour, an invitation that seems to flummox both Maura and Ali, though they nonetheless accept. (It’s safe to assume that Maura and Moshe will have some kind of confrontation on this journey, but it hasn’t happened yet.)
And then we’re off to the episode’s A-story, which is sort of disguised as its B—Davina’s origin story, as it were. She’s been a reliable friend and confidante to Maura, but we’ve only seen hints of Davina’s backstory so far. Here, it’s brought into stark relief immediately via her breakup with Sal, who drives her away by being insensitive to her HIV-drug-related pain. She’s off to the basement apartment in the Pfeffer-home to commiserate with her friends and tell us a story they already know, via flashback. (But where is the weird Airbnb family? That’s got to pay off in a subsequent episode.)
Davina also bargained with God, but in a far more dangerous way than Young Mort did: “I made this deal with God. If you want me to live, you will not infect me. And if you want me to die, you will. That’s how much I thought my life didn’t matter. Testing God. Teasing God. Playing God.” Her story goes back to young David, who at 16 had an domineering asshole of a sugar daddy and a creative outlet in drag shows. And though her story—and the stories of her trans friends—are difficult bordering on tragic, they find comfort in the fact that they’ve made it this far, and together. (And Davina’s got her fantastic memories of The Queen Mary, too, all wrapped up in desperation and triumph.)
It’s nice to see a little diversion from the Pfeffer-family story, too, though I assume that we’ll get a lot more Israel in the next episode—and hopefully an eventual confrontation with the weird Airbnb family.
- It can be tricky to be both clear on the plot and to correctly gender the characters with an episode like this one (especially with one character appearing as sort of a pre-transition ghost!). Hopefully I succeeded in being both clear and sensitive.
- Man, I love Mario. Shelly at the UCB (and bringing that character home) is some amazing comic relief. “I got your passport right here!”
- “If you don’t kill Mario, I will.”
- Not sure we needed the threesome plotline in this episode, but presumably that will play out in some explosive way soon enough.