Well, it was probably going to be hard to top “Best New Girl” as an extended flashback story. “Oscillate” gives us our most prolonged look at the Berlin flashbacks yet, with a tragic situation starting to take shape—and while it doesn’t quite top one of the show’s best episodes, it’s still pretty damn good.
We return to Weimar Germany to discover that Yetta, Gittel and Rose’s mother, has procured visas for the family to go join their patriarch in America. It’s a nice way to extend our understanding of the different worlds Gittel and her mother are inhabiting—one cosmopolitan, liberated, fleshy, the other duty-bound—and to have Rose initiated into one of those worlds. But it does highlight some of the weaknesses of the flashback story, particularly in the acting. There are ways of justifying the fact that everyone is speaking pretty good, lightly accented English and doesn’t really seem to care about a ton of period details—in particular, that this plot is mostly a reconstruction of events in Ali’s head—but it doesn’t negate the fact that a lot of the line readings are a bit jarring.
Still, there’s a lot to love in these scenes. Emily Robinson continues to be lovely, and perhaps the most talented person in the entire cast, depicting Rose’s awakening to both the pleasures of the flesh and the possibility of simply being carefree as she visits her sister at the Institute. Gone is the dour Rose of the first few episodes. Instead, she giggles, smiles, and generally looks like a teenage girl instead of a tiny version of an old woman. Bradley Whitford shows up as Magnus Hirschfeld, the director of the Institute, and it’s kind of weird and funny to see him play a vaguely boozy, rationalist, enlightened science bro. Michaela Watkins does great work, conveying confusion, frustration, and surprise at discovering Gittel playing Eve without quite tipping into outright condescension or anger. (When she says “If you’re going to be a girl, cover your tits,” it’s one of the strongest moments of the episode, and perhaps of the series.)
It’s not so hard to guess what’s going to happen here. Gittel refuses to leave Berlin, partly because of Magnus (even though, in one of Hari Nef’s best acting moments, she admits that “He’s not my gay lover”), partly because the visas misgender her, and partly because she thinks she’s protected by the city. How could she leave all of this behind? It’s Germany in the early 1930s, and she doesn’t know what’s coming.
Director Bridget Bedard does lovely work with the camera here, particularly in the quick focus on the shot glasses before Gittel and Rose down their drinks. They’re experiencing a new, sisterly bond—they paint each other, do shots, lie down. And while this happens, their mother bakes the family jewels (the literal family jewels) into chocolate, preparing for their trip to America, where their descendants can get really into CrossFit.
In his attempt to get over his breakup with Raquel, Josh apparently gets really into CrossFit, pushing himself as far as he can go until he barfs. There’s some precedent for this (remember when Ali had a trainer way back at the beginning of the series?), but it still feels a little weird. Josh is in pain, as he has been for basically the whole season, and it hurts to watch him try to exorcise that pain through his body.
Later, he tries a different tactic—exorcising Los Angeles, by taking Fussypuss on the road. Like Sarah’s walk down the aisle in “Kina Hora,” the scene where Josh tries to talk down the used car salesman is edited to create a disconnect between words and actions. We hear Josh talking over images of him smiling creepily and nodding, rather than just seeing straightforward shots of him talking. Josh uses nearly every trick in the book for buying a car—he tries to establish a bond with the salesman (“We got two Cali boys here!”), he banks on the commission, he tries to be “no bullshit,” and threatens to walk away—and the whole time, he’s yelping, grinning like a crazy person, and sounds a bit like he’s about to snap. And eventually, he gets the deal.
The danger here seems to be that Josh will sleep with someone in the band and blow up his life in the way we’ve come to expect from him, reverting him to his season one cad status. Instead, he just breaks down trying to get out of the city, getting into a severe bout of unearned road rage. He repeats that other cars are, “boxing me in,” and it’s not hard to make connections to other things in his life that might be having a similar effect. Still, he has a surprisingly tender moment with Margaux on the side of the road. The band is his family now, and I really do hope they stick around and continue to be a positive influence on his life. (The image of Josh feeding gummy worms to the band in a nest in the back of a van is both horrifying and, somehow, incredibly sweet.)
Where Josh has at least some semblance of stability in his life, Ali pushes away the person closest to her, finally killing her relationship with Syd.
Most of the shots throughout their hike show Syd turning and looks at Ali, seeing her for who and what she is. Ali describes what she’s doing in trying to turn their relationship poly-amorous as “expanding,” but the only thing that seems like it’s expanding is her dick. (So to speak.) When she lets slip that she can’t even see a month into the future to confirm that she’ll still be with Syd, it’s over. It’s not that Ali is even making an objectively bad (though, perhaps, a bit short-sighted) life decision by choosing to live so immediately. It’s that living that way makes it impossible to build a life with someone else. “Of course tomorrow,” Ali protests, but why should Syd believe her? I’m torn between wanting Syd to stick around in some form and wanting her to go free—Carrie Brownstein is excellent here, presenting a rare voice of reason, but I have a hard time conceiving of the circumstances in which she’d come back and not have it be a disaster. (Maybe she can date Sarah?)
Ali describes her relationship with Syd as a burden, which also seems to capture the way Leslie perceives both her relationships and, maybe, her own body. We get a slightly longer glimpse of Leslie’s girlfriend Bella, who looks a bit like a deer caught in sexual headlights, but for Ali, the hunt is on. By the middle of the episode—however long after the breakup—Ali is complaining to Sarah about how she feels too old for Leslie, who she “really likes,” even though she’s just gotten out of a romantic relationship with her best friend of many, many years. Damn, that’s cold. The subsequent retreat to Ali’s sibling relationship with Sarah feels a lot emptier here than it did back when they went to the spa together, partly because Ali is so obviously being selfish here, and partly because there are far more compelling characters in the scene: Buzz and Shelly.
Shelly’s transformation from a vaguely stereotypical acerbic, elderly Jewish woman to a totally different kind of elderly stereotype is hilarious, giving Judith Light the opportunity to kvell over her Buzzy at great length. Buzz now has a “drawer” in Shelly’s condo (he lives on a boat), he’s overseen redecoration (there are colors!), he bought a margarita machine, and he grills now. (Cue Shelly: “He loves his meat… I love his meat.”) Also, Buzz buys a ton of stuff from SkyMall, which is dope as hell. His totally unpretentious, comfortable attitude toward himself, and toward being in the world, is refreshing in contrast to the Pfeffermans, even if it leads him to give Shelly the most selfish piece of advice imaginable—to quit the condo board after one meeting, because she finds the minutiae boring and dumb.
Staying on the board is what Shelly feels like she “should” do, and not what she wants to do, so she quits. She cleans the whole house and makes everything look perfect, because she’s in puppy love. This is the kind of excitement we’ve come to know and love from Shelly—when Josh started dating Raquel, and Maura moved in. But there are consequences to how much she throws herself into any new thing that comes along. She misgenders Maura intentionally (I would imagine out of spite), and she throws away Ali and Sarah’s childhood stuff. She might be right that the house isn’t a storage unit, but it’s an awfully cavalier attitude that leads her to make decisions without consulting her children. (At least the conspiratorial looks between Ali and Sarah in this scene are great, and some of the funnier parts of the episode.) While Shelly tries not to justify her decisions beyond simply wanting to do something, her ex-spouse is doing her very best to justify herself as a person.
Maura’s story, in which she tries to be a better woman while still falling into many of her own traps, is by far the most interesting part of the episode. While signing up to volunteer with a hotline for suicidal LGBTQ youth, Maura encounters Davina at yoga and sort of tries to confront her. Davina is neutral initially, but their ensuing interaction is full of meaning. Maura asks questions, tries to listen—then goes straight to starting a fight, asking whether the coolness between them will just characterize their relationship going forward. “Do you want me to move out?” That’s less important than, you know, apologizing, which Maura doesn’t really do. She evades responsibility for her own actions while still trying to consider herself a “good” person (whatever that means). Maura describes herself, correctly, as “flawed,” which is pretty much the core of her arc for the season.
She tries to practice taking these calls with Shay, who presents her with a rather depressing possibility: “…and I’m dead.” Maura is capable of caring about Shay, specifically, and being nurturing, urging the younger woman to call her if she ever experiences suicidal thoughts, and prompting Shay to remark, “You’re such a good mom.” She’s a little less of a good mom to her own children, but it is nice to see Maura’s maternal instincts fully emerging in this new context, particularly when she hasn’t gotten the opportunity to use them before.
That’s why, when the Pfefferman women (minus Shelly) look at the retouched photos of Maura as a young girl, it’s sad. There’s so much lost potential in those photos, so much love that Maura never had the opportunity to give. Sarah wonders what it would’ve been like “if you could’ve been here your whole life.” They’ve never had a chance to fully bond as moppa and daughter, a loss that the Pfefferman children are only just starting to understand. Note how small a part of this season Maura’s transition has been—that’s partly because she’s an interesting character who deserves stories outside her gender identity, but it’s also because the family seems to think they’re “done” dealing with it. Everyone might nominally be comfortable with Maura, but there’s still so much left unsaid, and so many experiences they need to have. And so they head off to the festival—the Pfefferman women, all together, loudly singing Indigo Girls.
- “Oscillate” is written by Bridget Bedard and directed by Andrea Arnold.
- “I’m pretty sure you used that same joke in 5774.”
- “Usually we don’t call it the graveyard shift because of the… because of the nature of the calls.”
- “Volunteering twice a week doesn’t make you Mother Theresa.”
- “Last one to the studio buys Pinkberry!”