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Transparent steadies itself as Maura gets ready to take off

(Photo: Amazon Prime Video)
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Pick any Transparent episode, drop in at any timestamp, and you’ll see that boundaries are anathema to the Pfefferman family. They repress very little, and almost never think something they don’t immediately say. (Though, to the cast’s credit, their characters do have degrees of interiority.) This distinct distaste for limits of taste, of access, is just the Pfefferman way. Shelly couldn’t move in with Josh, as she does in this season’s premiere, unless she planned to embed herself in his daily plans. Sarah can’t let something like bumping into her daughter’s lovely preschool teacher Lila (Alia Shawkat, who is collecting dysfunctional families) at a sex—and love!—addicts meeting without seeking her out later, anonymity be damned. And of course Ali wants to have a look at the people currently living in her house.


Division is painful on Transparent, whether it’s Len and Sarah’s separation that hasn’t quite stuck, or Maura having had to compartmentalize—the word of the day in “Groin Anomaly”—all those years before coming out. But after 30 episodes, including a season-three finale that saw Josh, um, breaking things off with his sister, the show is now poised to give boundaries a go. It feels like obvious, garden-variety therapist’s advice, but it’s as good a direction as any to take at this point, since meaningful progress has been so fitful and short-lived for everyone. (And frankly, finding a way to stay out of each other’s lives would be a step forward).

You don’t have to have watched ahead to know that a trip to Israel and its fraught implications are going to play a significant factor this season (seriously, the trailers give it away). Borders, tangible and otherwise, are the overarching theme here, which is pointed to with varying subtlety and success. But thanks to that emerging purpose, “Groin Anomaly” feels more focused than “Standing Order,” despite taking place all over the place: at Lila’s apartment; in Len and Sarah’s bedroom; at an improv theater; and back to the sex (and love!) addicts meeting.


But first, a rather vicious bit of line crossing, as Ali learns that Leslie’s poem about her (“My Ali, My Garcon”) depicts her as vain, boorish, and spoiled. This bit is another nod to Eileen Myles, who published a poem about their relationship with Transparent creator Jill Soloway, though the imagery is hopefully not the same, because, to quote Maura “what’s with the forks?” As unflattering as it is, though, it doesn’t quite warrant a trip out of the country, even if the injured ego is Ali’s. But Transparent needs to get everyone to Jerusalem somehow, and at least pairing her with Maura feels natural.

(Photo: Amazon Prime Video)

Less obvious is how and why Sarah would meet her mother and sister overseas, now that she and Len are under the same roof again. Boundaries would be good here, or at least, just some declaration of what they want from their reunion, if it really is that. Enter Lila, who puts that early childhood development degree to good use, albeit on an adult. After Sarah admits her family is made up of liars (herself included), Lila reframes that dishonesty as secrecy. “Secrets are the perfect stand-in for boundaries,” she says, suggesting that a little compartmentalization allows for some privacy when nothing else will.

It’s a ploy that does nothing but gloss over a character flaw, but Amy Landecker’s performance is more eager than gullible. Although Sarah would appreciate the mix of forthrightness and preemptive forgivenes, there’s also chemistry between Sarah and Lila, which is made all the more palpable by director Allison Liddi-Brown shuttling them into the tight quarters of Lila’s galley kitchen. It’s not quite enough to offset how on the nose their exchange is; Ali Liebegott’s script seems to call for a capital-letter discussion of the episode’s themes.


Josh’s storyline feels similarly underscored; as heartening as it is to see him appear ready to confront his abuse at the hands of Rita, I’m not sure how well having Brett Paesel around as a reminder of Josh’s abuse will work in the long term, assuming she sticks around. The conversation outside the meeting hall justified a brief return; Paesel knocked the wind out of me with that “I... swan dived.” But if if a glowing Rita ends up being a conceit, it’ll feel too much like Transparent telling rather than showing the extent of the damage she did.

Where Liebegott and Liddi-Brown’s heavy-handedness is more effective is in the episode’s Judeo-Christian allusions and imagery. There’s nothing subtle about the Jesus Christ Superstar score, but it lends itself well to the flashback, which ties Maura’s awakening to Ali’s birth. (I know rebirth is a Christian belief, but stay with me here.) By the time “The Temple” plays, it accompanies Maura’s weed gummy-induced vision of Ali’s ascension. But before things can get out of hand, the TSA scanner brings them right back down to earth.


“Groin Anomaly” is more purposeful than the premiere, which makes up for some of its weaker moments. The family vacation path is a well-worn one, but the destination’s significance is likely to lend something new to the proceedings.

Stray observations

  • I’m not mocking the intentions of the sex and love addicts meeting; the “and love!” is a reference to Sarah’s repeat assertions.
  • The mustachioed hipster doofus outside the Upright Citizens Brigade is the same one from that Taco Bell fondue commercial, which means he’s really nailed his look.
  • Good luck getting “Everything’s All Right” out of your head.
  • Ali’s “my body is screaming at me: ‘You’re in the wrong place’” has to factor into the larger story here.
  • Shelly’s sudden affinity for improv looks like a retread of To Shell And Back, but at the same time, I think its open-ended nature would appeal to her. Fingers crossed that it culminates in a boat cruise:

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