Nazis, spanking, and atonement: Every episode of ‘Transparent’ season 2, reviewed

12.22.15 2 years ago 20 Comments

We're approaching the end of 2015, which is one of the few times on the calendar, even in a year that's seen a whopping 409 original scripted series air at one point or another, where there's not a lot going on in the TV business. So I'm mostly spending these next couple of weeks watching 2016 screeners. But I did promise, when I published my interview with “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway, that I'd be back soon with brief thoughts on each episode of season 2, and it's belatedly time for that, with lots of spoilers coming up just as soon as I love the flavor of lost lesbian wedding dream cake…

EPISODE 1: Kina Hora

Any doubts I had that season 2 could live up to season 1 were dispelled in that opening shot, where Soloway just locked the camera in, brought virtually the entire ensemble on stage and let them talk over each other, disseminating a whole lot of information (the state of Raquel's pregnancy, Maura and Shelly's closeness) efficiently, even as it was reminding you that the Pfeffermans are enormous pains in the ass. (Later, Sarah complains to Ali, “Now you're making it all about you.” This may as well be the Pfefferman family motto.) And in the Which Pfefferman Is Worst? Battle, Sarah ending her wedding at the wedding reception is a relatively light sin for this season, but mainly because Tammy is herself no picnic (especially compared to Syd and Raquel). The closing shot worked as a nice mirror of the opening one, where the camera moved this time, but gliding along a horizontal axis to show how the Pfeffermans' problems are connected but not identical.

As Soloway discussed with me, inserting the random glimpse of Gittel and the Weimar Berlin world in the midst of the wedding reception is a trick that's easier to try if the audience isn't going to be waiting weeks to get some greater explanation of who and what that was.

EPISODE 2: Flicky-Flicky Thump-Thump

With the wedding over, everybody heads back to LA, and to their increasingly-complicated lives. Josh becomes the latest sibling to attempt to improvise a new family inside the old house in Pacific Palisades, though that stuff is mainly interesting for watching how Raquel reacts to having one Pfefferman curveball after another thrown at her, like Colton coming to live with them for a while. Colton seemed like one twist too many at the end of season 1, but these early episodes do a good job of not making him feel like a character, as well as another problem for Josh and Raquel to deal with. And I liked the Fussypuss song a lot, until Tammy came and wrecked the party.

But, of course, the two big moments from the episode deal with Maura, first as she gives Shelly a bit of the eponymous action – which, in turn, allows Judith Light to play an on-screen orgasm, even if the focus in that scene is mainly on how frustrated Maura is to be falling back into her old patterns. And that sets up that dynamite closing scene at the club. “Chandelier” should have had its pop culture utility exhausted by now, but it's the perfect song to illustrate Maura's struggle to find a place, and a partner, where she fits. She gets closer towards the end of the season, but for now, she's just holding on for night, dancing with herself in the mirror because nobody else seems quite right. If I have a major complaint about the season, it's that Maura at times becomes a supporting character in her own story, but this is a great showcase for Jeffrey Tambor.

Episode 3: New World Coming

This one introduces Cherry Jones as Ali's new mentor Leslie, and also turns Ali and Syd from best friends into a couple. From the start, this relationship seemed doomed to failure, not just because Pfeffermans wreck things as part of their DNA, but because Syd has spent her whole life waiting for this moment, where Ali is just coming to terms with the idea that she might like women – and, sexuality aside, has a long history as a dabbler who can never commit to one thing or person, which will become an issue down the road.

We can also start to see the impending wreckage of Josh's new family here, as Raquel tries to warn him that Colton is just “auditioning” for the role of his son, while her attempt to propose to him – a gender flip that would have been presented as charming on nearly any other show – instead leads to an ugly fight, because Josh rightly believes that Raquel (rightly as well) doesn't trust him.

And then… there is Sarah getting off to memories of Mr. Irons slapping his paddle (literally). While trans issues are the show's calling card, it's also very interested in female sexuality – and the many strange and/or kinky forms it can take – in general on a level that's unusual even in today's TV environment. Sarah blows up her life in the season premiere, and though she spends most of the remaining 10 episodes struggling to reassemble things, it's funny that the one area where she seems to be on solid ground is her realization that she enjoys being spanked. And that scene's yet another example of how time is as fluid as gender on this show, as Sarah's actions are observed by her younger self.

Episode 4: Cherry Blossoms

Meet Grandma Rose, in both present and in past, as we get our first real look at Berlin in 1933, with Emily Robinson (who played teenage Ali last season) as young Rose, and trans actress Hari Nef as Gittel, whose “Holocaust ring” was a running gag in season 1 and a big plot point this season. At the library, Ali discovers the idea of inherited trauma in your DNA, and we'll see over the remaining episodes that Maura's repeating a family cycle that she'll never even know about.

In the present, Maura's big struggle for the season involves figuring out the next step after coming out. Does she want surgery? Hormones? Is she still attracted to women? Even she's not entirely clear at this point, which leads to scenes like the one with Sonya Walger (Penny!) as the woman at the bar who isn't sure if Maura is hitting on her, in part because Maura herself isn't entirely sure if she's flirting or just being friendly.

And if you want even more of that patented Pfefferman awkwardness, this episode's got it by the barrel, between Raquel being forced to endure a dinner with Rita – and Colton having to watch his biological parents fight – and Sarah having a very public meltdown at the auction. I love this show, but it is not easy to get through sometimes.

Episode 5: Mee-Maw

Early in this one, Davina receives a box of childhood photos she had regendered, so she could picture an alternate history where she'd always been treated as a girl. The idea of rewriting your own past is a big one for this season, and particularly for this episode, where Josh finds himself making the same mistakes again and again, while Maura at least figures out how to break one cycle.

The arrival of Colton's adoptive parents is, of course, a disaster, because the history here is so muddled. Pastor Gene refuses to believe that Josh didn't know about Colton's existence, Josh refuses to accept that what Rita did to him was molestation, and Maura's arrival at the house makes everything worse not because it triggers any bigotry from Gene (the easy way to go for this dynamic), but because Maura admits that she and Shelly knew about Colton all along, and essentially paid Gene to take the boy off their hands. Jay Duplass is easily the least seasoned actor in the main cast, but his performance as Josh absorbed this news was dynamite. The whole thing's just too much for Josh to deal with, and he's being torn between Colton's need for paternal approval and Raquel's fear of the stresses this arrangement is going to put on them, forcing Josh to make an impossible choice, and going with Raquel. Just brutal, especially given what comes later between him and her.

Maura at least is able to recognize what a mistake it is to try to recreate her marriage to Shelly – even if Shelly seems fine with her comings and goings – and moves out of the condo.

Episode 6: Bulnerable

Lots of fallout from the events of “Mee-Maw,” as Josh angrily confronts Shelly about Colton, while Shelly seems unable to admit that she and Maura were in any way bad parents. (Josh: “I'm not looking for a parent. I'm just looking for a fucking human being!”) And the other shoe drops for Josh, as Raquel miscarries, and he makes the mistake of suggesting they wait a bit before trying again, even though he knows her biological clock has been her top concern from the moment he met her. As Pfefferman sins go, Josh asking Raquel for “a moment to breathe” isn't terrible on its face, but in the context of this relationship, there's no way it was going to lead to anything but Raquel moving out and leaving the Holocaust ring behind.

Ray Abruzzo (Little Carmine from “The Sopranos”) makes his first appearance as Davina's trans-amorous boyfriend Sal, while Jason Mantzoukas gets more run as Sarah's pot connection and potential hook-up Dr. Steve. That's a fun dynamic, and it's so rare to see Mantzoukas playing someone so completely normal and non-gross. (His eye roll in the next episode when Sarah tells Steve, “I want you to rape me, but I don't want it to hurt” is hilarious, especially coming from someone who usually plays creeps.)

Episode 7: The Book of Life

This is one where I think the ideas of doing episodes with their own structure and treating the bulk of the season as one big story come into conflict. As Soloway notes, they try shuffling scenes around from episode to episode, and the scenes at Davina's house feel like they're taking place on an entirely different day (and at a different time) from what everyone else is up to in terms of Yom Kippur, atonement, and reckoning with their various sins.

Sal's interest in helping Maura with her transition went to some unexpected places. He thinks he's being generous, she feels like her privacy is being invaded – or that helping in this way is a part of Sal's kink, when Maura doesn't want to be thought of in that way – and then she says a bunch of stupid things to Davina, because a core Pfefferman problem is being able to see the world from anything but each member's own self-interested perspective.

The break fast at Syd's apartment is fun, not just because Richard Masur makes such a strong addition to the recurring cast as Buzz (or, as Josh describes him, “the Jewish Santa Claus”), but because of the wonderful “You drive at night?” punchline to Shelly's otherwise uncomfortable (and, again, wildly narcissistic) reaction to the Raquel news.

Episode 8: Oscillate

This episode and the next one function in different ways as sequels to last year's great flashback episode, “Best New Girl.” Here, we get a lot of time spent in Berlin, now with even more actors repurposed in new roles: Michaela Watkins as Rose and Gittel's sensible mother Yetta, whose primary objections to having a trans child involve the practicalities of it, and Bradley Whitford as Magnus Hirshfield, whose institute provides a haven for people like Gittel in that brief, permissive moment in German society before the rise of the Nazis. (Between this show and “Casual,” Watkins had a hell of a year playing mostly dramatic material.) Gittel doesn't want to leave Germany because of Magnus, unable to fathom how bad things are about to get for anyone considered in some way “impure.”

In the present, I'm amused at the thought of Leslie as an aging, lesbian Wooderson, getting older even as the girls she dates stay the same age. Ali of course blows things with Syd, because she, like the rest of her family, can't commit to anything (see also Shelly winning the condo board election and immediately resigning because she didn't want to do the work), but we get at least one great upbeat moment in what's a pretty miserable season when Sarah and Ali decide to take Maura with them to the music festival, and the three of them rock out to the Indigo Girls' “Closer to Fine” on the drive.

Episode 9: Man on the Land

“Best New Girl” sequel part the second, with even more of the Weimar Germany scenes, including Gittel's story ending as tragically as we knew it would, plus a trip to yet another event where Maura realizes she doesn't really belong. The intersection of past and present is incredibly powerful, as Ali's search for her Moppa keeps weaving in and out of Yetta's search for Gittel, until the festival bonfire becomes a Nazi book-burning.

Anjelica Huston, meanwhile, makes a belated but very welcome entrance as Vicki.

Episode 10: Grey Green Brown & Copper

Goddamn, those last 10 minutes wrecked me. I wanted Maura's visit to see Rose to go so well, because both of them needed it, but the end result was about as much as could be expected, given Rose's age and mental condition. Still, Maura's sister was able to accept that this was a good thing, Rose at least recognized Gittel's ring – after mistaking Ali for Gittel on her previous visit – and if Maura didn't get the vast amount of backstory that we know but she never will, at least they had a moment.

The final flashbacks were wonderful, with Michael Stuhlbarg showing up for a cameo as Yetta's husband Chaim, who had moved on to a new wife and family, and then the birth of Maura, when Rose's husband is convinced – rightly, it will turn out long after he's gone – that he's having a daughter, but with the final line of the season being, “Congratulations, it's a boy!” That whole sequence floored me.

Such a great season. The Pfeffermans are each so difficult to spend time with that it requires an enormous level of artistry on the part of Soloway, the cast, and everyone else, to make the show as watchable as it is. Fortunately, they're all up to the task.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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