Fine fine fine? Reviewing every episode of ‘Transparent’ season 3

Senior Television Writer
09.26.16 14 Comments

Amazon

On Friday, Amazon released all 10 episodes of Transparent season 3, and I have some general thoughts on the year, followed by a mini-reviews of each episode, coming up just as soon as I say I'm the strip club's IT person…

As I alluded to in the introduction to my interview with the always-candid Gaby Hoffmann, I found that season 3 worked more in individual moments – or at times for entire episodes – than it did as a season of TV. The character arcs frequently felt like they were jumping from Point A to Point D without worrying about B or C, even though it wasn't structurally all that different from the previous seasons. Great performances, great scenes, and slightly more self-awareness from the Pfeffermans – Maura and Shelly, at least, and maybe Ali – but something was a bit lacking compared to the show's previous heights.

Let's go episode-by-episode, and I'll do my best not to include spoilers for later episodes in discussion of earlier ones, for those of you who are looking at these as you work your way through the season gradually, but people should feel free in the comments to discuss any or all episodes.

EPISODE 1: ELIZAH

A kind of inverse of last season's premiere, which featured the whole sprawling Pfefferman clan together for Sarah and Tammy's wedding. This time, Maura is the only main character to appear, though Rabbi Raquel, Davina, and Vicki all pop up briefly, with Raquel's musings on Passover – “What if the miracle was you? What if you had to be your own messiah? What then?” – serving as an important table-setter for the journeys the Pfeffermans go on this year. Maura's conversation with Davina, meanwhile, establishes Maura as being a bit more reflective than before, even if that reflection has mainly made her realize that even when she has nearly everything she wants – love and acceptance of the family (a Pfefferman's top priority is to always be accepted for who they are), a supportive girlfriend, the volunteer job at the LGBT Center – she still feels profoundly unhappy.

Most of “Elizah,” though, deals with Maura's search for its title character, who comes across as a threat to herself when she calls the help line, sending Maura on an awkward quest to track her down, even though that's beyond the scope of her volunteer duties, and even though she still possesses the Pfefferman gift for offending others even when meaning well. As with so many things in her life, Maura almost achieves her goal when she actually finds Elizah at the swap meet, but falls short because she's in trouble for failing to pay for the drink, then passes out and gets hospitalized.

Like the Piper-only premiere of Orange Is the New Black season 2, “Elizah” is a good example of a streaming show taking advantage of knowing that all the episodes will be available at once, and likely consumed in a big chunk. A Maura-exclusive outing probably still would have played in a weekly format, but as the first new episode in nearly a year, it helps that the audience can immediately go right to one featuring the full cast.

EPISODE 2: WHEN THE BATTLE IS OVER

The end of “Elizah” suggests a big ordeal for Maura was coming, where she would be temporarily institutionalized at a hospital ill-equipped to meet her needs. Instead, she gets released relatively quickly, but only after a quintessential kind of Pfefferman family moment, where she and her sister are being tender in one moment and cursing each other out in the next, while the once-worried Sarah, Josh, and Ali can't wait to leave the moment they realize Maura is okay.

Mainly, the focus here is on establishing the status quo for the adult Pfefferman siblings: Sarah is living with Len and the kids to make parenting simpler, even though Len has a girlfriend and Sarah is still going to Pony the dominatrix for her own sexual needs; Ali has taken up residence with Josh in the family home, and is worrying that she may get discarded by Leslie like all her previous assistants; and Josh has already started losing interest in his new business, disengaging in favor of letting the kid everyone refers to as a young Josh make the decisions for him.

Amazingly, Sarah's session with Pony comes across as mild compared to Ali getting pulled into pleasuring a colleague while they're messing around with Leslie's testosterone cream, which leads to a contender for TV line of the year: “I cheated on her by raping myself. Actually, I raped my hand with some weird chick's vagina.”

EPISODE 3: TO SARDINES & BACK

How lovely was that opening montage of Nacho the turtle spending decades alone inside the walls of the Pfefferman house, from the kids' pre-teen days to Ali and Josh having their Jim Croce singalong in the series pilot? Nacho survives all this time, alone and unloved, needing little but scraps to get by, whereas the people on the other side of the wall are these gaping chasms of need.

Things start heating up a bit this week between Raquel and the temple's new cantor Duvid, who represents a particular crunchy flavor of Judaism I haven't seen dramatized much before. Kathryn Hahn is so good, and Raquel so fundamentally likable in contrast to the very difficult Pfeffermans, that there are times I wish Jill Soloway would just create a spin-off for her. Instead, they've teamed up for I Love Dick, which if it goes to series might limit Hahn's availability for this show.

Ali's nitrous hallucinations at the dentist provided the show an excuse to work in America's most famous trans citizen, Caitlyn Jenner, in a manner that felt more natural than if, say, the Kardashians all paid a visit to the LGBT Center, but on the whole came off more goofy than profound, and probably didn't need to be revisited again later.

Maura's latest makeover is definitely the best she's looked so far, even if, as an aghast Shelly notes, their hairstyles are now eerily similar. It's the first of many awkward moments at the family dinner, including Maura referring to Vicki and her friends as “my chosen family,” which understandably doesn't sit well with Shelly and the other non-chosen ones (a joke with extra meaning for a family who are culturally part of “the Chosen people”), and Maura announcing plans to have gender confirmation surgery without telling Vicki about it in private. Always with the drama, this clan.

EPISODE 4: JUST THE FACTS

This episode is not a very good look at all for Sarah, who tries to mark her territory with Len's girlfriend, then takes out her frustrations on Pony when they try a role reversal, going so far that she doesn't even notice Pony using her safe word at first. Add that to the mortifying scene where she and Len try to get their son's teacher to very actively help him with his bowel movements (just thinking about it gives me the hives), and “Just the Facts” makes her an early frontrunner for Worst Pfefferman of the Year.

The big development, though, is Rita committing suicide at the mall after one last conversation with Josh, where he forgives her for molesting him. On the one hand, her behavior throughout the conversation (and the fact that she had cleaned up her home and found that tape to give Josh) suggests she was going to do this no matter what. On the other, the timing of it is particularly brutal for Josh, and something that sets up his arc for the rest of the season.

EPISODE 5: O HOLEY NIGHT

Josh and Maura's scenes early in the episode are another Pfefferman roller coaster, with Maura being proud to realize she's the first relative Josh has told about Rita (always a competition in this family), but later apologizing for being a lousy parent, and explaining how little she knew about what Josh and Rita were doing back then. 

Rita's death also sets up some incredible Josh/Raquel moments during the Shabbat service Sarah has organized. The look on Kathryn Hahn's face as Raquel considers Josh's offer to go on the road trip with Rita's ashes was heartbreaking, because you can see how badly she wants to do it, but also how much she knows that this would be a terrible choice for her.

Leslie falling into the pit after a night spent arguing about Israeli-Palestinian relations with a roomful of Jews was an amusingly dark joke, even if it made me lament the fact that Hahn's presence means that Transparent and Parks and Rec can't exist in the same fictional universe, so Andy Dwyer could come in to sing “The Pit.”

EPISODE 6: ON THE ROAD

Perhaps to compensate for Jeffrey Tambor's big workload in the premiere, Maura doesn't appear at all in this one, which would have been unthinkable early in the series, but works fine now. It helps that Josh has Shea in the car with him, so the trans perspective is still prominent, but the show has become about much more than that by now. Still, it's a mark of the deep character bench Soloway has created that Shea can move from the sidelines to the center like this and immediately become exactly what she angrily tells Josh she is at the end of the episode: a person, and not just an adventure for him to have while he's dealing with his grief over Rita. Though Sarah can be more frustrating from moment to moment, Josh is probably the Pfefferman sib who does the most damage to the people around him, because he veers so often, without warning, between utter empathy and absolute narcissism. In the moments when he's good, he absolutely believes it and means it, but then he gets distracted, or lazy, or thoughtless, and it hits people much harder than if he had been a jerk the whole time.

Soloway also does such a beautiful job directing the road scenes – the montage of desert town imagery accompanied by Josh's song at the open mic is a stunner – that I almost wish this had been another episode without the rest of the main cast, especially since several of those scenes involved more business with Ali and the nitrous. But the Shelly subplot is important in beginning to sow some seeds of doubt in her relationship with Buzzy, while letting her offer her own version of a Pfefferman family mantra: “Let me be happy!”

EPISODE 7: LIFE SUCKS AND THEN YOU DIE

Speaking of Josh believing things devoutly in the moment, an episode that's largely about how non-spiritual the Pfeffermans are climaxes with him being caught up in the atmosphere of Colton's church and agreeing to accept Jesus Christ as his savior. It's another guise he's trying on, and one that as soon as it happens, seems as likely to end as poorly as all the others.

Also ending poorly: Maura and Vicki's relationship, and perhaps Raquel's with Duvid. The latter comes during an explosion of temper as Raquel loses her patience with not only the selfish Pfeffermans – Josh in particular – but seemingly the whole world around her that has brought her to this moment where she feels so lonely and in pain despite being surrounded by people, including a boyfriend who on paper is perfect for her.

Vicki deciding she's had enough of Maura's pathological need for attention feels about right, but it left me wishing the show had done more with Anjelica Huston while she was around. She turned out to be wildly overqualified for what she was asked to do.

EPISODE 8: IF I WERE A BELL

Time for the annual flashback episode, and one that takes place in two decades at once, offering us the start of Maura and Shelly's relationship in the late '60s, then bouncing back to 1958 to give them more well-rounded origin stories.

The show smartly cast a young trans actress named Sophia Grace Gianna to play the '50s Maura, spending Little League games fantasizing about the girl she knows she truly is, and wearing women's clothes down in her grandfather's bomb shelter. It was good to have Michaela Watkins and Michael Stuhlbarg back as Yetta and Haim, and a nice touch to have Gaby Hoffmann playing the adult Rose, who in season 2 was played by Emily Robinson, who had previously played the young Ali.

Still, the parts of the episode that hit hardest involved young Shelly, who gets molested by her music teacher in an era where such things weren't spoken about, at least not by her, and winds up being scolded by her oblivious parents for her traumatized response to it. She internalizes the secret long enough that it becomes strangely appealing when “Mort” asks her to keep their own affair from everyone (particularly Shelly's best friend), even though someone asking her not to talk about their time together should be the last thing she should want.

Cycles on this show continue, not just with the casting, but with the way patterns repeat, for good and for ill, across the generations. Rose had a sibling who was trans, and a child, too. Shelly got molested by an older caretaker, then put her son in a position to have the same happen to him – and shrugged off her own responsibility when confronted about it decades later. The Pfeffermans are infuriating, but most of them are profoundly damaged, and in ways that suggest the patterns won't be stopping with them.

Soloway has said she didn't want to thread the flashbacks across the entire season like she did in season 2, and enough stories this year felt slightly underfed without having to compete for time with even more material about the '50s and '60s. But I also came out of “If I Were a Bell” wishing we could have spent longer in this era.

EPISODE 9: OFF THE GRID

After Raquel visits a mikvah (a Jewish ritual bath) to wash herself of some of her recent behavior (unfortunately, her final appearance of the season), the season's other major stories come to a head in “Off the Grid.”

A trans friend who likes the show once pointed out to me that the show would eventually reach a crossroads with Maura, since Jeffrey Tambor isn't taking hormones and thus wouldn't go through the physical changes a trans woman in her situation would after a while, even without surgery. I had that in the back of my mind as Maura got the initial surgery consultation earlier this season, and here the show finds a way to sidestep the issue altogether, while creating more drama for Maura to deal with, as her mild heart condition not only cancels the surgery, but forces her to stop the hormones. A good example of when real-world considerations and character considerations can intersect.

Just as Maura has to let go of her dreams of completing her physical transformation – the oral sex she receives from a trans-amorous guy at the nightclub at the episode's end functioning less as pleasure than a cold reminder that this is the body she'll have for the rest of her life – the other family members have to let go of their own. Shelly finally accepts that Buzzy is sponging off her, and dumps him not because of that, but because he lies to her, and we just got a painful reminder in the previous episode of how badly secrets have hurt her over the years. Ali goes to retrieve Josh in Kansas – in the process suggesting that maybe her earlier fears about Leslie were entirely backwards, and that it's Leslie who has to fear being dumped by her, not the other way around – where Colton proves savvy and self-protective enough to realize Josh's church moment wasn't real, and that it won't be healthy to be so close together like this. When Sarah learns that their violent session inspired Pony to quit the BDSM business and leave LA altogether, Len offers to be the dom, and for a moment it feels like they're on the verge of returning to full couplehood, only for the spell to be broken when Len comments about knowing Sarah better than anyone in the world. Sarah has fantasized on some level about making her marriage real again, but she doesn't actually want that.

EPISODE 10: EXCITING & NEW

With outside relationships mostly severed in the previous episode, “Exciting & New” brings the core Pfeffermans together for a Transparent riff on The Love Boat – a title, we realize, was wrong all along, because these are supposed to be called ships, not boats. (There's even a joke about not misgendering the ship!)

But even though the Pfeffermans are all on the same ship, they're not truly together at this point. Shelly is off enjoying her luxury suite – along with Trevor, “the gay who comes with the room” – because, as she rightly calls the others out on, they don't really want to spend time with her. Josh decides to blame Ali, rather than himself, for his inability to start a traditional family of his own. The group comes together for an improvised seder – a bookend to the way the season opened with Raquel working on her Passover sermon – but they seem to only function in smaller groups these days, like Ali helping Maura let go of her shapewear now that it represents a physique she won't ever develop on her own.

That scene evokes a line from the series pilot. Back then, Maura was trying to explain to Sarah that Mort Pfefferman was the disguise, telling her, “This is me.” In that moment, she was excited about coming out, letting the world see who she truly was and what she was capable of becoming. Here, she also tells Ali, “This is me,” but ruefully, followed by, “This is it.” This is, as far as Maura is concerned, as far as she's going to get on her journey, and it's not nearly as far as she wanted or needed to. And that's hard to accept, even if she seems to have Ali's support more robustly than ever at the end of that very poignant conversation.

And then it all builds to an actual performance (part of one, anyway, since I doubt a one-woman show consists of a single song) of “To Shell and Back,” which is the inverse of your typical Pfefferman moment this season. Usually, we get conversations that begin sweetly and end uncomfortably. Here, Shelly's monologue about secrets and her past seems to be bombing with a crowd that's just looking to have a good time in the world-famous, renowned Spinnaker Lounge… and then she launches into Alanis Morissette's “Hand in My Pocket,” with a singing voice far stronger than the one she displayed back in 1958, and everything is more than just fine, fine, fine. It's a great moment to end the season on, even if I wish there had been more Shelly material in the build-up to it.

What did everybody else think? How would you compare this season to the previous 2? And who wins the awards for Best and Worst Pfefferman this time around?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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