In an early episode of Transparent‘s second season, Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), who’s decided to go back to school, sits in a lecture, utterly captivated. Her professor is explaining nothing less than the universe itself. “When you look up at the sky, you’re not seeing the universe as it is today,” her instructor explains. “You’re not seeing the sky as it is. You’re seeing it as it was hundreds, thousands, millions of years ago — the multitudinous past of every star, sending photons hurtling through space, each one a clue as to our origins. What you are looking at is the past.”
This brief and powerful synopsis of the universe serves just as well as a synopsis of Transparent‘s second — and equally powerful — season. While season one dealt primarily with the gender transition of Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor, whose performance on the series has earned him several awards, including a Golden Globe), season two centers on what comes next — both for Maura and for every member of her fabulous, self-absorbed, fascinating family — but also, and even more significantly, on what came before.
With this new crop of episodes, creator Jill Soloway is out to remind us that none of us were born from, or operate within, a vacuum. She’s making incisive, almost painfully accurate points about how we view our own families and our places within them — how, when we look at our brothers, sisters, parents, grandparents, we aren’t seeing them as they are today, or as they’d like to be seen. We’re seeing them as they once were, or shoehorning them into and excising them from our own narratives, often refusing to accept their personal growth for fear it might send us hurtling into the unknown corners of our own souls. But, Soloway seems to be saying, no matter how hard we try to escape its orbit, the gravitational pull of our family — both its present-day iteration and its multitudinous origins — is impossible to resist. And we shouldn’t even try: We can’t truly change or move forward unless we reckon with it directly.
Season two’s cold open illustrates this point particularly (and hilariously) well. The Pfeffermans, clad in all-white for the splashy wedding of Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Tammy (Melora Hardin), stand on a patch of green grass, ostensibly posing for a family photo. It’s a wide shot, and while the camera doesn’t move, the Pfeffermans can’t stay still. Standing next to each other, dressed in matching outfits, they hardly interact, each lost in his or her own world. As such, the photo shoot is a total clusterfuck. Sarah, her face poorly masking pure panic, fails at several attempts to corral her children. Tammy yells loudly and repeatedly for her two ex-wives to join the photo. Josh (Jay Duplass) can’t stop resting his hand protectively over Rabbi Raquel’s (Kathryn Hahn) newly pregnant belly, despite her protestations that the baby remain secret for now. Maura, obsessed by and insecure about her appearance, continually asks the photographer how she should pose. “Do you want my head up, or do you want my head down?” she asks. The photographer replies, “I think chin up for you, sir.” Maura, aghast, turns to her ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light), and asks, “Did he just call me sir? We’re done. We’re done.” The two grasp hands and walk out of the frame, and the rest of the Pfeffermans disperse, floating separately into the ether before even a single Facebook-worthy photo can be taken.
Maura’s behavior in this first scene is a harbinger of things to come. Though season one placed her carefully at the moral center of the show, season two lets her loose. No longer is Maura the sole transgender representative on television, and Soloway, understanding this, has promptly and dramatically un-sainted her. This season, Maura is just as selfish, blind, and salty-tongued as her children. She can’t make up her mind about whether she’d like to resume a sexual relationship with Shelly, whose seemingly unending patience and acceptance starts to chafe. She ditches a family pool party to go dancing with her friends. Most poignantly, she’s forced to contend with what comes after a personal revolution. The hard part, as it turns out, isn’t deciding to change. It’s the act of changing, which is something Maura can’t do alone, or without examining what prevented her from being her authentic self for all those years.