When it comes to hunting ourselves down, to finally seeing a dim version of ourselves, “Transparent” Season 3 supposedly plops this desirable object — your selves, your you-ness — in its characters’ laps. Or so our lead, Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor), claims — and there are a number of reasons to buy this assessment: Ali (Gaby Hoffman) got out of that sweatshirt and back into her outfits, Sarah (Amy Landecker) stopped performing her shame in public, while Josh (Jay Duplass) did the opposite; Maura is Maura.
After Season 2 called Season 1’s bluff, discourse-wise — that freedom is what happens when you are delivered into wilderness — we begin with nearly everyone just a bit more situated. A little bit safer than when we left them, electrolytes replenished, ready to go searching again.
But Maura is unhappy, even after apparently getting what she wants. Should she reevaluate her desire? Or ask this simpler question: Did Maura get what she wanted? Has she arrived?
Regardless of its symbolic reach, the intersections it traffics — between queer, trans, Jew, and cis female (among many) –“Transparent” knows that signs don’t come free, not all recognition is equal — that not everyone has the same access to a reflection.
But “Transparent” also knows we collect our purest selves in vain: The moral equalizers in all this drama are the paradoxes of recognition — the insistence that other people exist, right here, right now, and you’d better figure out how to be an adult about that.
Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn)’s Passover sermon in Season 1 sums up Exodus with Raquel’s typical tenderness toward those in chaos, toward those persons who will find their thing from a point of never finding anything: “Only those born in the wilderness will see the Promised Land.”
Seeing the Promised Land is understood by “Transparent” as a kind of fantasized homecoming between your desire and your self: At its most adult it is to dare to look, to tolerate being seen; to admit its pleasures, its costs, its inequalities. At its most youthful, it articulates our demand to locate the self without difficulty, without mess.
That this audience-seeking should be awkward is confirmed by the Pfefferman’s cloddish attempts to locate the modern Jewish self (at times finding fringe elegance in Ali, and a standard in Raquel).
Sarah and Shelly (Judith Light)’s grasping at Jewishness only re-articulates “Transparent’s” suspicion that defining Judaism by identity alone (without belief) is its ritual elided, which makes the whole compulsive collection of Jewish signs crushingly empty — not a stellar outcome for recognition. Here, we’re asked to be critical of an easy reflection; to cover this particular mirror up.
But the trans woman who dares to become herself, purely and simply, pushes back against the critique of this homecoming as pure fantasy, or at least nuances our own disgust with ourselves and others for looking in the mirror, for demanding “an audience.”
At no point does the show simply crap on the lazy gesture — hanging out near the mirror — but simply explores the emotional and moral risks one takes in doing so. Of course this is not exclusive to trans experience — the show returns to European Jewish history to see itself more reflectively — but yes, “Transparent” ultimately dares us to exhaust the practice. You are asked to find yourself beyond recognition.
The impossible promise, & being in the wilderness with you
Season 3 begins with Raquel’s Passover sermon — a meekly titled “Thoughts About Passover” — gesturing to a kind of after-the-escape, a post-messiah. What happens when we are free? Why do we continue to imagine that we’re in danger, that we are being chased? Or is what we call disenchantment with the outcome really projecting a homecoming onto what is another leg of the journey? Have we arrived? Can we ever?
The meat of Raquel’s original sermon lay in the relationship between the Promised Land and the impossibility of recognizing it from a predetermined position: “The older generation had to die.” Homecoming is not a composite of your fantasies, needs, selfishness and reflections — it will always be, and always should be, unrecognizable.
And so, recognizing is not remembering: Paradoxically, it’s beholding something new.
Maura’s own assessment of her sadness as being “post-Promised Land” only insists she reevaluate this feeling. She chases her suicidal friend to a mall, until she is missing a shoe, apprehended on a 5150 and looking into the eyes of Elizah (Alexandra Grey), who holds her hand and her gaze. Season 3 begins with a half-hour suggestion that we substitute the mirror for the people, swapping the misreading of recognition for actual engagement.
From reflection to transparency, as the light changes: That not every trans person of color Maura meets is a sex worker, or destitute; that “county” is only hell when you’re used to Cedars Sinai; that Maura is not mentally ill, or a thief, just an old meddling woman desperate to save a child. Someone’s child, anyone’s child, if she can.
Being here means being here-with-you, which is so hard and so terrible. Mirror work is seductive — “so beautiful,” as the show so loves to to say — but of course it is partial. The work is with here-with-you in the wilderness, in the mall with Elizah, in the dark abyss of ego with Sarah, in Josh’s day in an empty wonderland with Shea (Trace Lysette) and in the truth with Colton (Alex MacNicoll).
And this fear — the fear of the outsider, the other person — is the quiet engine supporting all Pfefferman trauma: Insularity, secrets, the horror of other humans permeating. It’s Mort who guarded this structure most vehemently; terrified by sixty-some years and the very possibility of change. But for Maura, the effect of being here-with-you is anywhere from vertiginous (a gurney ride past racks of cheap clothes) to deeply healing (that warm Tambor smile).
Increasingly, it’s the gorgeous overlap of the two.
These are the words of Exodus that indicate rising to a challenge, and define a practice of community that assumes transcendental stakes when it comes to other people: I am here. But, I am anywhere.
Raquel’s Shabbat service speaks of 36 people (tzadiks) in the world that cannot be identified by anyone, anything, including themselves. They are an “insurance policy” against recognition, and for living in the world with other people whose humanity depends on not being identified. If you look for the divine in other people and see it looking back, you’re only recognizing, only reflecting: They are what they are. I am that I am.
During Maura’s impromptu Kaddish, a bewildered Raquel off her game finally begins to grieve, or so we assume. But what else is her cry? Did Raquel decide the Promised Land was overrated because that three year slog with The Pfeffermans really did feel like forty in the wild, or because, despite her own words in Season 1, she was equally guilty of structuring her existence according to a fantasy of completed emancipation?
Does Raquel suddenly catch a glimpse of herself as any other slave to B.S., having over-recognized the entire journey of enslavement, from hell to home?
Sarah wants to re-enliven the empty moves and ritual of her Judaism because she barely understands it — for her, it is empty. For Raquel, it comes too close to a mirror yet, and so her triumph in the following episode is not simply a tantrum, not only a grief, but also a real No:
“I don’t care if the moshiach himself comes… I’m not doing it.”
Sarah is hardly the only Pfefferman to hold her own journey at the center of the universe, wearing out everything in its orbit; but it’s her particular selfishness — grasping at meaning beyond the meaning she can’t seem to see; that is transparent to her — that breaks Raquel open, in the end.
‘I’m wrong and I’m sorry, baby.’
So what’s the other miracle? If the un-thought of miracle could be anyone here, “Transparent” thinks, it just might be your mom. Ali gets regular visits from the female face of the divine, and sets it upon the water of the family, who one by one grow to grasp her truth. But the one female face that stays a mirror is Judith Light’s Shelly; for three seasons and until the last moment.
Locating your own beginnings — stabilizing some version of yourself based on endless interrogation — explicitly comes at the price of a Shelly: Her generation of women, its particular “modern” “feminism”; if shitting on her Boomer embrace of screens is tragic, it’s because the screen thing wasn’t even her idea — it was yours. She seeks after relevance because she knows, inside, something we’ve forgotten, which is that her relevance is what’s holding the world up.
Mom is the mirror. Shelly reflects and refracts the selfish fantasies of her family, while also constantly absorbing their refusal of these reflections; this too is “her fault.” Mom is one of the major currencies of the wild hunt for the self, and must fight hard to be seen.
Mom is an origin who is also an end point. (We call it Shell, because it lives in its Shell: An unbearable circularity.) When you get to the Promised Land, it’s her face you’ll see. Nacho’s name was Shelly once, and she lived in the walls for your whole life.
Conversely, she’s heavy with your stupid projections of beginnings. You think you see her, but you don’t. Learn to handle the mom thing like an adult, and every time you revisit her, she’s new, refigured, an actual person.
The same applies to homecomings. You don’t bet on a mess-free recognition, you start by assuming this is not a journey from A to B. The logic of freedom could never permit that.
Season 3’s new miracle is not entirely clear, and signing off on your own life is still to be determined. We give up the hope for miracles, and hope that lack of hope leaves space for the miracles to come in.
But also up for debate is whether that exodus is anywhere from over. Not because we can’t escape the logic, but because the logic itself implies eternal escape. If there is another, or a better miracle — or the last miracle never came — it means freedom is not to be recognized; that a certain incomplete recognition is freedom.
Taking up this awful, awesome freedom — taking responsibility for your desire, like a grown adult — is to take people more seriously than any fantasy you may have brought with you. Better this than any desire, to have your image mirrored, rather than your gaze held.
“Transparent” Seasons 1-3 are available at Amazon Video, free with Prime.