Transparent dedicates an entire flashback to 1994 as we learn who the Pfefferman clan were before we met them.
Let’s bitch it out…
In an episode long flashback to 1994, Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) vacations at camp with Marcy (Bradley Whitford). Building off of the flashbacks that have come before, we finally see the rise and fall of Maura and Marcy’s friendship, what becomes of the decision to cancel the Bar Mitzvah and some seminal moments in the lives of the Pfefferman children due to poor parenting decisions.
In some ways, this is as closed a text as any Transparent has done. Everything that occurs happens in a single weekend and there are no big defining events. Instead ‘Best New Girl’ offers a rare glimpse into the characters and how they became the dysfunctional adults they are today. It also studiously delays any examination of the consequences that occur as a result of the Trans Got Talent show that ended 1×07.
Maura’s decision to seize the opportunity to run away with Marcy to the cross-dressing weekend camp offers the greatest insight to date about the disintegration of her marriage. Obviously we’ve known she and Shelly (Judith Light) have been divorced for some time and previous flashbacks have suggested a rocky relationship . The decision to bow to their daughter’s wishes, waste Shelly’s time and flush the Bar Mitzvah money down the drain might just be the tipping point. Shelly’s not going to win any awards for mother of the year (she essentially abandons her kids to go bitch and drink wine with her sister), but this glimpse into her side of the marriage (however brief) offers a different, more empathetic perspective. This is clearly a woman who doesn’t understand what is happening in her marriage and while she may laugh at her husband’s strange sexual proclivities, there’s a lot of questioning and melancholy in Shelly’s scenes.
‘Best New Girl’ also offers a new side of Maura. Thus far we’ve seen a lot of her struggles (and failures) to fit in among different people and social conventions, but more often than not she’s still trying to pass. Present day Maura isn’t comfortable in her own skin yet, which makes this episode revelatory because the Maura we see at camp is a woman at her most comfortable. Despite finding freedom in being herself, the weekend offers a few nasty set-backs which offer hints about why it takes Maura another two decades to come out.
There’s a liberation in the extended introductory driving scene when she and Marcy enter camp. There’s a wide variety of men dressed as women and Maura’s excited facial expressions suggest that she’s overwhelmed to find a place where she can be truly authentic. As the weekend progress, though, things start to fray: her relationship with Marcy is tested when he reveals that he considers himself a a cross-dresser, not a trans woman. This is further complicated when Maura overhears his overly masculine, gender-reinforcing comments to his son on the phone and he becomes increasingly aggravated by Maura’s new bond with Connie (Michaela Watkins), the understanding wife of another guest. For Maura, Connie represents the ideal future: a relationship with a wife who understands and accepts him. Mark’s phone call and the stories about the man who brought hormones to camp and was summarily expelled not only reinforce Maura’s own lie-filled marriage, but also the undesirable gender dynamics she came to camp to escape from. By the end of the weekend, Maura elects to retain the facade for as long as she can, remaining “in costume” despite Mark’s protest that they must rejoin the normal world. It’s a stark indicator of the kinds of challenge Maura faced to being herself full-time in the outside world. No wonder she needed another few decades…
While there’s nothing quite as revelatory about the children’s storyline, but each offers a tip of the hat as to the origins of their adult behaviour:
- Young Josh (Dalton Rich) is already firmly trapped under Rita (Annabel Marshall-Roth) the babysitter’s thumb. He’s much more defensive about their affair when Ali challenges that it’s gross. He’s also much meaner to his younger sister.
- Young Sarah (Kelsey Reinhardt) has arguably the leanest role. Her proclivity for making impulsive decisions is already on display when she abruptly abandons her responsibilities in favour of a political protest and there are clear inklings of same-sex interests with the girl on the bus. Arguably this is the least subtle – and satisfying – of the three stories.
- Finally there’s young Ali (Emily Robinson), who I spent the entire episode in awe of and concern for. The youngest Pfefferman child entertains a server who accidentally shows up for the Bar Mitzvah with a performative streak that reinforces her exhibitionist streak as an adult. Most disconcertingly she later tries to seduce a twenty-something man. The wrestling scenes made me very uncomfortable; I kept waiting for unwelcome sexual violence. Interestingly the guy turns out not to be a creep and fails to make a move, although he’s still clearly engaging in inappropriate behaviour.
- Interestingly enough, Ali’s storyline is the only one that includes an appearance by an adult counterpart (Gaby Hoffman). I initially interpreted present-day Ali in a causal sense (ie: the actions of her youth contribute to modern Ali’s approach to sex and sexuality). It’s only later that I realized it could also be a visual representation of adult desire within her pre-teen body. It’s a complicated – and challenging – scene to witness.
Your turn: did you enjoy the all-flashback episode? Did it contribute to your opinions or understanding of the present day characters? Do you think this is the end of Maura and Marci’s relationship? Is this where Maura and Shelly’s marriage fell apart? Sound off below.
Transparent is available in its entirety on Amazon Prime. I promise that we’ll cover the two remaining episodes of the series next week.