In ‘Transparent’ Season 3, Theory and Reality Collide

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[Warning: This essay spoils some of the mishegas that transpires in season 3 of Transparent.]

In a standout scene from the third season of Transparent, Josh Pfefferman (Jay Duplass) and his new friend Shea (Trace Lysette) sneak into an abandoned amusement park on a road trip. Josh and Shea — a transgender woman who’s had top and bottom surgery — explore the empty amusement park like kids playing hooky, giggling as they race up and down a pair of dry waterslides. But the day darkens when the two begin to kiss in an empty swimming pool. Just as Josh reaches down to unbutton her jeans, Shea stops him and discloses that she is HIV positive.

“It’s cool,” Josh says, though it clearly isn’t. She tells him she has condoms back in the car; he asks if they’re 100 percent effective. She tells him there’s a pill he can take; he asks if she has it with her. She doesn’t. “It would be more like if you wanted to slow things down,” Shea says, her voice getting quiet, “and figure out where this is going. Maybe we can see a doctor when we get back, like explore this more long-term.” Josh looks doubtful. “Long-term?” he repeats.

Josh has a transgender parent; he thinks he’s savvy enough to sensitively manoeuver a relationship with Shea. But when confronted with the reality of her body, he balks. Finally, Shea gets angry. “I see right through you,” she cries, her voice trembling, “and I’m not your fucking adventure! I’m a person! I’m not your fucking adventure!”

As performed by Duplass and a particularly fierce Lysette, the scene is devastating — and as is so often the case on Transparent, made all the more resonant by its setting. Shea and Josh are literally in an amusement park when Josh makes the mistake of treating Shea’s body like one. In his mind, Shea is a one-time thrill, an empty space that he can fill for a few hours and never visit again.

The scene illustrates how Transparent uses physical space as a metaphor for the body. If that sounds a bit heady for a half-hour TV show, well, it is; from the start, Transparent was simultaneously an art object and a manifesto, propelled forward by creator Jill Soloway’s vow — repeated during her recent speech at this year’s Emmys, where she won the award for comedy direction — to “topple the patriarchy” and reorient the camera’s gaze.

But in Season 3, Transparent complicates its relationship to the ideas about gender, sexuality, and trauma on which much of the show is based. To put it broadly, the season is all about how theory buts up against actual lived reality — the intricate, sometimes contradictory dynamic between the realm of the mind and the realm of the body. What if you’re armed with knowledge but don’t know how to use it? What if your beliefs no longer match your feelings? What if you know the right things to say, but can’t figure out what to do? Then what?

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That question might as well be the subtitle for this new batch of episodes — Transparent Season 3: Then What? “I got everything I need,” Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) tells her housemate, Davina (Alexandra Billings), in the first episode. “So why am I so unhappy?”

By the third episode, Maura has decided what she needs to do to remedy her feelings of unease. At her birthday dinner, she tells her family she plans to transition medically — “face, breasts, vagina.” The decision causes a rift between her and her girlfriend, Vicki (Anjelica Huston) — not because Vicki is so conservative or doesn’t theoretically understand why Maura wants the surgery. Instead, it emerges that Vicki is a breast cancer survivor, and chose not to have reconstructive surgery after her double mastectomy. She objects to the idea of major elective surgery when Maura is in perfectly good health.

At her birthday party, Maura does receive her family’s blessing to go ahead with the surgery. But late in the season, Maura’s doctor informs her that because of her less-than-perfect heart health, surgery is out of the question. Mentally, Maura and her family are prepared to take the next step in her transition. But Maura’s aging body won’t allow it.

Maura isn’t the only character whose intentions collide with reality this season. Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) is now firmly wedged under the wing of mentor-slash-lover Leslie (Cherry Jones), taking a job as one of her graduate teaching assistants and instructing her students on “historical memory and feminist dystopia.” Under the hallucinatory influence of nitrous gas at the dentist, Ali imagines herself as a contestant on Wheel of Fortune, where the board spells “Intersectionality” and her fellow competitors are Caitlyn Jenner and the feminist playwright Ntozake Shange.

Even as Ali marinates in a stew of feminist theory, her scholarly knowledge bumps up against her emotions: “I know that we have our thing and I totally appreciate your rejection of traditional romantic relationships from a sociopolitical standpoint, and I agree. But I just…I really, really like you. A lot.” And yet when Leslie eventually returns her feelings, Ali runs.

In this season, the Pfefferman siblings take refuge from their relationships in familiar spaces: Sarah (Amy Landecker) back in the house she shares with her now-ex-husband (Rob Huebel) and two children, and Ali and Josh in their childhood home. A funny thing happens when Ali and Josh fill this space, previously occupied by Sarah and her then-girlfriend, followed by Josh and his ex-girlfriend, Raquel (Kathryn Hahn), who planned to have a baby. Sarah points out that Ali and Josh are acting like a married couple: “You’re fucking baking cakes,” she scoffs.

We know enough about the Pfeffermans by now to recognize that they are changing, or at least attempting to change. And yet more often than not, that attempt leads the Pfefferman clan not forward but backward, into their childhoods and even their ancestral past. You can read this as a comment on the inherent selfishness of the Pfefferman clan, which even the most die-hard Transparent fans can’t seem to resist pointing out. True, the Pfeffermans aren’t the most wholesome or generous bunch on TV. But there’s more going on in Transparent’s exploration of their ennui than the simple joy of watching other people fuck up their lives.

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Just as Transparent uses physical space as a metaphor for the body, it treats the body itself as a vessel that holds valuable information — family secrets, truths about our psyches. The show manifests this idea in the body of a pet turtle named Nacho, which Sarah and Ali find during a game of hide-and-seek at their childhood home, and which the siblings believed they had lost some 30 years earlier. And yet there it was, buried within the walls of the family home, waiting to be found.

Each season of Transparent devotes its eighth episode to a flashback. Last season was framed by the story of Gittel (Hari Nef), born Gershon — Maura’s transgender aunt who was arrested before she had a chance to escape Weimar-era Berlin with her mother and sister, Rose, who later gives birth to Maura (née Mort). In those scenes, Rose was played by Emily Robinson — the same actress who plays young Ali in a flashback scene in the first season.

In the third season, we visit the L.A. neighborhood of Boyle Heights circa 1958, where 12-year-old Maura’s desire to dress in women’s clothing sends her neurotic immigrant grandparents, Haim and Yetta, into a panic. Just as young Rose was played by the same actress who plays young Ali, adult Rose is played by Gaby Hoffmann herself. You can’t help but think of Ali when Haim yells at Rose, “You don’t pay for shit, my child!” — an echo of Maura’s Season 1 admonishment to her still-financially dependent daughter: “My beautiful girl, you cannot do anything!” And all the present-day Pfeffermans come to mind when Rose, wearily defending her son, asks her mother, “Can’t anyone be happy?”

The Berlin flashbacks in Season 2, which culminate in Gittel’s arrest and Rose and her mother escaping to America, reinforce the concept of inherited trauma that Ali encounters in her women’s studies course at graduate school — the idea that Holocaust survivors carried genetic traces of their traumatic experiences that they passed on to their children and grandchildren.

This season brought to mind a German method of trauma therapy called Familienaufstellung, or “family constellation,” which New Yorker staff writer Burkhard Bilger described in a recent article that is part reportage, part memoir of his own attempt to come to terms with his grandfather, who was a Nazi. In the article, Bilger participates in group therapy sessions led by the German psychotherapist Gabriele Baring. Most of the patients are there to work through family troubles; one man wonders if his depression and anxiety is linked to his parents’ experience as refugees during World War II.

Baring asks each patient, one at a time, to pick participants to “play” different family members. The patient casts the roles, then positions each like a frozen statue: Maybe his father has his back to the patient; another family member — perhaps representing the patient himself — might end up facing a corner. These positions embody the dynamic of the relationship in question.

Some people are asked to represent not a person but an emotion, such as anger or sadness. As you can imagine, the sessions can be intense, as the participants improvise emotions and scenarios based partly on information the patient has provided, but largely on intuition. Bilger describes the technique as “part theatre, part therapy, part séance” — which might as well be a description of Transparent itself.

“Family constellation” therapy is a collision of theory and practice, compelling its participants to embody long-buried feelings and channel the emotions of ancestors they may barely remember or have never even met. Transparent compels its characters to do the same — and, as with the therapy technique, the ways in which certain actors perform certain roles help us to clearly see how relationships and patterns in behavior play out over generations.

In the Season 3 flashback episode, we not only see young Maura experimenting with women’s clothing — we also see the origins of his relationship with Shelly, which began as a covert affair. Even before Shelly became aware of her husband’s penchant for wearing women’s clothes, these two have always been united by a secret. But there’s one secret Shelly never told anyone: As young Maura plays dress-up, across town, young Shelly — who dreams of performing on stage — is being molested by her music teacher, a backstory that colors her present-day relationship with Buzz (Richard Masur), a freeloader who lavishes praise on Shelly, delighting her with his offer to produce her one-woman show. That backstory is what makes the scene when Shelly finally kicks Buzz to the curb so satisfying — and her season-finale performance, alone on a stage in front of an enthusiastic crowd, so triumphant.

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We don’t get a lot of answers in Season 3 of Transparent; the finale, in which the Pfefferman clan boards a cruise ship, leaves many loose strands flapping in the breeze. But the lack of concrete answers is in keeping with the season’s religious themes: If Season 2 focused on Yom Kippur, the holiday of atonement, Season 3 fixes its thematic attention on Passover, a celebration of Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt. During the Passover meal, or seder, tradition dictates that the youngest child ask four questions about the rituals of the seder.

The third season premiere, “Elizah,” opens with Rabbi Raquel rehearsing her Passover sermon in an empty synagogue: “Thoughts on Passover. You wake up with two words emblazoned on your chest: It’s time. You’re gonna make a break for freedom. You won’t be a slave anymore.”

Raquel’s speech, in voiceover, carries on throughout the episode, in which Maura goes looking for a trans teenager named Elizah — just one letter away from Elijah, the prophet who features prominently in the Passover narrative. Custom dictates that during the Passover seder, you open the door for Elijah and set the table with a wine glass — empty, to symbolize the redemption that has yet to come. Elijah’s presence signals the future arrival of the Messiah.

But “what if you had to be your own messiah?” Raquel intones in voiceover. “Then what?” Season 3 of Transparent suggests we can’t wait for someone else to tell us who we are, or to deliver to us that missing part of ourselves that we just know will make us feel whole. We have that information coded right in our DNA; if we’re lucky, like that turtle, it’ll turn up to remind us of who we are and what we’ve lost.