Before we really get started on this recap, a few things! Previous commenters on the previous recap were super correct in pointing out that I assumed Judith Light’s character was the grandmother of the family rather than their mom. All I can claim in my defense is that having plates of cantaloupe ready for when company shows up feels like the most grandma thing in the world to me, but I recognize that my grandma feelings are subjective and have no bearing on the real world.
Also! May I recommend reading Jen Richards’ piece on Transparent in the Daily Dot if you’re interested in the show. She got to hang out at Paramount as the show was put together and it’s really interesting to learn more about how it was made, and about Soloway’s vision for the community on set and effort to hire trans people in every department on set. It’s also really good to get Richards’ thoughts on Maura’s casting and character, although of course she doesn’t and can’t speak for all trans women. Also her ultimate takeaways about the show ring very true to me, and speak to what I like and also some of what I’m not wild about:
The show isn’t perfect, of course. While it does a superlative job of mining the particular, it’s still a particular I’m largely exhausted by. My original impression of the first cut of the pilot was that it was beautifully written and performed, but that I had no interest in another story about a late-transitioning, middle-class, white trans woman with a family. It had long been the default depiction of trans people, best captured by Jenny Boylan’s She’s Not There (Boylan was also an early consultant on the show).
In this way, it suffers the same fault, and merits the same defense, as the HBO series Girls. The world of Girls is small and insular, but it’s Lena Dunham’s world. She’s a talented woman writing what she knows, and no show should carry the burden of being all things to all people.
This show actually does remind me of Girls a lot (I don’t like Girls, so far I like Transparent better), this feels like a useful comparison. I like Transparent! I think the writing and craftsmanship of the show is excellent, and the acting is great, and a lot of the painful family stuff really resonates. Similarly to Girls, though, sometimes it’s hard for me to feel like the conflicts are something I can get really invested in, because many of these characters are insulated by privilege in such a way that I don’t always feel that the stakes are particularly high (like with Josh’s character, for instance). The character whose story I’m most invested in, Maura, is the one we’ve seen the least of so far. Stuff to think about! Anyhow here’s the show.
We open in exactly the same shot we ended in: Maura greeting her philandering daughter and Tammy, and being surprisingly chill about the fact that they are in her home unannounced. Tammy recovers before Sarah, greeting Maura as “Mr. Pfefferman” (and acting weirdly surprised to run into Maura in her own home). Tammy also assesses the situation with more common sense and sensitivity than any of the kids, and follows up with “You look awesome.” Maura and Tammy make small talk for a little bit before Sarah gets herself together to ask about Maura’s outfit.
Tammy offers to leave, but Sarah wants her to stay and is also holding her hand. Ruh-roh, Sarah. You are entering the DANGER ZONE. Maura is then forced into having the conversation she had explicitly said she wasn’t ready to have yet, so that’s great.
Maura: When I was a kid, ever since I was five, I felt that something was not right. And I couldn’t tell anybody about my feminine side… It was a different time, a very different time. I just, I had to keep all these feelings to myself… Please, God, let me do this. People led secret lives. And people led very lonely lives. And then of course the internet was invented.
Tammy: The internet! Can’t hate on that internet, it’s magic.
Tammy clearly reads Autostraddle.
Sarah asks if this means Maura is going to “start dressing up like a lady all the time,” and Maura laughs and cuts her off to say “No, honey. All my life, all my life I’ve been dressing up like a man. This is me.”
Interestingly, this whole scene happens without the use of the word “transgender” — now that I think about it, I’m not sure it’s been used in the show at all. Maura also makes no mention of the fact that her daughter was using her house as a sexy love nest and was about to fuck her old girlfriend apparently ON MAURA’S BED. Either Maura is way more forgiving than I am or coming out left her too drained to bring that up but either way, that is not going to fly with me, future children of mine. Have your furtive affairs elsewhere please.
Now it’s 1989! Maura is a professor of Political Science and has a cool office with a frosted glass door like a film noir private investigator. Sidenote if there were a spinoff where Maura is a private investigator I would be very invested, would definitely donate to a Kickstarter. Alone in her office, she unwraps a colorful garment and starts taking off the tie of her dudely button-down. But then a student is knocking on the door, probably for some really stupid reason, like she missed the lecture and was hoping that maybe she could have the entire thing related to her again verbatim including any Powerpoint slides right now, at what appears to be about 7 pm. Seriously undergrads you’re the worst a lot of the time. Anyways! It’s even more the worst for Maura because the only alone time she had to try to figure some stuff out gender wise is being ruined by some jerk who probably plays 2048 all through class. I would fail that girl for sure.
Back to the future! Sarah and Tammy are driving home in silence until Sarah starts giggling, the sort of helpless ah-fuck-it giggle when you realize you have no idea what your life even is right now. I feel for her sort of, because certainly this afternoon didn’t go the way she had planned, but ultimately I’m a lot more interested in how Maura feels after that conversation than how Sarah feels. So far the show is about 10% Maura’s life and 90% how other people feel as a result of Maura’s decisions. I hadn’t realized until this episode that the idea for this show rose out of Jill Soloway’s parent coming out as trans, and so I understand why the show is working this way if it’s based on her experiences, but it’s still not really the angle I’m most interested in. In the midst of Sarah’s laughter, Tammy says “That was really brave of her, you know? It was! That’s hard!” Sarah seems perturbed at “her” because ugh, Sarah, but we’re quickly distracted by the fact that Tammy’s wife and daughter are over at Sarah and her husband’s house for a playdate! MOST EXCELLENT. Maybe they’ll become a healthy polyamorous family unit and communicate a lot.
Over at the house of King of the Hip Bros, where everything that the iPhone flashlight touches is his kingdom, Josh has a pizza and is bickering with the two girls, one of which he is dating and whom I can’t tell apart. We learn that his girlfriend is pregnant, and has an abortion scheduled that conflicts with their recording schedule, because of course Josh’s arc would be a real-life re-enactment of “Brick,” which Josh is probably too cool to listen to.
Elsewhere, Ali is engaging in a strenuous session of intercourse with her personal trainer to kill two birds with one stone, although it seems fair to assume he is no longer just her personal trainer. I’ve never seen someone wear a sweatband during sex before and honestly it’s a genius idea? I will try it out and get back to you. Ali and the dreamy Derek lament that Sexercise.com is already taken and also make a green smoothie in his blender — I also have that same blender and it’s really great for making smoothies in, for real. I checked and it looks like sexercise.com is just being squatted on by some vaguely porny organization — honestly it might be worth it for them to buy the domain out from under them but what do I know. I’m just a girl standing here with her blender asking it to love her. Ali suggests “twerkout.com” which sort of alarmingly suggests she might think twerking is a sex act; Derek is understandably skeptical.
Derek’s roommate comes home and makes the mistake of telling Ali “you must be Stephanie,” which could be a potentially awkward faux pas for everyone, but they work as a team for an amazing recovery! Roommate makes a quick save with “Ali? Even better!” and Ali agrees “Oh, I am SO much better than Stephanie.” High fives all around! Fuck Stephanie!
Over at Chez Marital Bliss, Sarah and Tammy arrive to find Ken Marino grilling on a giant machine while Barb keeps him company. I can only imagine the huge and deserved fight that Barb and Tammy will have later this evening about the fact that Tammy left her there for god knows how long to hang out with a straight man while he grills.
Leaving someone alone in the presence of a grilling straight man so you can cheat on them is probably the worst thing you can ever do to anyone ever. There is no higher differential than that between how much straight men enjoy talking about grilling and how much other people enjoy hearing them talk about grilling. Here, I made a visual aid.
The best part of this scene is that Sarah finally gets to meet Grace the Biter, my favorite character on this show. She’s not biting anyone at the moment but I’m optimistic about the future. Tammy walks over so she and Sarah can exchange glances, glances which would make it SUPER obvious to anyone who was paying attention that they’re thinking about having a three-day-long sex marathon with roleplaying and an obstacle course and a schoolgirl outfit. Probably no one’s paying attention though so probably it’s totally fine and nothing bad will happen at all.
Josh and his elfin changeling girlfriend talk about the fetus inside her. It sort of feels like Josh is on an entirely separate show that has for some reason been spliced into this one, probably by accident. Mostly I’m confused about why his girlfriend is with him at all because she doesn’t seem to like him much more than I do.
Starsweep across town where Sarah is getting up out of bed in the middle of the night to drive across town and pick up Tammy for a Secret Rendezvous. Len must be a really deep sleeper because my partner wakes up even if I just turn my phone on in the middle of the night to finish a fashion show in Kim K: Hollywood, which is a super normal and health thing to do. Anyways now Tammy and Sarah are having genuinely hot sex in the backseat of Sarah’s van, which includes Sarah screaming out that she “fucking loves” Tammy. Real feelings or the kind of feelings that you think you have when the girl you were in love with when you were twenty is fucking you in the same van that you use to drive your kids-that-you-have-with-your-husband to soccer practice? Who can say!
Tammy and Sarah discuss how good the sex is, and how they either don’t have sex or don’t have good sex with their actual spouses. This maybe shouldn’t be a surprising realization on either of their parts, usually you’re not cheating with your ex because your marriage is just so stable and healthy that you can’t take it, but okay. They’re holding hands, it’s cute.
Maura is recounting her coming out to Sarah for the support group at the LGBT center, how it was “tragically impromptu,” and how she still has to come out to her other two kids and also the entire world. After the meeting is ended (by Zachary Drucker, who plays the facilitator) Maura tries to get some other meeting members to go out and grab a celebratory drink with her, but is rebuffed as basically everyone here is sober. Tammy’s sober too I think; they’re all gonna be really pleased to know that there are sober spaces for evening activities at A-Camp.
Maura ends up hanging out with Davina, played by trans actress Alexandra Billings. They’re gonna go hang out at Davina’s place and have wine and crackers!
Starsweep to suburbia, where Sarah and her husband are having a super boring and contentious married couple fight. I would say it’s a caricature of married couple fights if I hadn’t had basically the exact same argument — “okay, you’re using that tone again. Well if you don’t want me to use that tone, then you can’t use that tone. See you’re doing it right now!” — a dozen times. As they bicker, Sarah makes up excuses for why their car has the seats folded down and is also soaking wet. I don’t think she has to try that hard because Len strikes me as the kind of guy who thinks that lesbians have sex by holding hands.
Ali and Josh are picking up their mom’s standing order from the deli en route to go hang out with her, talking about tofu schmear and abortions. I keep being surprised when I see any other major characters in the same frame as Josh because I keep forgetting that his arc is technically part of the same show as the rest of these people.
The whole family, including the still-bickering Sarah and husband, are showing up for mom time. Sarah starts getting slightly weepy, and her husband says “Really? This is what the forecast calls for today?” Because that is definitely the #1 best reaction if someone is crying: expressing sarcastic exasperation with them. Len should probably be a marriage counselor, he seems really good at this. Probably Sarah is crying because she’s thinking about her shell of a marriage and how the most authentic source of joy in her life is banging her ex in the backseat of the family car, and for a second it seems like she might tell him this, but she cleverly diverts attention away from these issues by outing Maura to Len and letting him assume that that’s the reason she’s feeling emotional. Nice one, Sarah! Good moves all around.
Inside Mom’s house, health problems abound for both Mom and her partner. Mom suggests writing a song called “What Does the Doctor Say?” because she’s getting asked it so often, and then Sarah’s kids sing that song for her and it’s actually adorable. It’s not to the tune of “What Does The Fox Say” which is an obvious oversight but a forgivable one.
Starsweep to Davina’s apartment, where Maura is chatting with her over a glass of wine and giving us some exposition. She describes her kids for Davina while wandering around her place and looking at all of her things. We learn that Ali is crazy booksmart but, as Maura says, “doesn’t seem to be able to land.” Maura explores Davina’s bedroom and sits at her little vanity, looking at herself in the mirror — it seems like she’s trying on the idea of Davina’s life for herself, looking ahead a few years to try to imagine what her home and life might look like when she’s been transitioned for as long as Davina has.
Davina is being super maternal, and very gently tells Maura that when she started transitioning, a good friend of hers told her “in five years, you’re going to look up and not one of your family members is still going to be there for you.”
“Was your friend right?” Maura asks.
“That’s so sad.” Maura says it without seeming to think much about it. The scene seems to suggest she thinks of this as a terrible thing that’s happened to Davina, but not something that could ever happen to her. Hopefully that’s true! But then again her kids couldn’t even pay attention to her for five minutes when they thought she had potentially terminal cancer, so as an audience we don’t have a reason to put a lot of faith in them as a support system. Maybe we’re wrong?
These thoughts are interrupted by sirens approaching the condo complex that Davina lives in. Whatever could it be? I really wish we spent more time in this scene and got to see Maura and Davina have a more complex conversation — even when we’re following Maura alone, most of the information we’re getting is still about her kids, not about her as a separate individual.
Back at Mom’s, Ali toys with a pearl ring and asks her mom if the family story about it formerly belonging to a great-aunt who was killed in the Holocaust is true. Mom doesn’t really answer that question but does reveal that Maura proposed to her with that ring, but she rebuffed it and wanted a real diamond. Ali puts the ring away again, but Josh is EYEING IT. What are you thinking, Josh. What’s going on in that tiny little head of yours besides ideas for launching an Urban Outfitters for pets called Furban Outfitters.
Sarah and Len are still processing her feelings about Maura’s transition, and Len’s input is “Well, your dad’s always been creepy,” because Len is:
At least Sarah pushes back on that, even if she doesn’t articulate very well why that’s a fucked up thing to say and is still using “he” pronouns for Maura — she’s trying to repeat what Maura told her about having dressed up as a man her whole life, but isn’t doing a great job with it. Into this scene of domestic bliss enters Ali, delivering them bagels.
Suddenly a dude in a uniform appears to warn Ali about the geese in the area. Don’t you have shots to give out, Officer O’Neill?
Sarah takes a bite of bagel and is horrified by the tofu schmear, which is totally fair because tofu cream cheese is a cruel joke (except for the one at Bagel Rising in Allston, which is amazing, if you’re in Boston you should close your laptop right now and go get a bagel there). Ali has to retrace her steps through the geese’s territory in order to relieve Sarah of her bagel, and the geese are NOT INTO IT. The geese start rushing her, Sarah and Len are yelling at her to drop the bagel and run, and O’Neill runs towards her with a long net shouting “Ma’am, what you’re looking at is a posturing goose! It will rip your arm off or worse!” Everyone inside has run to their windows to watch this. This is amazing; it’s probably my favorite thing that’s happened in this whole episode. Less whiny man-feelings, more angry goose hijinks, please.
Josh is putting Sarah and Len’s kid to bed, and turns on her light-up toy while tenderly stroking her forehead. Sure hope he isn’t developing ambivalent feelings about the idea of having kids! That would be a wacky wrench in his girlfriend’s plans to terminate her pregnancy!
Back at Davina’s apartment, the denizens of the complex watch a body bag be carried down the stairs; Davina says it contains Maury, who was a “sweet old queen.” I think another Jim Croce song is playing. Maura and Davina go inside Maury’s apartment, which Davina assures us is a totally normal and not weird thing to do. She also helpfully mentions the pricing range of the apartment, and Maura says she thinks it’s affordable. It seems like maybe she’s thinking of moving in!
We’re doing another montage set to Jim Croce music: Sarah and Len get seated at a restaurant for what’s presumably date night; Ali takes a giant bong rip and goes to sit between Derek and his roommate on the couch. Elsewhere, Josh is helpfully throwing out there that hey, have you thought about what would happen if you didn’t get an abortion? (Yes, Josh, she has. That’s why you get abortions, is because you’re extremely aware of what would happen if you didn’t.) Every time I see Josh’s face on screen I imagine him saying “Hi, I’m an insufferable fucknut here to make your life worse” in a Troy McClure voice. Girlfriend has many excellent reasons for why going ahead with this termination is the right choice, and Josh keeps responding with “Okay, that’s true, but also, what if we didn’t?” Then he drags her onto the couch to do a really shitty job proposing with the same ring from the failed proposal of his divorced parents and that may or may not have belonged to a Holocaust victim. He tries to put the ring on her finger and she sort of jerks it away. Yes, very good, you definitely have this human relationship thing figured all the way out, Josh, nice work.
Back in 1989, Maura comes home from her office hours and dumps the secret outfit she had picked out into the trash. Back in 2014, Maura pulls into the driveway of the house, and thinks about her 1989 self and what it was like when her family was all living under this roof together. It’s nostalgic, but maybe not all that sad.
Join us next time for more feelings but probably fewer geese!