‘Transparent’ Season 2 Isn’t Just Great, It’s Better Than Ever
The first season of Jill Soloway’s Transparent was about a death of one thing and a rebirth of something new. Now in Season 2, the Amazon series is like watching an infant taking its first steps and questioning everything around them.
This metaphorical infant is the new identity born into the world when Jeffrey Tambor’s Mort Pfefferman transitions to Maura once she comes out as a transgender woman. Part of the brilliance of the first season was how much of Maura’s transition began to crack the shields her children had been hiding behind, waking them up to face their own latent anxieties. In Season 2, each of them begin exploring those internal struggles, from sexuality to fatherhood, marriage to gender identity, and loneliness to simply growing up. The first season ended with the family’s mirrors covered for Ed’s funeral, a Jewish tradition to prevent vanity during mourning. But as we enter the second course of Transparent this year, the sheets have been pulled down and each of the Pfeffermans are looking right at their reflections. Now more than ever, Transparent is a full-blown ensemble piece that examines the complicated, painful, confusing and messy elements of a family in search of itself. And boy is this season messy.
The second season premiere (mild spoilers follow for the full season) opens with a shuffle of chaos that perfectly captures the mix of humor and anxiety that defines the new ten episodes, and the series as a whole. It’s Sarah (Amy Landecker) and Tammy’s (Melora Hardin) wedding and the two brides struggle to assemble all their family members, and with a family like this, that’s a lot of people. Sarah gathers the Pfeffermans, including Josh’s (Jay Duplass) newly-introduced teenage son Colton (Alex MacNicoll), followed by Tammy hilariously shouting for her ex-wives to join in. Just as they’re all posing for the camera, the photographer calls Maura “Sir,” ending the photoshoot when Maura, offended, walks off. But this season is all about screw-ups and how at times, they can both help and push us further away from progress and safety. And Sarah’s wedding turns out to be not as safe of a place as Maura had expected when she runs into her sister Bryna (Jenny O’Hara), whom Maura has yet to come out to. Bryan refuses to let Maura visit their sick mother, insisting Maura remain in their mother’s final memories as Mort. But Maura isn't hiding anymore.
This season is full of sharp, hurtful jabs at the Pfefferman characters and also by them as relationships evolve into painful climaxes. Maura and Shelly (Judith Light) begin rekindling their relationship faster and stronger than they’re aware of, until one ends up hurting the other. Ali (Gaby Hoffmann) and Syd (Carrie Brownstein) move from friends to lovers to something more complicated. Multiple changes in Josh and Raquel’s (Kathryn Hahn) lives challenge their future and commitment to one another. But as these characters are drawn together through love, comfort and intimacy, their individual needs lead to heartbreak.
The Pfeffermans were the most selfish television family when we met them last season, but this year their self-centered behaviors become essential to their growth. Their neuroses and anxieties with who they are and where they belong give way to each of them making selfish choices that continue to hurt those around them, but for once they’re finally beginning to help themselves. Sarah discovers a physical form of relief that she only could’ve found after reaching a place of loss in destroying her marriage to Len (Rob Huebel) and almost-marriage to Tammy. Maura alienates herself from her only close friend by sharing her opinion where it’s unwanted. And Ali resists normative relationship expectations to explore her sexuality. In one beautiful line that captures this season, Ali asks, “What is being queer if not questioning everything?”
Transparent doesn't just focus its season on questioning things within the LGBT community, but with storylines relatable for all audiences. It asks, what does it means to be properly “parented” as a child and how do you do so as an adult? Is there a correlation between ancestral trauma, religion and gender? Josh’s story asks, how can you be a father when the image of your own has disappeared? One of the season’s best episodes, “Man on the Land,” explores whether there’s such thing as a truly safe space where we can fit in despite our degrees of differences. In the episode, written by Ali Liebgott, Maura becomes an unwanted outcast when she attends a transphobic radical feminist festival with her daughters. Like the crossdressing camp in Season 1, the Idyllwild Wimmin’s Music Festival of Season 2 shows more of a divide between identities as Maura continues to find her place.
The show raises more important questions surrounding the trans and gender non-confirming communities with episodes about gender re-assignment surgery and Davina’s (Alexandra Billings) cis boyfriend who dates trans women, yet has an insensitive opinion on their bodies. But the biggest achievement, and deviation of style, this season is with a new sub-plot about the history of transgender people in Europe. Through a mix of flashbacks and visions Ali experiences during the season we meet a handful of characters in a trans community group in 1930s Berlin. At first the sequences feel a bit out of place in Transparent’s world that’s otherwise so grounded in reality. But remembering Ali’s hallucination/dream sequences with Dale (Ian Harvie) from last season, Soloway's slight break into the surreal doesn’t come completely out of nowhere. In the flashbacks, trans model Hari Neff plays Gittel, a Jewish trans woman living in Berlin with her sister Rose (Emily Robinson), and their mother (played by Michaela Watkins) who refuses to accept Gittel's gender identity. By the end of the season, Soloway manages to beautifully tie the 1930s story to the present day.
Last year I wrote about how important of a show Transparent was for introducing mainstream audiences to different identities and notions of inclusivity. It did so not just in centering a show around a trans protagonist inspired by Soloway’s real parent, but also in giving audiences the language to understand and discuss those subjects. The first season touched on the differences between gender and sexuality, between trans and crossdressing and drag culture and insight on pronouns (here’s a guide for those still unfamiliar or new to the show). But this year Transparent is doing something a bit different, acknowledging that it’s okay to be confused or mistaken. As important as it is to remain politically correct and respectful of other identities, sometimes we can only begin to understand when let go of the language and allow ourselves to feel. In one scene in the season finale, a rabbi (Richard Masur) talks to Josh about the loss of Mort, and Josh says it's politically incorrect to miss someone that's transitioned. “This isn’t about correct,” Masur’s Rabbi Buzz says. “This is about grieving, mourning.”
That’s the most rewarding thing Season 2 of Transparent has to offer: 5 hours of dramedy that insists it’s okay to feel whatever you’re feeling even if it doesn’t make sense or follow guidelines of what's okay or what isn't. Soloway’s show continues to be as funny as it is poignant and important this season, and this is just the start of the Pfefferman’s journeys. I can’t wait to see where she takes them next.
- The opening titles are slightly new this season, and I love them. They've kept the found footage theme and used it to implement historical clips of same-sex couples and other LGBT people. It's clear Soloway intends this season to be about a family much bigger than the Pfeffermans.
- This season is so rich with new characters and cameos that you might not catch them all on the first watch. Bradley Whitford returns as a different character for the Berlin scenes, Tig Notaro is back as Barb, Angelica Houston shows up at the latter half of the season in an important role, Jason Mantzoukus is perfectly cast as a weed-prescribing doctor and Cherry Jones plays a feminist poet and women’s studies professor. There are also brief cameos from Sia, Peaches and Eileen Myles (keep an eye out for them in Episode 8), writer Our Lady J shows up in a few episodes and Soloway also makes a brief cameo as her Season 1 professor.
- I might advice to order-in some Canter’s Deli (or the closest thing to it) while you binge this season, especially whne you get to Episode 7.
- Props to the music supervisor for some fantastic use of Alabama Shakes and LCD Soundsystem this season.
Transparent Season 2 is now streaming on Amazon Prime.