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Pfeffermansplaining: The Family’s Six Most Monstrous Moments in Transparent’s Third Season

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Season three of Amazon’s Transparent has few of the cratering events that have marked our time with the Pfeffermans up to this point, but it continues to reward thinking viewers as it considers issues of gender and identity, the intersection of theory and reality, the lingering impact of sexual abuse and what it means to be Jewish. We could muse on all that — or we could consider all the times the Pfeffermans acted like narcissistic, self-absorbed, navel-gazing little monsters. Let’s do that. Here are six times the Pfeffermans have acted like quintessential Pfeffermans.

1. When those damn kids show up at the hospital

In the mediative season opener, Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), in a questionable state of mind, collapses at an indoor swap meet while tracking down a distraught trans woman who called her on an LGBT suicide hotline. In episode two, those damn kids show up at the hospital, edging into the frame, chittering like birds — crows, or maybe magpies — and immediately attack everything about the place while trying to get the hell out as fast as possible.

It’s a minor scene, but it perfectly reestablishes the kids’ narcissism, setting the tone for the season of bad Pfefferman behavior. There’s little inquiry about how Maura is, what’s wrong with her, what happened, why she ended up at county hospital instead of her beloved Cedars-Sinai. That’s all left to her girlfriend, Vicki (Anjelica Huston). Once the kids hear “his vitals are fine,” they’ve heard enough, and after chastising the doctor for picking that “his” pronoun (they’re always good about that) they plot their exits, each pleading their case why they can’t stay in “this hellhole” (Josh, describing a hospital) any longer.

2. When Maura goes to the hospital in the first place

Question for suicide-hotline volunteers: Is it OK to leave the phone bank to track an anonymous caller to two locations because you feel you didn’t help her enough? Of course it is, if you’re a Pfefferman. The idea never occurs to Maura not to track the caller down, that just showing up hours after the call with something like, “Hi, you called me about suicide earlier? Fancy seeing you here” is inappropriate and surely cautioned against on any number of bullet points in suicide-hotline volunteer training. It’s tempting to think Maura followed the woman because of her great dedication to helping members of the LGBT community in crisis, but evidence for that is scant. She wanted to help herself — i.e., escape the unhappiness she speaks about in the season opener — and then relied on her Pfefferman blinders to delude herself into thinking the plan had any downside at all, at least none that would affect her.

3. When Maura announces her desire to get gender confirmation surgery to EVERYBODY

When Maura pinpoints the solution to her unhappiness, she chooses to unveil her findings to the family at the source of so many turbulent Pfefferman scenes: the dinner table, with the grandchildren present. First she tells them she wants to be called mom, which hits ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light) like a missile. Then Maura informs them she’d like to undergo surgery (“face, breasts, vagina,” as the grandkids leave the room), which does a similar walloping on Vicki. Later, Vicki confronts Maura about being denied any sort of advance warning about the incoming bombshell. “I just want to know why you need an audience for this kind of thing,” she says. “It’s my family,” Maura replies, meekly, followed by a more forceful defense: “I did not know what I was going to say it until I said it!” That’s not defense at all, of course. Maura just makes it sound like one.

4. That whole business about Josh going to Overland Park, Kansas

Poor Shea. And poor Colton. But first poor Shea. She makes the fatal mistake of accepting cross-country car travel with the suddenly transamorous Josh (Jay Duplass) to deliver some of the ashes of Rita, who sexually abused Josh when he was a teenager, to Rita and Josh’s son Colton (Alex MacNicoll). It is bound to end poorly, and it does, with Josh stepping all over his feelings for Shea (trans actress Trace Lysette) in a very bad way. Basically, he doesn’t give a shit about Shea. Once he finds out Shea is HIV positive during their jaunt in an abandoned amusement park, he shuts down, his thrill-seeking finished. After she confronts him about what he expected with her, Josh makes a cruel joke about sex work (he was paying for the road trip), and Shea unloads: “Fuck you, Josh! I see right through you. And I’m not your fucking adventure! I’m a person! I’m not your fucking adventure!”

Properly chagrined, Josh continues to Overland Park to inflict damage on Colton by trying to be a better father. (“I don’t know what I’m doing,” he tells Shea when they split, stating the obvious.) Josh, need oozing from his soul by the quart, attends a church service, and during his sermon, Colton asks if anybody wants to come forward and accept Jesus. The wheels of need begin turning in Josh’s mind, never a good sign. He seems to think, “If I come forward, that’s got to be good for me and Colton, right, God?” He comes forward. It’s a move that will cause Josh, who is Jewish, much embarrassed squirming the rest of the season — and, one hopes, the rest of his life. He tries to complete his conversion to Colton’s full-time Christian dad by house-shopping in Overland Park; he says he’ll move there, write songs and let Colton’s friends just “hang out” at his place. It’s one of the most painful-to-watch, self-obsessed bouts of decision-making we’ve seen from a Pfefferman, and one of the quickest to fall apart. With just a few words, Colton lets Josh know exactly how he’s acting like a selfish idiot, and Josh heads home, crushed for the rest of the season.

5. When Sarah makes a dominatrix move to Denver

Sarah (Amy Landecker) has a lot of great moments competing to be the world’s worst Pfefferman. There are the minor turns, like asking her constipated son’s teacher to provide the necessary environment for pooping and maybe even go in there with him, and getting progressively more insufferable with her own brand of self-help hipster Judaism. She also screams full-throatedly at her kids about a turtle.

But perhaps the most Pfeffermanian thing Sarah does: When she tops her dominatrix, Pony (Jiz Lee), in a switch session, Sarah loses it so quickly and completely that Pony has to use her safe word almost immediately — AND SARAH IGNORES IT. At least for a crucial beat or two, or just long enough for Sarah to finish screaming at Pony what is so godawful important for her to scream: that she is going to cut off her head and piss down her throat.

That Sarah. 20 seconds into a topping scenario and she’s completely drowning in misplaced rage. Also sweet is her reaction when finding out the scene caused Pony to quit the business and flee to her candle-making brother in Denver: “Well, what am I supposed to do now?” she cries, already looking for more bodies.

6. When the whole clan ignores Shelly on the Love Boat — or ship (don’t misgender the ship)

Poor Shelly, again and again and again, in every episode of every season — until the closing bars of the final episode, “Exciting and New.” Here, Shelly finally gets payback for all the poor treatment she’s received at the hands of the family, but first she has to sit through one last round of bad Pfefferman behavior. “You ridicule me, you bond with each other behind my back, you roll your eyes at me,” she tells them during the makeshift Seder, and nobody bats an eye. Nobody cares. Earlier in the season, Maura announced her desire to be called mom, and here at the end Shelly is as far from her family as she’s ever been. At dinner, they ignore her masterfully, each in her own private wedge-salad hell. They can’t even be bothered to visit her room or listen to her story during the Seder with anything resembling care, concern or interest.

But Shelly has a secret. She has one hand in her pocket, and the other is giving a … OK, she has an Alanis Morissette song, which she belts out to start her show To Shel and Back on the main stage at the renowned Spinnaker Lounge. Despite every scrap of evidence we’ve been given, Shelly’s show is a triumph, which means we should have seen it coming. But after all the discord, there is a great satisfaction at seeing the most put-upon member of the Pfefferman clan get a standing ovation from the rest of them — well, from most of them, anyway. Josh couldn’t be bothered to attend.

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