“I’ve got everything I need, so why am I so unhappy?” asks Maura (Jeffrey Tambor, “Arrested Development”) in “Transparent” ’s powerful season three premiere. Though this emotionally charged question is directed at her girlfriend, Vicki (Anjelica Huston, “The Royal Tenenbaums”), it seems that Maura is looking to herself for the answer. Herein lies the theme of the third and most compelling season yet: desire.
Though the source of Maura’s unhappiness isn’t immediately clear, her question doesn’t necessitate a response right away. It suffuses the episode with a vague feeling of discontent that mounts as the episode progresses and Maura gets nowhere nearer to finding the answer. However, it foregrounds the emotional journey that Maura will embark on this season as she begins to assess what she really wants.
Sparked by Maura’s question, the tone of the episode carries a subdued unease that builds in its restless tension. This feeling is intensified by the episode, which structured entirely around its main character. In a daring formal conception, the episode excludes all but the main character from its storyline. The audience is compelled to align themselves with only the show’s protagonist.
Nearly the entire cast is excluded from the episode with the exception of Raquel (Kathryn Hahn, “Bad Moms”), who is crosscut with the main storyline while narrating a Passover sermon over shots of a secluded walk through the woods. The juxtaposition of the two, Maura’s story with Raquel’s spiritual musings, adds meaningful subtext to what would otherwise appear to be an offshoot from the season’s overarching storyline. Unlike most shows, “Transparent” not only addresses religion and spirituality, but does so in a grounding and accessible way that layers meaning into its narrative.
After answering a distressing phone call from a young transgender woman on the verge of taking her own life, Maura is shaken. Struggling to find an appropriate response among a list of scripted phrases provided by the center that suddenly seem unfitting, Maura goes off book and addresses the individual more personally. In a rapid series of cuts, we’re taken into each character’s respective worlds, while being given only extreme close-ups of their lips. This intimate approach in depicting the phone call amplifies its urgency. Both the audience and Maura are drawn into the teen’s plight.
After the teen hangs up, Maura searches for her. She grows increasingly perturbed and her concern becomes more apparent as time goes by without any leads on her location. Maura arrives at the mall, where a conversation with three women turns contentious, her shoe breaks and a fast food employee accuses her of stealing a beverage.
The heart-wrenching escalation of Maura’s efforts to save someone not only heightens the tension in the episode, but also hints at the forces Maura struggles against in her own life. This becomes evident when Maura collapses in a panic when she is being escorted out by mall security and encounters the teen who is justifiably confused by Maura’s intense determination to help her.
The carefully rising tautness throughout the episode suddenly surges at this climactic moment. Her failure to feel redeemed in her efforts to save someone is tinged with all the burdensome sadness of Maura’s own inability to overcome obstacles in her own life. When Maura desperately pleas to be taken to a Jewish hospital, her wishes aren’t met, and the audience is reminded of the constant barriers she faces in her transition.
After she wakes up in a county hospital in the following episode, the arrival of the Pfefferman clan is a welcome relief after the intense isolation that pervades the first episode. “Transparent” has a knack for bringing in characters when they are needed most. Following her release from the hospital, Maura announces her desire to get surgery to her family at her birthday dinner –– yet another timestamp marking the status of her gender transition. A resounding uncertainty falls over the family members. Shelly (Judith Light, “Ugly Betty”), after haughtily announcing that she is “transitioning” into her own brand at dinner, quickly deflates and voices her dissent when Maura tries to insist she wants to be called “Mom.”
All it takes for us to glean the family’s reluctant acceptance is the camera momentarily resting on the faces of Ali (Gaby Hoffmann, “Girls”), Sarah (Amy Landecker, “Louie”) and Josh (Jay Duplass, “The Mindy Project”). The show’s grounded actuality comes from moments like these –– where it takes nothing more than a few glances between the three children to convey their close bond and evolving relationship with Maura and one another. Maura’s internal plight is mirrored in her children’s own search for happiness, which the series develops through a series of flashbacks that intertwine the narrative of their past with their present.
With the opportunity afforded by television to develop characters over time, the series has successfully mastered its use of the medium to do just that with Maura and the Pfeffermans. The show takes great pains in both its narrative structure and formal tendencies to illuminate complex transition over time –– making its third season its most gripping foray into family, identity and gender.