Warning: This contains mild spoilers.
“What is being queer, if it’s not questioning everything?” argues Ali in the second half of Transparent Season 2. “We can make our own rules. Be open and brave.”
Gaby Hoffmann’s daughter has always been the most interesting person in one of TV’s most interesting ensembles. In Season 1, she was the first one to embrace “Moppa”, after Maura came out. Here, she remains the first one to question the social norms around her. She’s not just curious; she’s actively inquisitive, about herself as much as everything else.
Hoffmann’s performance is extraordinary, managing to be wide-eyed as the outsider in the Pfefferman clan, but also inescapably part of the family unit. That comes through most of all in her selfishness: by questioning everything, she’s already putting her latest relationship with Syd (the wonderful Carrie Brownstein) in danger, so that she can explore the opportunities that abound in this new lesbian world.
It’s the opposite of Sarah, whose lesbian awakening with Tammy in Season 1 has now descended into uncertain loneliness. One is liberated by exploring her identity; the other is handicapped by it.
Both, though, have a self-centred nature that’s inherited straight from their mother. The wider focus of Transparent’s second season continues to prove a showcase for Judith Light as Maura’s former wife, Shelly. She’s horribly sympathetic, the kind of person who invites pity as much as she pushes other people out of the spotlight to get it. After years of growing up with that, it’s no surprise the entire Pfefferman group is so dysfunctional.
Part of what Ali needs, you sense, is a maternal figure – no wonder, then, that she finds herself attracted to Leslie (Cherry Jones), the academic and poet who was once passed over by Maura in her Mort days. Now, Leslie is something of a lesbian super-woman, leading chants by firelight in the evenings and waking up next to young lovers in the morning. After her role as President Taylor in Season 8 of 24, Jones is in her element as the deceptively steely figurehead, her motivations in wooing Ali never clear. “You come out late in your family,” she quips, as they share an intimate moment, then turns around seemingly disinterested. “Have you met my cats?”
Josh is going through a similar dilemma, on the one hand growing up with a self-absorbed mother and on the other trying to face up to the discovery of being a father. They collide in a confrontation with Shelly about her secrecy over Colton. “I put him out of my mind. I put him out of our world,” she explains – a reminder not just of the importance of memory, but the power of ignorance; for the Pfeffermans, forgetting someone is tantamount to them not existing in the first place.
Season 2 of Transparent continues to explore this theme of history with incredible subtlety. It’s telling, for instance, that Ali is the only one in the family to have visions of the family’s past generations – and that at the same time, Josh is trying to imagine his life without his parents having ruined it. (“You think I’m so dreadful? I didn’t beat you,” comes Shelly’s typically brash defence.)
“I just need a moment to breathe,” he tells Raquel.
Jill Soloway’s show is full of such moments, the measured pacing slowly presenting every situation with the insight of multiple perspectives. One conversation between Maura and Davina, whose other half projects his ideas of what a woman should look like onto her, manages to be sincere, loathsome and sickening all at once. Josh, meanwhile, informs his would-be wife that he doesn’t want a baby, as if his honesty is somehow a present – “Don’t betray and tell me it’s a gift,” she snapped at him back in Episode 1 – but she shuns the weight of his family’s legacy, seemingly cutting off any chance of furthering the Pfefferman line altogether.
The couple are reunited from afar in the temple on Yom Kippur. The meaningful glances during the service are heart-achingly sad to witness. Shelly, meanwhile, beats her chest in penitence, all the while exchanging flirtatious looks with another man, oblivious to Josh’s suffering.
There’s something wonderful in the way that Transparent uses the Jewish day of atonement as a way to mesh its characters’ heritage and personal histrionics – not unlike the way Sarah exploits it to apologise to a hilariously cruel Tammy. That abuse of their family’s culture builds to a brilliant ensemble set piece, in which the family sit down for dinner together (a reminder of just how flawless this cast is). Ali leads the ceremony, talking about how she’s investigating her Jewishness as much as her sexuality, but can’t even remember the correct blessing; a masterclass in character work and comedy in its own right. And yet when tragedy inevitably surfaces, Shelly is the one who needs comforting, not her children.
Splits in the Pfeffermans, of course, are nothing new: just as trauma is passed down, so are the worst of their human traits, something that Soloway emphasises through the tale of Maura’s grandma, Yetta, in 1933. Directed by Andrea Arnold with the kind of natural tone that has defined her work, the episode that takes us back in time unfolds in an almost-haze – the limbo between people remembering and people forgetting where they’ve come from.
Arnold returns to the helm once again for another chapter, which forms the first of two standout episodes, following Maura, Sarah and Ali to a women’s music festival, led by Leslie. Glimpses of a figure at a bonfire give us another striking contrast between now and then: one suffered for exploring her gender in unsafe times, while Maura is suffering too, despite being in an environment that is meant to be safe for women.
What does the term “women” even mean? It’s that kind of debate that keeps the show’s flourishes of magical realism grounded. Amid the bursts of deliciously black humour (“Some of you I know from my drumming away racism group…”) lies a serious discussion of issues that most shows wouldn’t even think of touching, let alone doing so with such consideration and candid honesty. Soloway’s deliberately moral approach extends even to behind the camera, as Silas Howard becomes the show’s first trans director on Episode 6 (the one with the cats).
The editing remains excellent too, as parallel cuts show us uniformed men encroaching upon women’s turf in the 1930s and women encroaching upon Maura’s today. Overlapping each other, the woods suddenly represent death as much as they do freedom, both shades of the same central conflict between selfishness and the self, between asserting one’s identity for the future and erasing one’s past. There are so many layers to appreciate in this beautifully complex drama you don’t even notice Michael Stuhlbarg pop up for a brief role near the end.
But if the ground-breaking nature of Transparent partly lies in its queer ability to question everything, it’s also in asking the things that would never occur to its audience. It’s easy to overlook the fact that Maura, as she gets her childhood photos retouched to reflect her new identity, is no longer Mort. If the rest of the family have already been starved of a mother, does that mean they must also face the loss of a father? Continuing to grow in both subject and form, Transparent’s second season sees Amazon’s series mature with astonishing confidence, always mining new depths from its rich, moving material. After 20 episodes pondering sex, the show reminds us that gender boundaries are arbitrary, but questions are vital. Transparent remains open and brave enough to tackle the answers.
All 10 episodes of Transparent Season 2 are available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video UK. Season 1 is already available to stream. Amazon Prime Video costs £5.99 a month – or, for free next-day delivery on products from Amazon as well, £79 a year for a full Amazon Prime membership.
For more on Transparent, see our interview with Jill Soloway and Jeffrey Tambor from last year – or read our reviews of Season 1.