Warning: This contains spoilers. For our spoiler-free review of Transparent Season 3, click here.
“I too have transitioned!” cries Shelly in Transparent Season 3, in one of the show’s most deliciously awkward dinner scenes. “I’m a brand!” Judith Light’s ex-wife of Maura has always been one of the show’s most sidelined characters – and also one of the most selfish. An eternal punchline and endlessly despicable, it’s a sign of just how good Jill Soloway’s series is that it manages to make us feel sorry even for her in the end.
Transparent has always been able to empathise with its shallow protagonists – an attitude combined with a wry disdain that balances laughter at their horribleness with an understanding of their identity crises. And Shelly, who has long felt neglected on the fringes of Maura’s life, is going through that crisis as much as anyone else. In the opening episodes of Season 3, she came up with the idea of a one-woman show, brilliantly/terribly titled “To Shell and Back” – and after her initial debut of the premise in a temple talk, her concept blossoms horrendously out of control through Season 3, emerging, in the finale, as a full-blown musical number. It sounds dreadful. And it is. But it’s also dreadfully uplifting.
It’s no coincidence that Shelly first comes up with the idea of her show-stopping production at the temple, because religion is as much a part of these characters’ identity as their gender or sexuality. Many TV shows wouldn’t acknowledge that, or wouldn’t dare to treat it that seriously, but Transparent dives into it with both nuance and depth. Season 3’s premiere begins not with our main characters, but with rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn) running through the woods, her voiceover questioning her faith. Maura, meanwhile, was rushed to hospital following her panic attack, but was taken to LA County – a clearly shocking turn of events that saw her demanding to be airlifted to Cedars Sinai instead. If not, could her Jewish doctor be called over?
For the Pfeffermans, Judaism dictates their attitudes to life, death, forgiveness, marriage and self. The best moments of this third season therefore involve their religion, not just because of the scene-stealing Hahn. Sarah’s storyline is the most explicitly religious, as Amy Landecker’s loathsome human being decides to fill the whole in her life left by her failed relationship with Tammy – she’s now living platonically with ex-husband Len (Rob Huebel) – by getting involved with the temple. She spends the season applying to join the board, supported by Raquel, only to be refused by the others on the council, due to her “dark energy”, which is a polite way of saying they don’t approve of her S&M activities with a sex worker. (One brilliant sequence sees Rob Huebel and Landecker unsuccessfully attempt to reunite by him sharing in her role-play.)
Undeterred, Sarah and Raquel organise a taco-themed Shabbat celebration for everyone – although Sarah can’t even get this right, as they end up serving pupusa instead. The night is called “Hineni”, which means ‘Here I Am’, and forms the basis of an entire episode, Oh Holy Night. It’s here, in the school gym, that so many of the season’s themes collide to beautifully sad effect.
There’s the burgeoning attraction between Raquel and Duvid, the new cantor. Kobi Libii plays him with just the right balance of sincere innocence and good looks – a perfect juxtaposition to Sarah’s graphic attitude to bedroom matters. By the time Raquel and he start to get close, she can’t stop hallucinating Sarah saying lewd things and encouraging her to get her clothes off – one of the funniest things the show’s done to date.
At the same time, though, there’s a reminder of the intimacy between Josh and Raquel. Jay Duplass’ man-child discovers that Rita, the mother of his son, has passed away – a former baby-sitter who, you may recall, had sex with him when he was under-age. It’s a complex situation, which raises questions about abuse, sex, grief, loss and parenthood. There’s also the question of whether she jumped in the shopping mall where she died, or whether she fell off a balcony. By allowing Josh to finally open up in Raquel’s arms on that night, it blends all of those emotions, these questions of suicide and its ethical relationship to religion and burial, with their thorny romantic past; a heart-wrenching mix of conflicts all summed up in a hug. Other shows wish they had that kind of complexity going on in a single scene.
The rest of the family mourn Rita’s death at the ceremony too, in which Raquel delivers a poignant speech about a Jewish fable of 36 people in the world who exist to sustain its righteousness. The aim, she suggests, is to treat everyone like they could be one of those 36. But we know, of course, that this couldn’t possibly be any of these characters. As if to prove it, up pops Leslie (the wonderfully caustic Cherry Jones), who goes on a rant in the temple about Israel and Palestine – because she’s so blinkered in her radical, self-centred views that she can’t tell it’s inappropriate. It’s a treat, then, to see her fall in a hole on the way out of the building – a cruel pun using the episode’s title. (For more bad jokes, see the remark that there’s “nothing more Shelly than someone who lives in a shell”.)
Leslie’s outburst also continues to drive a wedge between her and Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), one of the show’s most unnatural couples – but Transparent isn’t giving up on them just yet, still giving them time to explore a possible future together. Leslie confesses that she’s afraid of falling of love with Ali – who only finds herself less convinced by the affair. (News that Leslie gets off with a different student every academic year doesn’t help. Speaking of which, watch out for a hysterically, provocatively awkward encounter for Ali in Leslie’s office.)
Gaby Hoffman has long been one of the standout players of the ensemble, partly thanks to her sheer commitment to Ali’s working out of her own identity. That hunt steps up another gear, as a trip to the dentists sees her get addicted to laughing gas – and start tripping up the walls. Surreal hallucination sequences are the order of the day, with Ali’s search for God and a higher meaning taking the form of Wheel of Fortune. It’s weird, it’s surprising and it’s absolutely amazing.
Surreality continues to be the order of the day with an episode halfway through, directed by Soloway (“To Sardines and Back”), which introduces us to the family’s pet tortoise, Nacho, who escaped from the Pfefferman’s house when Sarah and Josh were kids. We discover that Nacho’s actually been living in the air conditioning shafts around the building for three decades – and there’s something oddly moving and charming about seeing this creature survive by himself as everyone else around him ages and moves on, completely unable to exist in such an independent way. They find him during Maura’s 70th birthday celebrations – and he promptly gets lost again.
But religion is never far away, as Josh goes crawling himself on a search for God, deciding to take a road trip to give Colton some of his mum’s ashes. Josh being Josh, it wouldn’t be a road trip without a companion, so he picks up pole-dancer Shea (Trace Lysette), a trans woman who has been in the background of the show for some time. True to form, Transparent pulls her into the spotlight, where Lysette delivers one of the show’s best performances – and one of the programme’s most moving scenes, as she realises Josh just wants a fling (a weird fling, no less, to say farewell to his dead wife). She confesses she is HIV-positive, which only makes him more dismissive and offensive towards her. “I’m not your adventure,” she declares, a powerful response to his childish, novelty-toy-seeking navel-gazing ways.
And so Josh continues his quest for self-fulfilment with some quality Colton time instead – and Colton, we learn, has grown into something of a preaching prodigy. Even away from the Pfeffermans, religion remains part of the fabric of his identity. Does Josh convert to Christianity mid-church service just to get closer to Colton? Of course he does. Does he mean it? Of course he doesn’t. Given that Jay Duplass hasn’t really acted before Transparent, this is yet another demonstration of how well-suited he is to this part, at once being both endearingly ignorant and frustratingly pathetic. Or, to put another way, being a Pfefferman.
And what of Maura? Even as Transparent continues to widen its scope, developing its rich ensemble of supporting characters, it still has time for Jeffrey Tambor’s subtly performed lead, who is saddened to be told that she isn’t able to have an operation to change her body parts – a proposal that sparks a typically barbed debate at her birthday meal. She gets the stage all to herself with If I Were A Bell, an almost standalone episode that could be enjoyed virtually on its own. Andrea Arnold steps into the directing chair for this gentle chapter, which charts Mort/Maura’s growth from a child (dressing up in secret in the garage) to courtship, cheating on his then girlfriend with a young Shelly. Arnold is the ideal choice for the job, bringing her knack for raw immediacy and soft visuals to the table, capturing the very Transparent-esque feeling of watching a private home movie. (Watch out for the magnificent Michael Stuhlbarg, reprising the role of her sternly disapproving granddad.)
The result leaves Maura stuck in some kind of limbo in the present day, while everyone else around her moves forward. “I’ve got everything I need. So why am I so unhappy?” she asks in Episode 1. It’s like watching the Coen brothers’ A Serious Man turned into a TV series, as Maura and the rest of her family take the questioning nature of Jewish faith and applying it to every aspect of their life. As a result, Season 3’s most powerful payoff comes when Raquel rebukes Sarah for misunderstanding Judaism – a rant delivered by Kathryn Hahn with blistering force.
“It’s not changing your mind every minute,” she yells. “It’s not following your ‘bliss’. It’s not crawling in your belly button and out your ass to find yourself.”
But there’s one dimension to the Pfefferman faith that remains a constant truth for all of them: the rituals that bring them together as a family. On the cruise ship in the final episode – again, it’s testament to the series’ writing and acting that we can feel sorry for these well-off characters, even as they swan about on a luxury cruise – there’s a delicate moment of resolution, as Ali and Sarah host a makeshift Passover Seder using bits and bobs they’ve found in the ship’s restaurant and gift shop. And yet that’s not the reason they’re all gathered there: they’ve all made the trip to see Shelly’s one-woman show, which she’s performing in the on-board theatre.
A rich white woman singing about her trials and tribulations in front of other rich people on a fancy cruise liner? It doesn’t sound like your classic feel-good finale, but it really, really is. After being conned by her boyfriend Buzz, who’s been using her for her wealth, there’s a genuine sense of her fighting through to find her own feet. In a sea of people struggling with faith and identity, Shelly’s off creating her own cult – a cult that’s defined by her singing (what else?) Alanis Morissette’s Hand in My Pocket.
“What it all comes down to,” she belts out, like some narcissistic priest. “Is that I haven’t got it all figured out just yet.” After three seasons of confusion and conflict, it’s a joy to see one of them so confidently transition into genuine satisfaction. “What it all comes down to is that everything is going to be quite alright,” she adds, triumphantly.
As the credits roll, you actually believe her.
All 10 episodes of Transparent Season 3 are available exclusively on Amazon Prime Video UK. Season 1 and 2 are 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 and 2.