Transparent’s third season is the Amazon dramedy’s messiest yet, but that’s at least partially by design.
In a move that’s fascinating for a family show, season three is largely about the characters attempting to find surrogate families to replace the one they were born into. They fail, of course. You can pick your friends, etc. But goodness knows they try.
As such, season three is much more episodic than either of the first two seasons. It strains at times to get all of the characters in the same place for the finale, and it notably leaves one of them on the outside looking in as the season wraps up.
At times, the season of TV it reminded me most of was the third season of The Sopranos — another season of television that, like Transparent season three, tried to interrogate why audiences would even want to watch these characters, and concluded with a supporting character singing a rendition of a pop standard that reduced others to tears.
And yet for all its mess, for all its sprawl, for all its shagginess, Transparent remains one of TV’s most vital shows and one of its most artful.
Transparent is never content to rest on its laurels, to bask in its many accolades. It’s always interrogating and questioning itself. That might lead it down strange paths, but it always finds its way back in the end.
Let’s look at season three, character by character — and beware, spoilers follow.
Maura Pfefferman takes center stage again
If there was something to grouse about in Transparent season two (which was my favorite TV show of 2015), it was that Maura Pfefferman, whose journey after coming out late in life as a trans woman, stepped back a bit from the stories of her own children.
This was important for the show as a whole — the series is about more than Maura’s story — but Jeffrey Tambor’s work as the character has always been so perfectly modulated, down to the very gesture, that I was always left wanting more from Maura.
And the premiere offers just that: It’s essentially a standalone episode focused on Maura’s search for a young, less-privileged trans woman that takes Maura into corners of LA where she rarely goes. It sets the stakes for season three’s looks at the intersections of class, race, and gender identity in a smart way.
After that, season three focuses on a big decision for Maura: She’s going to have gender confirmation surgery, and the season spends most of its time building to that moment as its climactic highpoint.
But that’s when showrunner Jill Soloway and her writers twist the story in agonizing fashion: Maura’s shaky heart history means she can’t opt to have the surgery. Doctors won’t take the risk, even if she signs a waiver.
As a whole, Transparent is about the possibility of self-definition in a world where you still have to deal with other people who might want to define you otherwise, whether maliciously or obliviously. And Maura’s journey in season three is that in a nutshell.
Indeed, the flashback to her childhood — when she’s a kid living under the shadow of her mother’s trans sister — does its best to try to understand why her relatives would force her into the closet. Transparent exudes empathy, even for those it disagrees with.
Josh is just trying to find a family of his own
If season three has a secondary protagonist to Maura, it’s likely her son, Josh (Jay Duplass), who’s as adrift and alone as he’s ever been.
The season begins with him still navigating the wreckage of his break-up with Rabbi Raquel, but pivots around its midpoint when Rita — the adult woman whose sexual abuse of Josh when he was a teenager has hung over his life like a cloud — kills herself in a mall.
Josh embarks on a journey to Kansas to see Colton, his biological son, whom Rita gave up for adoption. On the way, he finds himself casting about for anybody to form an ad hoc family with him, from Shea (one of Maura’s friends) to Colton’s adopted family to the Christian church.
But as the season ends, one thing is deeply apparent to Josh: The only family he has is the one he’s stuck with. In the Pfeffermans-only Seder (onboard a cruise ship!) that closes season three, Josh eventually storms out to scatter Rita’s ashes into the Pacific.
Whatever tentative bonds the other Pfeffermans have formed, Josh is outside of them.
Ali is constantly trying on new identities to find one that fits
If there’s a character who’s closest to the heart and soul of Transparent, it’s probably youngest Pfefferman sibling Ali (Gaby Hoffmann).
Like the show, she’s constantly screwing things up and making people mad at her, but also always trying her best to understand the things she doesn’t, and make sense of a world that can be hard to grasp.
Ali doesn’t play as central a role in season three as she did in the first two seasons — at various points, she simply seems to be there to have hallucinations centered on Wheel of Fortune.
But the deeper into the season you get, the more you realize that Ali is the tether connecting the individual Pfeffermans to one another. She’s the one who can go to Overland Park to collect Josh. She’s the one who can organize the Seder. And she’s the one who can help Maura mourn the surgery she’ll never have.
Ali’s eagerness to embrace every idea she encounters with a righteous fervor can make her hard to take. But she’s also the character who most embodies the show’s ideals of intersectionality, of embracing that your pain in one area doesn’t wipe out your privilege in another, and vice versa. Transparent doesn’t demonize; it tries to understand. And that’s why Ali is its voice.
Sarah is struggling to fit in
Sarah (Amy Landecker) doesn’t really have an arc this season so much as a constant series of rejections.
She tries to get on the board of her synagogue, but is rejected even with Raquel’s backing and the presence of her mother’s boyfriend on the board. She collapses back into a friendship that’s basically a sexless marriage with her ex-husband, because where else can she go after blowing up her marriage to the woman Sarah left her husband for (in season two)? She even drives away Pony, the woman she pays for BDSM services.
Sarah’s story this season, with all its fits and starts, is probably best represented via one of the season’s oddest, but best, storytelling devices: Nacho, a tortoise purchased by the Pfefferman children who escapes into the house’s walls and lives there for decades.
Like Nacho, Sarah seems caught outside a lot of the biggest moments in her life, watching as the narrative swirls around her. And like Nacho, Sarah sometimes seems as if she is plodding along without clear direction.
But unlike Nacho, Sarah seems to have a bit of self-reflection as the season concludes. She, too, might find enlightenment.
Shelly tries to put her past together as a cohesive narrative
Perhaps the season’s loveliest story belongs to Shelly, who spends the season trying to put together a one-woman show (To Shel and Back!) and uses it to pull back the curtain on her own sexual abuse as a child at the hands of a teacher, as well as the way she was constantly drawn as an adult to lovers with deep secrets.
Judith Light’s work as this character is just as piercing and insightful as Tambor’s work as Maura — and it might even be more difficult, because Shelly’s arcs are so often backgrounded in favor of what everybody else is going through.
But as the season goes on and Shelly demands respect from a boyfriend who proves to be ripping her off and children who mock everything she does, Light shows us new shades of a character who has spent her life losing things and only now is starting to find them again.
In that light, it’s no coincidence that the last thing we see in season three is Shelly bowing after completing her performance of Alanis Morissette’s "Hand in My Pocket."
Similarly, in the season’s flashback episode, the subtle links between Maura’s family forcing her into the closet as a child and Shelly’s parents failing to understand that she went through something horrible at the hands of her teacher are painted as the same kind of failure: one that doesn’t protect those who need protecting. Season three excels when it shows how neither Maura nor Shelly has escaped the gravity of those moments in their childhood.
Bonus non-Pfefferman: Rabbi Raquel struggles to explain the unexplainable
I am consistently impressed and moved by how Transparent depicts the beauty and necessity of religious ritual in the lives of those who believe. Whether it’s one of Raquel’s services or a sermon delivered by Colton, the show doesn’t condescend to believers — though it always understands why it’s so hard for others to believe.
It’s not immediately clear why Raquel (Kathryn Hahn) is now a series regular in season three — other than the fact that Hahn is amazing — but she turns up throughout the season as a reminder that for as much as we might think we’ve figured something out (in this case, the divine), our brains are ultimately limited by our own perspectives.
And that’s the case with Transparent always. The camera’s intimacy within scenes, placing us so close to the characters that we feel like we’re active participants in said scenes, can make it possible to feel like we know what’s going on. But we never do. The Pfeffermans are as unpredictable and enervating and hard to love as real-life family.
But that’s what gives the show its power. If this were your family, it asks, could you still love them, warts and all, like you do your real one? The answer is always, always yes, and in that acceptance, Transparent sings.
Transparent’s first three seasons are streaming on Amazon Prime.