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Transparent season 4 is a mess, but a very human one

The series blends Israel, self-realization, and Jesus Christ Superstar into a fascinating, sometimes profound story.

Maura Pfefferman and her family travel to Israel in season four of Transparent.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Again and again, the fourth season of Transparent returns to the music of Jesus Christ Superstar, especially the song “Everything’s Alright.”

The musical, first released as a concept album in 1970, tells the story of Jesus’s last week on Earth, but through the alternating perspectives of Judas Iscariot and Jesus himself.

It was, for many years, derided by some Christians as blasphemous for the way it underlined the humanity of Jesus and for how it elevated Judas to Jesus’s equal in terms of perspective. But it’s nonetheless become an enduring work with many fans, who apparently include at least one person in the Transparent production chain.

“Everything’s Alright,” meanwhile, might be one of the most Transparent songs ever written. Sung by Mary Magdalene as she anoints Jesus’s feet, it paints her as someone trying to keep Jesus calm and relaxed while Judas scowls about how the money spent on the ointment could have been better spent to help the poor. In the Bible, Judas is painted as ungrateful for the time he gets to spend with Christ; in the musical, his point of view is much more sympathetic.

The idea that there are many stories hidden inside any one story, depending on whose perspective you prioritize, is at the center of Transparent. Though it started out as a series about Maura (Jeffrey Tambor), a trans woman coming out late in life, it’s since evolved to be about essentially everyone in her circle trying to realize their most honest selves, even as the systems they were born into — whether familial or societal — stand in their way.

But honesty, by necessity, is messy and not always coherent. It sometimes bursts out in bits and pieces, with emotional shrapnel embedding itself in others’ skins. To be true to yourself sometimes means hurting others, even if you didn’t intend to. In a family, especially, when one person is honest, everyone else might start being honest too. And there’s no guarantee of what happens next.

As such, Transparent has gradually gotten messier and more incoherent over its four-season run — but I’m not sure that’s a problem. Beware: Spoilers for the full fourth season follow!

Transparent’s fourth season is the flip side of the show’s third season

Transparent season one is an exquisitely crafted little gem, where every single piece of every single storyline adds up to something larger than the sum of its parts. Season two was messier, but in its sprawling attempt to pull all of the Pfefferman family’s history into its field of vision, it became one of the best TV seasons I’ve ever seen.

Season three was still messier, and now season four is too, as if the show is slowly atomizing while its characters struggle to better understand each other and themselves. Season three contained beautiful arcs — in that each character had a lovely storyline of their own — but there was no cohesive whole in the manner you might expect. Season four flips that around; the whole is much more cohesive, but the individual stories take some shortcuts. Some — like eldest daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker) finding herself drawn into a polyamorous triad — work very well. Others, less so.

Characters blurt out their secrets in a way that feels like they’re doing so mostly to advance the plot. Internal emotional journeys, usually what Transparent excels at above all else, are elided or left murky. And the season introduces a huge revelation — Maura’s presumed-dead father is alive and living in Israel — only to largely set it aside in favor of focusing on the existing characters’ stories.

Maura and Ali travel to Israel.

This scatteredness is particularly apparent in the season’s midsection, which brings the entire Pfefferman family to Israel, and then has them drive around in a bus, taking in the sights. Yes, there’s more happening than just a family vacation — much more. But at the same time, it’s hard to escape the idea that Transparent itself is going in for some of the tourism that it’s simultaneously attempting to undercut via exploring the complicated reality of both modern Israel and Palestine. (Mercifully, the show doesn’t opine on the Middle East so much as depict some of the realities of living on the ground.)

This shaggy, unforced quality is an asset whenever Transparent’s story revelations come about in the same shaggy, unforced fashion. But in season four, the show struggles more than it has in previous seasons to unite past and present, even though so much of it is set in Israel, which has enormous spiritual and historical significance for the Pfefferman clan.

In particular, the season doesn’t always seem to know what to do with Shelly Pfefferman (Judith Light), who moves in with her son, Josh (Jay Duplass), and seems to be constantly circling the pain at the center of her life. (Fans of the show will recall that its third season revealed to us that Shelly was molested as a girl, but her children, especially, don’t know this secret.) When she finally reveals that pain deep in season four, it mars an otherwise good episode, one that sends the Pfeffermans into the wilderness to confront themselves.

Nature imagery is especially replete in season four — the very next episode after the wilderness one has the Pfeffermans find a kind of healing in the Dead Sea, as if they’re following in the steps of Christ, despite being Jewish. Later, another character tells Ali that we’ve all got a sort of messianic self, that we can all be our own saviors and our own damnation. It’s moments like these that salvage the season’s clunky middle portions by pushing the Pfeffermans to a point of self-actualization not as a family, but as a collection of individuals.

Can you ever be yourself if other people depend on you?

The negotiation between self and community is Transparent’s preeminent theme, as Maura’s coming out kicks into motion a reckoning in everyone around her, forcing them to ask if they’re living their best, most authentic lives. And yet honestly weighing that question and acting accordingly isn’t the same as being cruel. Transparent has always been very clear on the difference.

In some ways, this resonates with season four’s choice to make God — or some sort of divine presence — an unseen character. Maybe God exists and maybe not, but invoking the divine is an awfully good way to force your will onto others or even yourself. (One heartbreaking revelation in particular details how Maura, when she was still living as a man, made a deal with what she perceived to be God to preserve the life of her youngest child, Ali, after a risky birth left the baby in danger.)

The space between better understanding yourself and still allowing your community (in all senses of that word) to define you is one that Transparent thrives in, and creator Jill Soloway and their directorial cohorts use that framing, which is always just a little off-kilter, to capture the idea that while communal spaces are constantly evolving, they’re also in tension with the self, which can adapt to or resist that evolution much more quickly.

Sarah and Len find themselves reconfiguring their marriage to allow for a third person.

At the end of season four, the various Pfeffermans (except for Maura and Shelly, who share a friendly meal with other friends and lovers) are scattered across the globe, all looking for their own reassurance. They feel closer than ever before to finding that reassurance, but also farther apart from finding their way back together as a family. It’s not that they hate each other or anything — it’s just that their individual journeys are taking them in different directions.

Transparent has always resisted easy categorization as a comedy or drama. It can be very funny, but its primary goal isn’t to make you laugh. And yet the show doesn’t have the tighter plotting generally associated with dramas, because it’s far more interested in the ideas of self-improvement and social betterment that are traditionally associated with more comedic storytelling.

Still, season four was the show’s first where I could really see the argument for the show as a family drama more than a comedy, a story about disintegration and how sometimes we can love someone but know we’re only getting in the way of their journey.

The season concludes with the strains of “Everything’s Alright” all the same; there are dark days on the horizon, and the crucifixion is coming. But for now, the night is warm, and loved ones are near. We might do our best grappling with our private selves when we’re all alone, but when we’re ready to be done, to come back inside, someone will be waiting to open the door.

Transparent is streaming on Amazon.

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