Spoiler Alert! This article discusses (in detail) what happens in the first episode of the Transparent Season 3 Premiere.
By Charlotte Lieberman
Transparent is perhaps the most radical show on mainstream television. As creator Jill Soloway declared triumphantly in her recent award-acceptance speech at the Emmy ceremonies, the show takes as its primary subject “unlikable Jewish people, queer folk, trans folk, and makes them heroes.”
This was the last line of her speech—just before she yelled out, “Topple the patriarchy!” (A wonderful moment, it was.) And while there is a glaring absence of any mention of race or class in this summary of the show’s subject matter, Soloway began her speech by summoning a buzzword: privilege. She said, “It creates privilege when you take people of color, women, trans people, queer people, as the subjects of stories.”
The only issue is that Transparent hasn’t really taken on any explicit or in-depth exploration of how people of color—whether queer, trans-identified, cis, women, men, anyone—fit into the psychologically raw and honest landscape of this brilliant show. Of course, there is an implicit recognition of white, upper-class privilege in the mere existence of the Pfefferman family as the center of the plot-line. The representation of their wealth and solipsism is largely what makes them so “unlikable,” to use Soloway’s word. It’s as if the absence of black or poor characters on the show is simply enacting the characters’ experiences, and thus enhancing the refreshing emotional realism of the show.
At the beginning of this episode, Maura enumerates all the things she has to be grateful for—her new lover, Vicki (played by Angelica Houston), her loving family, her volunteer gig at the LGBT call center. But she states this catalogue aloud not because she’s keeping a gratitude journal—she does so because she is telling her friend Davina how depressed she is, and is simply trying to answer the question, “Why am I so miserable?” It’s as if she knows, on some level, that her malaise is largely tethered to her identity as a white, privileged person living on this earth, not simply about her plight as a trans woman.
This awareness only continues to grow as the episode unfolds. A few scenes later, Maura is at the LGBT call center when she receives a call from a young, black trans woman named Elizah (who gives the episode its title). Elizah is calling from a clinic in South Los Angeles, where she has been trying to see a doctor for five hours. Her foster parents don’t care about her. She is poor. “Why don’t you just tell me why I shouldn’t kill myself?” Elizah challenges Maura.
Maura’s response is well-intentioned but naive: she dashes out of the center, gets in her car and goes to the clinic Elizah mentioned in the far-flung (that is, far-flung for Maura and likely most white, wealthy L.A. denizens) neighborhood of South L.A., where she hopes to swoop in and be the young girl’s savior. When she gets to the clinic, Elizah is nowhere to be found, though a girl in the waiting room tells Maura Elizah has gone to “Slauson Swap Meet,” referring to a nearby indoor mall, where Maura has never been. In fact, Maura unsurprisingly tells the girl she “has no idea what that is.”
Soloway directed the rest of the episode to have a dizzying, disoriented effect, as we follow Maura around on her anxious chase to find (and save) Elizah. The New York Times aptly notes that Elizah’s name is probably a pseudo-allusion to the invisible Passover prophet Elijah, given that the episode is punctuated by brief scenes of Rabbi Raquel practicing her Passover sermon about escape, both in the walls of the synagogue, and while wandering through a bizarre, pastoral scene in the woods. It’s worth noting, too, that Maura and Rabbi Raquel are the only two central characters to resurface in Season 3’s premiere. Needless to say, it seems the theme of escape, and that of oppression (especially when it comes from multiple places—e.g. intersectionality) are at the foreground of this episode, and perhaps foreshadow the episodes to come.
In the mall, Maura runs into a group of Latinx trans women browsing wigs, who she tries to warm up to by referring to them as her “familia.” (Again, well-intentioned but naive.) She then asks the group of women whether or not they have seen Elizah “on the streets,” a remark which the women understandably take as an insult.
Further missteps—both literal and figurative—leave Maura with a broken shoe and a lost purse in a fast-food restaurant, drinking a gatorade without paying for it, and getting accused of stealing by the cashier. It is around that moment when Maura notices Elizah from afar (She was told Elizah had green hair and so is able to spot her in the crowd.) and runs out of the restaurant, chased by the mall guards. Maura proceeds to have what appears to be either a heart issue or panic attack, and is carted off to the nearby hospital (also in South L.A., clearly not Maura’s comfort zone).
Looking back, it seems like Maura asked the question ”Why am I so miserable?” with a pre-existing awareness that her oppression is far less compared to other trans folks—to someone like Elizah, say.
And yet, while it was obvious to me that the show needed to go in this direction, nothing about the episode felt hackneyed or dogmatic. Maura’s depression is not meant to be rendered fake or unworthy because she is a white, privileged trans woman, but she is nonetheless forced to come to terms with what she has, rather than what she does not.
Watching this episode, I found myself eagerly awaiting scenes including the natural and loving rapport between the siblings, which to me (as a sibling) always feels really really really real—almost completely unscripted. And yet what was bizarre to me about this episode was the way that it raised buzzword-y political issues in an analogously natural, almost improvisational way. Sure, we’re talking about white privilege, the fact that black lives matter, intersectional feminism. But there wasn’t one point where it felt like anything going on could be easily summed up with a hashtag. It’s for these reasons that Transparent still feels to me like the most radical show on television, no matter how privileged or “unlikable” its protagonists are.
Charlotte Lieberman is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor whose work often concerns the confusing journey of self-acceptance, feminism, body image, healthy communication and relationships, and meditation. Through her own writing, Charlotte hopes to inspire empathy and empower readers to feel happier and healthier. Her articles have been featured in Cosmopolitan, The Harvard Business Review, Marie Claire, ATTN, Issue, i-D, Sonima, mindbodygreen, Refinery29 and her poetry has been published by The Boston Review, The Colorado Review and Nat.Brut. You can find her at her website.