Transparent: 1x02 The Letting Go.
Maura: Since I was a kid, ever since I was five, I felt that something was not right. And I couldn’t tell anybody, about my feeling inside, it was a different time, very different time. I just, I just kept all these feelings to myself. […] Please let me do this. People led secret lives, and people led very lonely lives. Then of course the internet was invented…
Tammy: Can’t hate on that internet. It’s magic.
Sarah: I’m sorry dad, I’m just trying, can you just help me out here. Are you saying that you’re gonna start dressing up as a lady all the time.
Maura: All my life, my whole life, I’ve been dressing up like a man.
One: Let the person do it on their own terms. Don’t push anyone. Don’t be impatient, everyone has reasons. Never, never ever take someone else’s story and tell it for them without having their permission and before they can tell it themselves. Listen.
Transparent is a comedy – or billed as a comedy – which means that the following set-up is possible: Sarah has just “reconnected” with her great college love, Tammy. She has decided to take Tammy back to her childhood home to sleep with her. Cue Maura, Sarah’s dad, walking in at an inopportune moment, catching his daughter in the act but also being caught in – what she points out, isn’t in fact a costume – but her real self. Maura isn’t telling Sarah that she changed, or that she has discovered something new about herself. That’s the terrifying part – not, “I am different now than I have been” but “I have kept this a secret from you for all your life, I have known this about myself for a very long time but couldn’t tell anyone”. It’s terrifying, but also exhilarating, for Maura, because even though she wouldn’t have chosen that moment (the moment just presented itself and she ran with it), she has wanted to tell her children about herself for a while now. When she planned to come out to them, it didn’t work, because they were too inattentive and caught up in their own issues, but getting Sarah in this situation means she has control (because now she is keeping a secret for Sarah, they are both finding out new things about each other in that moment). It’s also interesting, even though not explicitly stated, since presumably Sarah must have had a similar moment at some point in her past – her family is well aware of what Tammy meant to her when they were in college. From how Maura speaks about Ali, as the person who seems more observant than her siblings, and better able to see her for who she is, you’d expect that she would find it easier to speak to her younger daughter first, but Sarah makes sense on many levels.
One, allow the other person to adjust. Don’t suffer abuse, don’t make yourself smaller, but take into account that humans need to time to process new information. Two, don’t be unreasonably kind of you are met with unkindness.
I like how the scene develops because it tells the viewer so much about everyone involved in it. Sarah instinctually asks Tammy to stay there with her and not leave her alone, even though it is clearly a very personal moment for Maura, who has no close connection to Tammy, and even though Tammy seems quite eager, and awkwardly so, to leave. This carries over to Tammy and Sarah’s relationship throughout the first season, one of them rushing head first into this amazing new thing, with no hesitation, while the other seems very conscious of all the things she stands to lose in case she does go for it. Sarah wants to rely on Tammy; Tammy doesn’t seem all that excited about being someone that Sarah wants to be able to rely on, at least not yet (to her credit, she insists on the correct pronouns, later in the car – “That was brave of her. It was. It’s hard.”). It takes Sarah some time to adjust but eventually, when she does, she turns into the most articulate supporter of her dad’s choice, someone who constantly points out when other people are being inappropriate or hurtful to Maura, or use questionable language to speak about her (which they mostly do, speak about her rather than to her). For Sarah, the two things become immediately connected, she has realized that she wants to be with Tammy, not with Len, and she sees Maura claiming the right for herself to finally be herself rather than having to perform for everyone she loves (because the secret lives lead to loneliness). The show goes back to 1989 to portray how utterly impossible that step would have been for her in 1989, even though Maura worked as a political science professor, a job that at least allowed her to keep her hair long. Only 25 years ago, there was no other conceivable option for her except to dress up, and discard the clothes that she feels would have expressed her identity. It’s dreadful, filing through secret magazines in petrol station shops with the kids in the car, wondering how to smuggle one of them home or even deal with having to walk with the magazine to the counter. The world is filled with impossibilities, and the best that he can do is connect to someone who is going through a similar struggle (except as the show will later argue, before the internet, “almost the same struggle” had to do, there was no other option, and there are in fact worlds between Maura and the friend she makes). Maura was giddy, in 1989, to have met someone who was at least more like her than anyone else she has ever met, as she is giddy now, after having come out to Sarah, for having made the first step towards being able to live openly and happily in front of her children. It’s exuberant, celebratory, and carries her through the episode, into a new friendship and towards a very big life decision.
Sarah’s affair is dreadful, and exhilarating. They both have kids. Their respective partners connect over golf. The episode captures both the exhilarating process of Sarah falling in love again, while both of them behave like teenagers essentially, or at least have to (perhaps that’s where some of the excitement comes from, even), and the dreadfulness of an essentially failed marriage without any possible non-hostile communication suffering through its last breath, with no possible outcome that won’t leave anyone hurt. Len isn’t a villain in that story, sometimes he almost articulates that he feels like he is and has always done the right thing and just doesn’t comprehend that this doesn’t automatically lead to Sarah’s happiness. He seems to have the ambition to do the right thing, always, but at the same time the arrogance to assume that this alone should earn him everything he desires, discounting that the other people in his life have identities too (sort of a nice guy problem). They sneak out of their homes to meet each other, and talk about the compromise each of them made to have a family.
Meanwhile Josh finds out that his girlfriend is pregnant and, the way that Josh does, since he knows nothing about himself, immediately also realizes that he wants to have that child, because it looks like a romantic and good life in his head (that does not take into account the other people involved in it, or any possible complications that deviate from his vision of living in a cabin in the woods). There are some connecting themes in the episode: how Tammy and Sarah chose to be with people they weren’t completely satisfied with to make a family, how Maura got married the first time, to the person standing closest when she was 25, how Josh interacts with his niece and nephew and realizes that he wants children. It’s more about the idea and the story of having children than the reality of it, of the other person involved.
Maura understands her children more than they understand her, because in part she has spent the past decades of her life making choices that constantly balanced trying to be herself and having a traditional family. There will be plenty of insight into all the ways that Maura and the kids’ mum made life terrible for their kids, at least sometimes, but it’s a more interesting quest to see how they created each other, how everybody’s choices fed back and affected the other lives.
Davina: Tell me about your kids.
Maura: Sarah, she is my oldest. I told her, and she took it, she actually took it very well. Maybe too well. I think she’s internalizing the whole thing and next thing she’s gonna have shingles. Then there’s Joshie, he’s my very successful son. He’s in the music business, he is very very very image conscious. You know, always, the now thing, the now restaurant, the now jacket, the now sunglasses, the now girlfriend, the now dungarees. And then there’s Ali, she’s my baby. That girl does not seem to learn, very smart, 99th percentile on her SATs. Out of the box smart. She just doesn’t seem to be able to land.
There is so much tenderness in her voice when she describes her children, capturing them perfectly and also summarizing what they struggle with, but not in a judgemental way. It’s a beautifully realized scene, Maura expressing her love for her kids while walking around in Davina’s flat, observing the artefacts of her life, admiring how this woman carved out a place for herself (and at the same time lived Maura’s nightmare, losing everyone in her family when she made the choice to come out).
Davina: You know, sweetie, this is a really big journey that we’re on, and you just started on it, so you gotta learn to let go of everything anybody thinks. A really really good friend of mine said this to me, when I first transitioned. She said to me, in five years you’re gonna look up and not one of your family members is still gonna be there. Not one.
Maura: Was your friend right?
Maura: That’s so sad.
This is what Maura is most afraid of, but at the same time Transparent is about letting go and moving on: she is moving out of her house. She makes the choice to move into a recently available flat at Shangri-La, to have a room of her own surrounded by people who have gone through a similar struggle, and in part she does because of everything that this house signifies for her, discarding the freedom that the women’s clothes promise to come home to her family, idyllic and lovely but at the same time the cage she had to live in for so many years. It’s about the joyfulness of human connection and the horribleness of being trapped together with violently different ideas, of identities clashing in close confines, but also the beauty of sharing a life and being seen by other people.
CAUTION WHILE PASSING THROUGH THE GOOSE POPULATION
One of my favourite things about the episode is the contrast between the support group that Maura goes to and the dinner party that happened in the previous episode – here, when Maura speaks, everyone is listening and watching her attentively, giving her a chance to tell her story without interrupting or interpreting and judging. (and also the understated way in which the episode addresses the prevalence of alcoholism and drug abuse that comes with having to go through that struggle in a mostly hostile world).
Also a good parallel: the way that Maura was unconditionally supportive of Ali in the last episode while her mother’s first question to her is, “did you get a job yet”.