Penultimate episode “Man on the Land” embodies everything that makes Season Two of Transparent so great: it’s both more focused dramatically and wider ranging in its implications than anything showrunner Jill Soloway has previously done on the show. In keeping the episode set at a single location, Soloway allows the season’s simmering tensions to build to a powerful climax, finding compelling payoffs for character arcs and delivering insightful political commentary that enriches rather than obstructs them.
That setting, of course, is the Idyllwild feminist music festival, which Ali (Gaby Hoffmann), Sarah (Amy Landecker), and Maura (Jeffrey Tambor) attend in the hope of having a peaceful and fun weekend. Ali also has ulterior motives, looking to make further inroads with gender studies professor Leslie (Cherry Jones), but all three women seek a chance to see the Indigo Girls in concert (the “Closer to Fine” sing along in the tag of “Oscillate” is among my favorite TV scenes in 2015) and a liberating time in the woods.
Yet only Sarah finds anything even close to that. Her embrace of the “consensual power exchange” makes for a logical and emotional conclusion to the previously fruitless search she’s conducting all season. The scene of her alone and fantasizing in “New World Coming” is among the most psychological and intimate moments in a series which traffics in them, and the happiness she finds at Idyllwild effectively picks up the narrative strand. She discovers the outlet for her fantasies a sweet but hapless drug dealer (Jason Mantzoukas) can’t provide in “The Book of Life,” giving her the release she doesn’t quite find from the domineering Tammy (Melora Hardin). Sarah emerges from Idyllwild liberated from her unfulfilled desires, promising a new and intriguing future for her character. (Amazon has already renewed Transparent for a third season.)
Things don’t go quite so well for Maura, and the show finds room for its boldest political statement yet in her arc. After the charming Vicki (an outstanding Anjelica Huston) informs her of the festival’s trans-exclusionary policy, Maura understandably gets worried and looks to leave the festival with her daughters. A series of faster and faster jump cuts accompany her increasing panic, mimicking the discomfort she feels as women berate a male sanitation worker by chanting, “Man on the land!”
Maura does find Ali, but she’s accompanied by Leslie and some older feminists who are less enthused by the idea of a transgender woman attending their man-free getaway. One woman explains that the festival is a “safe space,” and it’s threatened by the presence of Maura’s penis. “Pain and privilege are separate,” Leslie says, explaining why Maura having been born as Mort gives her a status unsuitable for the confines of Idyllwild in spite of her identity struggles.
The scene serves as a biting social critique, but one that avoids being heavy-handed by staying rooted in the characters. Soloway calls out a destructive element of “trigger warning” culture, showing how activists can marginalize oppressed people in the fight for social justice. At the same time, the scene stays focused on the isolation Maura feels, thereby never feeling like a misplaced soapbox rant. The politics get more and more incisive as the episode continues, using another Berlin flashback to link the anti-trans feminists with the Aryans terrorizing Rose (Emily Robinson) and Gittel (Hari Nef), but the commentary never seems like Soloway’s primary aim or gets in the way of the drama.
Rather, framing the flashback as Ali’s reminiscence about her grandmother prevents it from feeling awkward, and the general handling of the Berlin scenes is among the most satisfying elements of the second half of Season Two. From the introduction of the secondary chronology in “Kina Hora,” it seems like a challenging high-wire act, but Soloway does a remarkable job of compressed storytelling, laying out much of the plot in the teaser of “Oscillate.” As Rose gives birth to baby Mort in “Grey Green Brown & Copper,” the story reaches a satisfying conclusion and leaves us feeling like we’ve spent more time getting to know her than we actually have.
Soloway expends more time telling Josh’s (Jay Duplass) story, giving him possibly the most shattering plot arc in Season Two. In Season One, his immature antics would’ve fit better in a Judd Apatow movie, but he evolves into one of the most fascinating characters on a show with an embarrassment of riches in its ensemble. The scene in “Bulnerable” in which he and Raquel (Kathryn Hahn) discuss the miscarriage is a strikingly emotional moment in a show brimming with pathos, and his embrace of the sweet but misguided Buzz (Richard Masur) brings Josh’s sad descent to a devastating climax.
All in all, Soloway builds on the excellent first season of Transparent, yielding one of the best seasons of TV in 2015. The show is moving without being sappy, fast-paced without feeling like it runs at anything other than the speed of life, and insightful without being driven by political messages. Maybe TV does get closer to fine than this, but not by much.
Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.