With a Confusing Musical Finale, ‘Transparent’ Ends on a Low Note

The cast of Transparent. (Photo by Nicole Wilder / Amazon)

Up until two weeks ago, I was one of those seemingly rare queer Jews who had never seen an episode of Jill Soloway’s TV show Transparent.
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Well, that’s not quite true. I did watch the pilot when it was released in 2014. Like so many, I was drawn in by the promise of the first-ever television show centered on a trans character, the retired Jewish academic Maura Pfefferman. But the fact that Maura was played by a cisgender man, Jeffrey Tambor, was a troubling start. And the first episode’s heavy-handed caricature of secular Los Angeles Jews—the closing scene is particularly memorable, in which four members of the Pfefferman family bicker with abandon while devouring a meal of decidedly unkosher barbecue ribs—felt lazy and uninspired, leaving me more irritated than moved. I did not return for episode two.

That is until two weeks ago, when in preparation for a review of Transparent’s 100-minute, single-episode, fifth and final season—which is also a musical—I sat down to watch four seasons of Transparent in a week. That’s 20 hours of television, or, as my Jewish grandmother helpfully reminded me, half an honest week of work.

Spending 20 hours in a single week with the Pfeffermans is an experience. They are, as anyone who has seen Transparent will tell you, spectacularly narcissistic. (In the pilot, Maura wonders aloud how she managed to raise such self-involved children. The joke, which could only go over the head of someone with as little self-awareness as a Pfefferman, is that Maura herself is a case study in egocentrism.) They are also unpleasant people. They lie, cheat, kvetch, abuse drugs, use people, fetishize others, and when it comes to the needs of anyone other than themselves, even their own family members, regularly display an inability to see more than two feet in front of them.

And yet over the course of its four seasons, Transparent evolves, reflecting the political journey of Soloway, who based the show on their own parent’s transition and who now identifies as nonbinary themself. Like Soloway’s path, it’s a fitful, sometimes mystifying evolution. The show’s wanderings down leftist rabbit holes—Israel/Palestine, the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival—often lack both foundation and analysis, seeming more like weekend homework assignments than serious engagement with the issues. But wander it does, occasionally even arriving at insight along the way. On the production side, too, Transparent has changed: The team always included trans producers and actors, but in season two, Soloway brought on Our Lady J as the show’s long, long overdue first trans writer. Most significantly, Soloway told TV Insider that if they were creating the show now, they would never cast a cis male actor to play Maura or any other woman who is trans. (It is worth noting that this realization, while important, is more than a little late—especially since, as Soloway writes in their memoir She Wants It, consultants like Jennifer Finney Boylan drew their attention to the problem of casting a cisgender man to play a trans woman from the very beginning.)

But the most recent event in the show’s development came at the end of season four, when two trans women—Tambor’s assistant, Van Barnes, and his costar Trace Lysette—accused him of sexual harassment. Tambor, who denies the allegations, left the show, and Soloway, who had already signed with Amazon for a fifth season, found themself with a problem: How do you produce an entire season of a television show when the character at the center of the narrative is suddenly, unexpectedly gone?

In June 2019, the answer was revealed: The final season of Transparent would be a feature-length musical single episode.

Oh, and Maura was dead.

If there is a theme that characterizes “Musicale Finale”—and, in fact, all of Transparent—it is a flagrant playfulness with the grotesque, a nothing-is-off-limits irreverence, a constant flirtation with the line of “too much.” The episode’s epic closing number, “Joyocaust” (more on that song, which is exactly what it sounds like, later), makes this tendency explicit. “Hell yes, we crossed the line,” Pfefferman matriarch Shelly (Judith Light) sings, making giddy eye contact with the camera. She’s not kidding.

Critics like Emily Nussbaum and Alisa Solomon have commented on the connections Transparent draws between queer and Jewish cultures, frequently using the framework of one to illuminate the other. The shared ground—outsider humor, a history of pathologization, an identity often forced into hiding—is plentiful, and the show’s exploration of this territory is probably its sharpest material. In “Musicale Finale” one sensibility emerges as the ultimate triangulator between Jewishness and queerness: camp. The episode is, after all, a musical (historical ground zero for Jewish and queer campiness alike), and Soloway takes full advantage of the medium to remind us, repeatedly, that both of these cultures have rich traditions of going a little bit too far. Or, depending on your perspective, exactly far enough.

About the musical aspect of “Musicale Finale”: It often doesn’t work. While watching, I frequently had the unfortunate sensation that is familiar to anyone who has seen an unsuccessful musical—a bubbling up of dread coupled with a strong urge to press fast-forward whenever an opening piano note was struck. But at its best, the music is well suited to the episode’s absurdity. Light practically runs away with the finale with “Your Boundary Is My Trigger,” which might as well be called “The Jewish Mom Song.” In it, Shelly, surrounded by a cadre of lookalikes in tummy-tucking shapewear and adult children in onesie pajamas, delivers gems like, “I’ll always worry / It’s what I do best. Please don’t take that away from me” and, unforgettably, “If I could, I’d shove you back inside me / From my belly you’d provide me with a map that you could guide me / And you’d pull my cord like a gentle soft reminder / As you stretch out my vagina / My boundaries stretching wider.” Captive Audience

It’s beyond ridiculous—and like the other high points in “Musicale Finale,” it’s slightly more poignant than it appears on the surface. Shelly is as narcissistic as a Pfefferman can get (in an earlier season, when her son, Josh, announces that his girlfriend has miscarried, Shelly breaks down in an all-consuming tearfest, convinced that she killed the baby by prematurely announcing the pregnancy). But she’s also painfully lonely in her own family. When the Pfeffermans reunite in a waiting room after learning of Maura’s death, Shelly tries to join a group hug with her children, only to be repeatedly rebuffed with the exasperated “Mom” that might as well be dubbed “The Jewish Child Song.” “Your Boundary Is My Trigger” manages to capture something about Shelly, and it does so without sentimentality by being, well, totally over the top. Did I mention the line about stretching out her vagina?

Another prototypical illustration of Transparent grotesqueness comes at the facility where the Pfeffermans have gathered for Maura’s cremation. Comedy of the darkest variety abounds. There is the uncomfortably implied connotation of a Jewish body in an oven. (At one point, daughter Sarah reaches in to touch the box containing Maura’s body and recoils with a horrified “Oh, my God, it’s warm in there.”) Then there is the offer from the cremator for one of the Pfefferman children to “turn on the switch.” (“It’s an option we give to the family,” he says. Youngest child Ari takes him up on it, pressing not one but three buttons in succession.) Finally, there is the kaddish, read haltingly by the less-than-Hebrew-proficient Pfefferman children and interrupted frequently by the loud mechanical sounds of Maura’s cremation in the background. (“You guys will hear a lot of noise,” the cremator warned earlier.)

The moment is just about as far as you can get from that other famous queer Jewish mourning scene, at the opening of Angels in America, in which an old-world rabbi gives a profound eulogy for a different matriarch in a Manhattan synagogue, marking her death as the passing of not just one woman, but an entire generation. Undoubtedly, some found that scene moving and will find this one offensive; others will probably appreciate Transparent for its willingness to look unflinchingly—with humor, even—at the grotesque mundanity of a ritual like the incineration of a parent’s body.

As was the case at many points in “Musicale Finale” (not to mention my two preceding weeks with the Pfeffermans), I didn’t know whether to cringe, laugh, or both. But for better or worse, teetering on that exact fulcrum might be Transparent’s most consistent achievement, and nowhere is it on display more than in the series finale.

Which brings us back to that final song, “Joyocaust.” I won’t be spoiling anything if I tell you that the song’s concept, as you might guess, is that Jews need something joyful to counterbalance the heaviness of our history. Nor would it be giving too much away to tell you that whatever you’re imagining, I can guarantee you that the actual song is more inappropriate, more offensive, and more extreme. There is a joke about tattoos, wordplay involving concentration camps, and at least one euphemism for the Holocaust that involves the term “Super Bowl.”

Does it work? Strictly speaking, no. Even as I write this, I shudder to think what my grandparents, who are far from humorless, will think. There is such a thing as gallows humor, of course, but jokes about genocide need to earn their keep, and it’s not clear exactly what purpose this one serves—or what point it’s trying to make. The question seems particularly relevant, given that the song is the capstone on an ambitious five-season television series that attempts, at least at some points, to grapple with hearty material. What exactly is Soloway trying to leave us with by closing out the show with a Holocaust show tune?

And yet if nothing else, “Joyocaust” and the rest of “Musicale Finale” is quintessentially Transparent. Susan Sontag famously wrote that camp is “good because it’s awful,” and some Transparent fans will likely feel that way about the finale. The show was never going to be adept at talking politics (on that front, it was often horribly misguided) or contribute meaningfully to a discourse about relationships; its characters were far too despicable and underdeveloped for that. But it carved out a unique space for a particular kind of rubbernecking humor: the kind you cringe at but can’t quite look away from, the kind that, you hate to admit, occasionally makes a good point. “Musicale Finale” is outrageous and maybe too much—and for that reason, it might be the perfect way for Transparent to go out. Anything else, perhaps, would’ve been too sincere, too clean for a show that began with a barbecue sauce mess.

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