Tuesday, September 26, 2017

REVIEW: 'Transparent' - Maura and Davina Delve Into Their Pasts to Reveal More Tragedy in 'Born Again'

Amazon's Transparent - Episode 4.05 "Born Again"

Maura revisits the night that Ali was born. Davina recalls memories of her youth and comes to terms with her troubled relationship with Sal. Davina and Maura each make a deal with God.

Transparent has reached the halfway point of its fourth season and it does seem like it's starting to spin its wheels a little bit. There are many interesting story ideas throughout "Born Again." And yet, none of them really have a strong enough hook to justify the amount of time spent on them. It leads to a very disjointed and disparate episode of the show. It's put together of many interesting stories that have big connections to the characters while also doing very little to advance the plot forward. Yes, it's significant that the rest of the Pfefferman family is traveling to Israel to connect with this family they didn't even know existed. But Maura's reaction to that is very minor and won't be adequately seen until the next episode. Meanwhile, it's great that the rest of the family is coming to Israel. It will perhaps bring more cohesion to the overall season moving forward. But again, it's something that we'll have to wait and see until the next episode. Right now, the family is just on the plane together and very much off in their own unique and isolating stories. So, the majority of this episode is a reflection on the past. But nothing that is inherently connected to the family history that has been on display this season. Instead, it's once again at a point in Maura and Shelly's marriage where Maura is unsure about her identity. Plus, it gives more of a backstory to Davina. That's a welcome surprise that is earned. But the depth of it isn't that great or compelling either. So, this is overall a weird episode that doesn't amount to much.

It again highlights the different mentalities towards trans identity in the 1980s. Maura has always seen herself as a woman. The conceit of her visibly being seen as a woman in these younger years when she was still Mort is a device that could grow tiring after awhile. But it still does an effective job in getting the audience into her head and the isolation she felt for her entire life. She's yearning to be noticed and understood. But every possible avenue she explores only leads to more chaos and uncertainty. She wants to come out to Shelly. But at this point in time, coming out means identifying as gay. Maura isn't sure she feels that way. She has someone she confides in about her identity. It's a therapist who really isn't all that sensitive or helpful at all. But he suggests that there is a correlation between cross-dressing and homosexuality. He's not wrong to believe that. But they aren't mutually exclusive either. Maura doesn't believe she is attracted to men. She identifies as a woman and is attracted to women. She feels out of place when she ventures out into the woods looking for anonymous sex with men. It's a somewhat terrifying sequence because anything could happen to her out there. It could go wrong in so many different ways. And yet, it doesn't. She isn't comfortable with this. And thus, she returns home to Shelly desperate to have sex with her. That proves that she is still attracted and "normal." She wouldn't be comfortable with exploring her sexual orientation until she accepted her own sexual identity.

All of this then builds to the day that Ali was born. This was a sequence seen in the abstract earlier this season. It was all told in artful images that were very vague and cryptic. It set up the expectation that there was a key story to tell at this point in time regarding Ali's birth. It was a mystery that could perhaps tie into the greater tragedy of this family and the lies they've told. Here though, it's a simple story of there being a complication during the delivery. The complication isn't named at all. Everything is told through Maura's perspective. She worries that she's about to lose her daughter. She doesn't know what's going on at all. She's afraid that she's about to lose a piece of her family. That makes her pray to God asking for Ali to turn out okay. She promises to stop with the cross-dressing if God can do that. And so, Ali turns out fine. But it's also important to note that Maura wasn't able to keep up this promise. She couldn't deny a core part of herself. It was all just an elaborate twisting of the mind to convince herself that what she was doing was wrong. These urges that she felt needed to be curbed immediately. They can't exist within this framework of a traditional Jewish family. That's what she believed. She internalized that for years. She couldn't keep the promise. But she was never able to truly explore what it actually meant until many years later when all of her children were actually grown.

The other key story set in the past includes making a deal with God as well. It has a more tragic outcome to it though. Davina has been an important character on this show since the very beginning. She's been a close friend and ally for Maura. She's been there to provide clarity and support for her. They live together. And yet, it's important to remember that they come from incredibly different backgrounds. Maura has always been entitled and well taken care of. She's always had so many advantages in this life. Davina struggled to survive for a long time. At times, she got to embrace some moments of fun so she truly got to live. But it's still a life defined by hardships. She contracted HIV from a Hollywood producer she was sleeping with at a young age. She knew the risks but gave in to the desires because it was the only comfort she had in this world. She needed the support that he could give her. That's such a tragedy. He couldn't connect with her outside of a sexual way. He didn't see the purpose of dressing up and putting on a show on stage. He saw it as silly and frivolous. But it was an outlet to escape for Davina. She needs that escape throughout this story. She needed it in the past when her boyfriend couldn't understand her. And she needs it in the present when her boyfriend can't relate to her.

And yet, does it make sense that Davina is telling this story to her friends? It plays as very expositional. It's a story deliberately told to the audience. But it all comes in the context of her and her friends enjoying some time in a pool reflecting on the past and the choices they made. But these are the friends Davina has known for a long time. It would be one thing if she was telling this story to Maura. But Maura is halfway around the world. She couldn't be farther away. She wants to sympathize and offer the Pfefferman house for her to crash in. But that's not all that comforting in the end. It just highlights how different Maura has always been from this group of friends. But it would still provide new context of Davina's life for Maura to understand. But how has Davina never shared this story of Roland the producer with her closest friends before? It seems like something she would have talked about in the previous instances where she was struggling. As such, it feels more like a plot device to get the audience into the story. At moments, it does seem like it's aware that it's playing to the audience more than the other characters. That comes as soon as Alexandra Billings takes over in the big performance on stage. It's this huge number that shows that she can be just as expressive and passionate as all of the other characters in this world. She wants to be seen and appreciated just like everyone else. But instead, life has continually been difficult for her. It's empowering to see her in this moment. But it's a fantasy as well. It's an escape from the tragic circumstances in her world. She was full of self-loathing that she risked getting infected with HIV just to see if God truly loved her. She's kept on surviving. But this is definitely a bleak moment with her. Her only moment of happiness comes from a sequence only the audience gets to see.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Born Again" was written by Stephanie Kornick and directed by Marta Cunningham.
  • It was incredibly easy for Maura and Ali to find out where Moshe resides in Israel because he has an actual address. So, one would have to imagine that it was more difficult for Moshe to track down where Maura and Ali were staying. And yet, him putting in that effort and wanting to meet the whole family shows that he does genuinely care about reconnecting with this side of his family.
  • This sudden vacation in Israel probably won't have any impact on the professional lives of the main characters once they return to Los Angeles, right? They all just have the freedom to take a trip like this. Perhaps they just don't care about the lives they are leaving behind. But Maura does need to get back to her teaching position at some point while Ali still has graduate school.
  • Shelly is continuing to live in her Mario persona. It's very alarming to other people. Bryna doesn't know how to react to it at first while Josh is ready to kill Mario. Shelly is still having a lot of fun. However, a detailed and recurring character isn't really a hallmark of improv. It's more of a sketch comedy or stand-up thing.
  • Josh is still just very frustrating with his life. That seems to be the only consistent character trait for him at the moment. He's letting all of these emotions bottle up inside and he has no proper way to release them. He's growing more anxious and willing to criticize his mother for her obnoxious ways. That's not good at all - though I did get a laugh at seeing him in his ostrich pillow.
  • It seems incredibly convenient and forced that Lila's mother also happens to live in Israel. And so, Sarah and Len will visit her and deliver a gift that Lila wants her to have. It mostly just highlights how serious this new relationship has become lately. Not a lot of time has passed but the three of them are now just openly in a relationship and enjoying that bliss.
  • It's very significant that it's not just the core Pfefferman family making this trip to Israel. It's nice to see Bryna and Len along for the journey as well. They are connecting to this family as well. Bryna deserves to be reunited with her father just like Maura was. Meanwhile, this has the potential to bring Len even closer with the rest of the family.

As noted in previous reviews from this show, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.