When the Pfefferman children finally appear in the second episode of Transparent’s spectacular new season, which launched on Amazon Friday, their arms are linked and they’re walking cautiously through a county hospital, gawking in disgusted wonderment.
It’s like a warped version of The Wizard of Oz, with Aly (Gaby Hoffmann), Sarah (Amy Landecker), and Josh (Jay Duplass) on this linoleum yellow brick road in a dirty hospital and, as always, fumbling for functional amounts of brains, heart, and courage to spread between them.
“That was such a Jill direction,” Landecker says, referring to Transparent creator (and recent Emmy winner) Jill Soloway. “First we just kind of walked in and she was like, ‘No, no, no, no, no!’ She was like, ‘You’re shoulder to shoulder. And shuffling.’”
Duplass laughs. “We were like, ‘Are we in a Scooby-Doo movie all of a sudden?’ And then of course you see it and you’re like, ‘This is fucking perfect.’”
The first episode of season three is a standalone outing in which Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura, having the epiphany that, even after her transition, she isn’t happy, goes on a chase through L.A. to save a trans woman who may commit suicide, raising questions of race, gender, ageism, and intersectionality along the way.
It’s a clever, challenging narrative device. As Soloway told The Daily Beast earlier this week, the idea was that the audience keeps waiting for the episode to cut to a scene featuring the Pfefferman kids, but the action just stays with Maura. So when the Pfeffermans finally do make their entrance in episode two, skeezed out by the public hospital in a dodgy area of L.A., it’s a warm introduction to their unique sibling dynamic.
“A warm dynamic of our white privilege,” Duplass laughs. “Oh yeah,” Hoffmnan says. “They’re totally disgusting and awful.”
Highly entertaining white privilege though? “Yes,” Duplass nods. “Giggly white privilege. If you’re gonna serve up some white privilege you better make it giggly.” Joining the riff, Landecker laughs: “Better make it funny.”
The Pfeffermans’ privilege is on display with less self-awareness than ever when Transparent returns, but just as prominent is their vulnerability.
There’s a theme of the series—which actually turns up in a line of dialogue in the season’s second episode—that when a family member transitions, everyone transitions, in their own ways. And that’s what makes season three so unique in this narrative: each of the Pfeffermans is actually in a state of stasis.
“Why am I so unhappy?” Maura asks, almost guiltily, after realizing that coming out as a trans woman and having her family accept her is still not enough. Each of the Pfefferman siblings, too, had made drastic changes in their life in the pursuit of a new direction they assumed would lead to happiness, each now wondering if that end is still attainable.
So with season three premiering and our favorite TV narcissists back to alternately appall and delight us all, we gathered Landecker, Hoffmann, and Duplass to discuss the new season’s plot lines—Maura is considering gender confirmation surgery—and how the show’s impact in the world has affected their own lives.
The first two seasons dealt so much with the question of, “Will you still love me if…?” This season seems to raise the question, “What if I’m not happy?” Where do you think your characters are in regard to that question?
Amy: I find myself going back to my family. Not the Pfefferman family, but the one with Len. I think she finds that she was unhappy. She was irritable. She tries to blow it up. She marries Tammy. She has regret. She’s like, “I’m going to blow up everything” and ends up completely alone. I think she’s going to try to find her way back into some semblance of reconstructing that family and healing it, but without having to actually be with her husband in a traditional way because that’s unsatisfying for her.
So it’s a question of how she can still be a family with Len and the kids, even though Len is sleeping with other people and they’re not a couple.
Amy: I think season three and I’m hearing season four will continue dealing with trying to negotiate that. And as someone who has been through a divorce and is in a relationship with blended families, there’s constantly a negotiation of how to stay intimate when you’re also not intimate. Because you do have children and you are a family, no matter what. But you also want to heal and want the kids to be well. In modern times we talk about polyamory and open marriages and don’t ask don’t tell, whatever the relationship is. I have a lot of friends who will never divorce and are just separated. It’s an interesting storyline that our writers are doing in an interesting way, trying to figure out if there’s still a way to be together and free.
And still get spanked on the side.
Amy: (Laughs) Exactly.
What about Aly? She seems to be living the life she thought she wanted, but also seems really aware of her unhappiness.
Gaby: Well I was just thinking that perhaps these people in this family are becoming more and more emboldened as they continue to make these big changes, mistakes, missteps, whatever we want to call them. Mistakes is not the right word at all. Explore themselves in these ways. The people that truly love them are still there. It’s kind of messier or bigger or broader or more intense as it goes forward.
They’re less cautious making these big life decisions.
Gaby: I think that they’re all becoming more and more courageous to do actually what they want or need to do, instead of maybe what just feels sort of safe. It’s still a lot of messiness and confusion, getting there. Or getting somewhere. There is no there, right?
That’s the mindfuck I guess. There’s no real destination of true happiness.
Gaby: It’s not like anybody figures out who they are or figures out how to be. Sure there’s happy marriages, but are they happy 40 percent of the time or 60 percent of the time? There’s no there there. It’s always just what you’re doing with what you’ve got at the moment and how you’re approaching the next moment. That’s where I think all the comedy and drama is, and what’s interesting about real life, too.
What about Josh?
Jay: I think the courageous aspect of what is new about the third season, especially for Josh, is that he’s really confronting his dysfunction more head on. He’s taking chances and doing things he’s scared of, including pursuing a domestic relationship with Aly—whom he’s always held to this pure, high standard, and probably the reason things haven’t worked out very well with other women. He dates a trans woman and pursues that as a real relationship.
I was surprised to see him pursue that relationship [with Trace Lysette’s Shea].
Jay: He definitely pursues it, whereas two years ago Josh was still making fun of Maura thinking her being trans was a version of getting attacked, basically, because he sees his parent as basically narcissistic. He goes really deep in trying to reconstitute a relationship with his son. His music business really takes off and he even risks some of its success to do what he really wants to do, which is play music. So he takes a lot of risks in this season and branches out further.
This season is pursuing the gender confirmation surgery question of trans life more directly than previous seasons. Maura’s reveal garners such an intense reaction from the kids. They already accept her as a woman. What is it about that next step that is different, that it elicits such an emotional reaction?
Amy: There’s something about the permanence. I think probably, as the kids, that even though we’ve been accepting and been open, there’s always this idea of, “Well maybe it’s not actually happening. Maybe this will all just be a phase.” I think it’s kind of figuring out when someone moves to that next level that this is definitely happening. She also says she doesn’t want to be Moppa anymore and brings up at the table, “Call me mom.” I think that’s an earthquake in a family of identity and the role that you play. That brings that up for us.
Gaby: We talk, and we always have, about how when one person changes or transitions in any way, in a family or in a dynamic, the other people are forced to. Even if the kids aren’t aware of it, I think there’s some unconscious feeling knowing that. “Oh, this is another big change that we are going to have to experience, too. Oh, the reverberations are going to be felt and are going to be hard and are going to push us further and further into being our authentic selves.” The closer Maura gets, the more force we’ll feel, the more push. I don’t think they know it intellectually, but they feel it in their nervous system. Like, “Oh shit, I’m going to have to double down now, too, maybe. No more fucking around.”
Jay: This is only quarter-baked, but I feel like there is a strange cultural expectation that I feel as a parent to provide consistency and uniformity to our children. The idea that kids do better when their parents are very stable or don’t change. I don’t think that’s necessarily right…
Gaby: God I hope not. My poor daughter. (Laughs)
Jay: But that’s how I was raised. To keep it very still. It’s almost like you’re not supposed to throw too much at your children. I think the most authentic way is to do what needs to be done and do it in the most humane way. But these people are not operating at full intellectual capacity.
Gaby: They’re surviving.
Jay: Their parents are just burying these little land mines and these children keep discovering them along the way.
Jill has populated a set with members of the trans community to use as resources. When there’s a scene like that, when these characters are reacting to the news that their parent is considering surgery, how much do you talk to those resources?
Amy: I don’t know if we use the trans resources in that respect as much as we use Jill, who is more in our position—although that happened more in season one. I think now we trust ourselves. It’s an interesting thing to act, of course, because you don’t know. There is no one way.
Gaby: And we’ve all been in a relationship now as our characters with Maura for three years. In season one it was different because we were just figuring out what these relationships were and who we were and dealing with the unknown of this experience that Jill had and we didn’t. Now we’ve had the experience of being Maura’s kids for three years. Just like anything else, you try to be honest in the moment. Of course the information is specific and unique. But being affected by something your parent is saying that feels challenging or unsafe, that’s the experience, really.
Amy: And Jeffrey uses those resources constantly. Constantly. So we know we can react to her in that moment.
Jay: We know we’re in a safe place. If anything we’re encouraged to be irreverent. To challenge. Especially as Josh, I force myself to think in terms of what would a naysayer say? I may not say it overtly, but I’ll behave it, in ways that are subversive and troubling for people. You know? But we’re encouraged to do that. I think that’s what’s so great about it. We’re not tiptoeing around anything.
Gaby: And we’re not meant to be models for children of trans parents.
Jay: God help us.
Gaby: We’re meant to be humans, and deeply flawed humans.
I feel like that makes them good models, because they’re allowed to be flawed. They’re not sainted.
Gaby: Exactly. And that’s what Jay is saying, that we’re encouraged to be irreverent. But that just gives us the freedom to be as honest as we can in the moment. And whatever that is, that’s what it is.
Josh: I think that’s why when they are tender or generous or giving, it’s so touching. Because you know they’re not controlled in any way. It’s rare, especially for Josh. But when it happens, it’s like oh my god, that’s the potential.
Does what you take from the experience of doing this show change after a third year?
Gaby: Going to work every day with people like this where I can explore myself and what I’m going through in the world and be surrounded by such compassionate, brilliant people who I trust and love and who trust and love me, that’s as good as it gets. The fact that we’re doing great work that we believe in, that’s amazing. But selfishly and personally I’m like, I get to come home every day a bigger, more expansive person, rather than most people who come home from work having to have suppressed themselves and their humanity.
Amy: I feel like in season three, the stuff that I did that was the hardest for me people seemed to really appreciate it. On set people are really thirsty to have the darkest impulses expressed creatively. What scares me, I realized, is important. I might feel like “Why am I doing this? This is insane.” I actually get the most people being like, “Thank you for showing that. Thank you for showing that.”
What is an example of that?
Amy: Rage. I rage this year. That’s always a scary emotion. A few times this year she rages. I think even in my own life my anger scares me. Anger in the world scares me. What’s going on right now scares me. In this capacity it’s a constructive way to look at it and feel seen and heard, and that you kind of have to face it at some point. You have to bring it up and out in order to get better. But it’s scary. That question for her, “Will you love me if…” I think this year for her it was, “Here I am.” It’s like “I don’t care if you love me or not. This is fucking who I am. So there.”
It’s terrifying to be that exposed though.
Amy: Yes. But people want that strength. They want to feel like not only can I be this way and will you love me if I am, but I don’t care whether you love me or not because I have to be this way.