My wife is not a person who watches a lot of modern television, which is not to say that she doesn’t watch TV, it’s just that it’s mostly old murder mysteries on Acorn TV (of late, a British mystery show called Lovejoy about an antique dealer who solves crimes, played by a mullet-wearing 90’s Ian McShane. It is something something). She will only make a few exceptions, and none more eagerly than for Amazon’s Transparent, which she binged on the day of its release last September. Finishing it in bed around 2 a.m., she awoke me a bawling mess, and though she will cry at the odd show, I’d never seen her like this.
It took me a year to finally get around to the third season of Transparent — I binged it on a cross-country flight over the weekend — and somewhere over Nevada, I finally arrived at the scene that broke my wife. Jesus Christ, it did a number on me. Sitting on a plane, surrounded by strangers, I managed to keep my face composed despite the tears leaking from my eyes on the first watch, but I couldn’t resist and watched again. The second time through, it was an ugly cry of the ghastly don’t look at me variety. But I was on a plane, where emotions are heightened, right? So I watched again this morning. Same thing. It’s one of the most moving, triumphant scenes I have ever witnessed on television — probably the most affecting since the Six Feet Under finale. It’s the kind of scene that has been building for three seasons before it finally paid off in unbelievably amazing fashion.
It doesn’t spoil anything, really, to say what happens, because Transparent is not a show that relies on plot. It’s a half-hour character drama (regardless of how it is categorized by the Emmys) that bounces from one transcendent character moment to another (in fact, there’s an episode 5 moment that is seriously, no joke, making me consider converting to Judaism). In the culminating moments of season three, Judith Light — who plays one of the family matriarchs, Shelly Pfefferman — takes the stage of a cruise ship and sings a cover of Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket.” There’s not much more to it than that, but it’s a scene that works on many levels. Shelly has always been a sort of put-upon character on the series, defined mostly by her children, her occasional boyfriend, and her relationship to her ex-husband, Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura Pfefferman.
She shows some signs of irritation and exasperation with her situation — like, when Maura asks her children to start calling her Mom, a title Shelly used to own for herself — but mostly Shelly is a side character in both the show and in the life of the Pfefferman clan. Her family treats her like a misguided, nagging imposition; they barely listen to her, and when they do, they mostly roll their eyes. She’s not seen by her family as a serious person, a woman with her own life, her own ideals, her own dreams. She’s viewed the way many children view their own parents — as mothers, not as distinct human beings with their own separate identities.
But then, Shelly sings “Hand in My Pocket.” It’s not an incredibly performed cover or anything; it’s a cruise-ship rendition. But in those five minutes, her grown daughters finally see her for who she is, and it’s just this incredible, transformative moment: Turns out, this woman, who they unburden all of their problems onto, has her own set of problems. For the first time in, maybe, ever, they’re proud of their mom, not because she got up onstage and performed an Alanis Morisette song, but because I think they realized that she’s relatable, that she’s not that much different than they are, that the apple, so to speak, doesn’t fall far from the tree.
And for Maura: God. He’s only in the scene for maybe 15 seconds total, and only to provide reaction shots, but with a raised eyebrow, Tambor can say more than most actors can with 15 pages of dialogue. She never says a word, but we know exactly what she’s feeling. She’s seeing the woman he married again. The woman he remembers from 50 years ago, before the kids, the suburban malaise, and the decision to come out as a woman. Tambor’s eyes, they just say, “Oh my God. There she is. The woman I fell in love with. Isn’t she amazing? I’d forgotten that about her. You go, honey; you go!” Maura is the first one to jump up to give his ex-wife a standing ovation, too, and it’s the first time I remember Maura ever showing support for Shelly, after Shelly had given Maura so much of it over the years. “I’m sorry,” Tambor’s eyes say. “I never should have taken for granted your own feelings.”
I could watch that scene 20 times and never stop feeling blown away by it. Tambor and Light are both nominated for Emmys this year (as is Kathryn Hahn). There are a lot of great performers nominated in these very competitive categories, and if Tambor and Light win — and they should — a lot of people who have never seen the show are going to complain that their favorites were robbed. But trust me: They weren’t. Light and Tambor are on another level. Transparent is on another level. It’s the best “comedy” on television, and the only reason it isn’t recognized as such is that is makes perfect look so effortless season after season.
You can watch the scene here. It won’t mean much without context, which is to say: If you haven’t watched season three, do so. It’s somehow even better than the first two seasons. And if you haven’t watched any of it, it’s a brilliant series, and while it will hit you emotionally a dozen times over the course of 30 half-hour episodes, it would still be worth the 15-hour investment for this scene alone:
Season four of Transparent debuts on September 22nd.