Even if you haven’t been keeping up with the Pfeffermens, the finale of Amazon’s flagship series is a spectacle worth watching.
Viewers of Amazon’s Transparent have been following Maura Pfeffermen and her family over the last four seasons. The series following an older person’s transition and the impact on her family has garnered almost universal praise over the story and acting. However, when accusations of sexual misconduct by lead Jeffrey Tambor (already a controversial choice as a cis-man playing a transwoman) surfaced, the decision was made to fire Tambor from the show.
So how do you end Transparent without the Pfeffermen matriarch? With a feature-length musical, that’s how.
Transparent: Musicale Finale opens with Maura’s children Sarah (Amy Landecker), gender non-conforming sibling Ari (Gaby Hoffmann), Josh (Jay Duplass), and ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light) all in transit — Sarah and Ari literally (being in the car and an airplane back from Israel respectively) and Josh and Shelly metaphorically (Josh is in a support group for sex addicts, and Shelly is in an acting class with other older women). The opening song situates our characters as isolated, even while in transit.
Their journeys come to a screeching halt when they learn that Maura has passed suddenly, and the family comes together in their grief. With Maura’s departure, the show also leaves the individual storylines behind in favor of focusing on the family as a whole. While other characters from subplots show up for the funeral, the finale is completely watchable without having seen other seasons of the show.
The finale breaks the three Pfeffermen siblings apart from their mother Shelly in their processing of grief over Maura’s death. Shelly deals with the trauma by staging a play with actors standing in for her family. As she works with the cast, we see a stylized set of the Pfeffermen’s home and Shelly working through her grief and frustration with her family in the play rather than in person. The children, on the other hand, handle the details of Maura’s funeral and estate, including the shocking revelation that the family home is left to Maura’s friend Davina Alexandra Billings) rather than her children. While it does briefly touch on trans and other GLBT issues, such as Ari’s non-binary identity and shots at the GLBT center, the finale is firmly centered around issues of grief, family, and Jewish identity.
What keeps the family going through their grief is tradition, but there is a tension between the history of these traditions and the realities of modern existence. This tension is resolved for the Pfeffermens by the closure of a long-running part of the family backstory: Maura allowed Ari to cancel their Bat Mitzvah so Maura could go to a camp for transvestites. During Maura’s shiva, Josh arranges with his ex-lover and family rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn) to give Ari the ceremony they never had. However, with Ari now being non-binary, it wouldn’t be appropriate to have either a Bar or a Bat Mitzvah, so the family deems it a ‘Bart Mitzvah.’ The recognition that tradition is important, but needs to change to remain relevant is a powerful one.
After the Bart Mitzvah, Shelly declares that Jews should counter the sadness of their history not with mourning, but with a jubilant expression of joy. This leads to the finale’s showstopper (and by far most provocative move), terming this expression as a “Joyocaust.” Whether or not the re-appropriation of the word Holocaust is something you agree with, the underlying message that an affirmation of life as the only truly effective measure against grief is hard to argue with. Moreover, the ensemble casts bright costumes and dance moves give the finale a high note to end on.
The recognition that tradition is important, but needs to change to remain relevant is a powerful one.
The musical numbers alternate winningly between light-hearted and emotional. Raquel’s sultry burlesque-inspired number telling the siblings to “sit in their grief” and Shelly’s Sally Bowles-meets-“Cell Block Tango” song of maternal frustration in “Your Boundary Is My Trigger” are two side-splitting, toe-tapping performances with great choreography. The emotional songs tend to be more intimate, such as a one-on-one number between Shelly and Eva, the actor who plays Maura in Shelly’s play, with Eva reaffirming the widow’s relationship to her dearly-departed wife.
The songs are placed in naturally cathartic intervals in the story, often interrupting the cacophony of the characters talking over each other incessantly. Using a musical format is a risky choice for a TV show, with a big potential to be hokey. But the music helps give the emotional punch needed to close out a TV series in just an hour and forty minutes.
Transparent: Musicale Finale is refreshingly lovely television, especially for a series wrap-up to a show that had to move on after unceremoniously losing its lead character. Rather than trying to give a satisfying closure to plots, it seeks to give a satisfying closure to the themes presented throughout Transparent‘s four-year run: family, identity, and love. It also allows the finale to stand apart from the series, and accessible to new viewers as well. The musical numbers and comedy will leave you laughing, and more than a few tears may be shed before the credits roll.
Transparent: Musicale Finale bursts onto streaming screens September 27.