The most beautiful point in Amazon Prime's breakout series Transparent comes just past the halfway point, in part of an overheard sermon delivered by the enormously appealing Rabbi Raquel (Kathryn Hahn):
"Forty years? ...It's because God needed that amount of time, to change slaves into free people. The previous generation had to die; no one got in from that generation. Only those that were born free—that were born in the wilderness—get to see the Promised Land."
Without context, these words could seem harsh, even hateful. But because the show stakes out its wilderness so plainly, and with such compassion for its characters, it has taught you to watch, to understand itself, well before this sermon is delivered.
The character around whom the story turns—Maura Pfefferman, played by a 70-year-old Jeffrey Tambor—stands between her own Promised Land and wilderness. Her death as a man, in order to become herself, puts her squarely in the wild, and she brings the rest of the family along with her. Somewhere around her 70th year, after 20 years in hiding, Maura summons the courage to transform, to live outwardly as the woman she has always been. Tambor will be lauded for his performance in the role, and it is a thing of beauty. But Maura herself, in her wisdom and her selfishness, her poise and her entitlement, is a deeply engaging character.
Consider also the "pfour or pfive" Pfeffernans that make up the family surrounding Maura, and their separate wildernesses: Ex-wife Shelly (Judith Light) performs Jewish-motherness to a degree so over the top that realizing how much of her daffy, smothering routine is an act is one of the growing pleasures, or reliefs, of the season. Eldest daughter Sarah (Amy Landecker) is a strong liberal, an intellectual, who performs her gender perfectly but is right at home with her shifting sexual desires. Sweet awful Joshua (Jay Duplass) is doing his damned best to perform a masculinity based on a man who, he finds, never really existed; playing out his own separate traumas in a million ways. Alison (Gaby Hoffman), the baby of the family, the wild one, the one young enough to look at it directly; to investigate and search and wander.
Jill Soloway, the creator of the show, has spoken about how so many of the great prestige dramas of the last decade or two begin with the death of a father: Six Feet Under, literally. (Brothers & Sisters, which started strong, too. I would add Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, which contains very few paternal representations and only one real father.) She says she wanted to begin her story with Maura's confession, her decision to transition from Morty to Maura, to the entire family at once, about the truth of herself: That the unfolding story would be a wake for Morty, in a sense, and explore what happens when the rules fall apart and we're left figuring it out for ourselves.
She decided instead, with her co-producers, to play the drama out over the season's first half, revealing Maura to each child over time, in different (and differently moving) scenarios. Given the dynamic forward-movement of the story as a whole, it was a wise choice. It means having every conversation about the subject, through a different lens: Not the agreed-upon, ethically or politically correct conclusion, but the questions and rage and grief that lead up to understanding. We find the Pfeffernans wandering the wilderness, and they never stop doing so, and that is life.
The reason rituals and tradition are such a defining part of a society is because people need something to rest their feet on: You are not the same person you were yesterday, you are not the same person an hour before lunch as you will be an hour after lunch, your heart will be broken and later on your heart will love so strongly it will make you feel breathless. You can't expect all of these people to agree, so you put your back against the tradition, for times when you are sad or weak or breathless. When you need help standing, or thinking, or even just to keep yourself alive.
Maura needed at least forty years to become a free woman. In those forty years we have all found ourselves in the particularly gender-centric wilderness the show focuses on—and thank God for it—as so many vestigial, unnecessary performances and rituals of gender stop meaning anything. The death of the father, in this case, telescoping to a death of worn-out traditions, and the terrifying wasteland that is left when we remove them.
When Alison asks Raquel about a particular Jewish tradition, she doesn't even know where it came from: Do we sit shiva because of the Torah, or the Midrash, or "whatever"; do we do things that make no sense or do we seek out the sense behind them? She covers mirrors, she cuts her clothing, she rages at her parent for denying her the comfort of God, and of tradition, by allowing her to cancel her own bat mitzvah as a child. Alison, the wild one, demanding an explanation for her wildness, is another of the ugliest and most beautiful moments of the season.
The Pfeffernans don't believe in God because they are not idiots; they're selfish, though, because they don't believe in anything. They project their needs and their desires and the self-images onto one another like canvasses; they decry secrets and beg for transparency even as they're lying to themselves and to one another.
A healthy respect for tradition, and a complete distaste for it—terror, even—is the way out of that wilderness and into freedom. And by the lights of their selfishness, their wandering, their wildness, the Pfeffernans plot a course toward home. It doesn't look like anything you'd expect, and it's a journey that never ends, but freedom is just as hard as slavery.
We bring our pain and our traumas and our performances and our ideas about the world—our garbage DNA—everywhere we go. Lots of us never get further into it than that, because surviving is secondary to thriving. But the further we, and the Pfeffernans, go, the more the wilderness starts to look like home.
Only those born wild can enter the Promised Land, and once you do you learn a secret that has been kept out of your hands for as long as there have been people: You were there all along. The Promised Land is the wilderness, and always was. The only difference is you weren't free, and now you are.