Maura Pfefferman (Jeffrey Tambor) gets a rude awakening in the Season 3 premiere of Amazon's Transparent, which offers a brilliant, important lesson in privilege that's as necessary as it is uncomfortable to watch.
After fielding a call from a depressed young trans woman named Elizah (Alexandra Grey) while she's working at the LGBT Center's suicide prevention hotline, Maura takes it upon herself to be the girl's personal savior.
Her misguided, albeit well-intentioned, quest takes her to South Los Angeles, first to the clinic Elizah was calling from, and then to the Slauson Swap Meet — a South LA mall that Maura has never even heard of, let alone been to. She literally has to cross to the other side of the train tracks to get to the shopping center, which is less upscale than the ones she's used to, to say the least.
There, Maura spots a group of Latina transwomen, and introduces herself as "familia," mistakenly assuming that, because she's trans, she and the other women are the same — neglecting to acknowledge the privilege that comes with her race and class. In what is the first of many wince-worthy moments, Maura asks the women whether they know Elizah. "She has green hair. Maybe you've seen her in the streets?" she asks. The women, who were initially happy to help Maura, immediately change their tune. "I'm a student, these two are getting their nursing license," one of them says. Maura immediately realizes her error and apologizes, but the awkwardness only snowballs from there.
After she backs away from the women, Maura's bad day gets even worse when she starts to feel lightheaded and then breaks her shoe. She clumsily duct tapes it together (metaphor alert!) and heads to a fast food restaurant in the mall, where she picks up a Gatorade and starts drinking it before paying. The cashier (who's black) gives Maura a bit of a side-eye, but politely tells her the Gatorade costs two dollars. And then Maura realizes she's lost her purse.
She explains to the (increasingly skeptical-looking) cashier, while still drinking the Gatorade (!!), that she must have left her purse at the shoe repair place, so she'll just run and grab it - and tip the cashier handsomely when she returns. (Imagine a person of color trying to use the same argument in a store where they're the outsider.) Just then, Maura spots Elizah and runs out of the restaurant to talk to her. "I thought those calls were anonymous," is Elizah's perfect response to being accosted by a stranger in a public place.
The cashier quickly follows her, now with a security guard in tow, who says to Elizah: "Do you need me to call the police on this man? Is he bothering you?" Elizah corrects the officer's misgendering of Maura and then holds her hand as she faints.
"The panic attack is about the loss of privilege, and it is about the growing awareness that she can't depend on her male privilege as a way to win," Transparent creator Jill Soloway told TVGuide.com. "She's not the white cis guy in the room. She's a trans woman, she's a minority. ... She's really lost, and yeah, her privilege isn't like a life preserver that she can hold onto."
The divisions between Maura and Elizah are apparent almost immediately in their first interaction on the phone. Again, despite her best intentions, it's clear Maura has no concept of Elizah's life; and Elizah picks up on that right away. As soon as Maura asks Elizah if her mother's with her, that sets Elizah's guard up and she (correctly) accuses Maura of having never even been to South LA, and thus having no idea what she's talking about. Maura tries to bond with Elizah over the fact that they both had absent mothers... But Maura was raised by her grandparents, while Elizah's currently in her fourth foster home.
At the end of the episode (which features memorable cameos from JB Smoove, Sasheer Zamata and Master of None's Lena Waithe), Maura's wheeled out of the mall on a gurney, begging the EMTs to take her to Cedars Sinai instead of County General. And we also see Elizah heading on her way - a reminder that this community where trans people are still firmly outsiders is where she lives. Unlike Maura, she can't retreat to the safety of her home territory, because this is it.
The incident sets up a theme that will be revisited in later episodes. "I think this season has a lot of moments where our characters are confronted with their own privilege," Soloway says. "At this point, yeah, some of their privilege starts to bounce up and fly in their faces a little bit."
All 10 episodes of Transparent Season 3 are available on Amazon.