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Dale's A Lumberjack And He's Okay

Ali's new boyfriend could be great for her, provided that he actually exists.

A few weeks ago, I suggested that Ali was the least-formed, most generic character on Transparent. Whoops! Turns out she's the vessel for the show's most aggressive and potentially alienating stylistic choice.

See, in this week's episode, pointedly titled "The Symbolic Exemplar," Ali goes on a date with Dale, the trans TA from that Gender Studies class she dropped in on a few weeks ago. In the opening scene, we learn that Dale apparently likes "high femme" ladies, which means Ali has to cinch herself into a tight little dress and show off her cleavage for the world.

And if she looks like a 1950s pinup girl in her flouncy skirt and tight bustier, then Dale more than matches her with his Marlboro Man aesthetic. He drives a shitty old pickup truck, wears a flannel shirt, and lives in a goddamned log cabin in the woods, where his décor includes a wood-paneled TV and a glowing Pabst Blue Ribbon sign.

If that weren't regressively "macho" enough, Dale is also the kind of dude who loves to degrade his lady, telling Ali when she has permission to sit and speak, insulting her for having pubic hair, and insisting that she call him "Daddy" at the end of every sentence.

But Ali's into it, y'all! Gaby Hoffmann projects awed excitement as she obeys every command...and when she picks out a dildo for Dale to use on her later. In the blink of a false eyelash, she's the Bettie Page sub to his Texas cowboy dom. And if they're both into this sort of thing, then good for them. Here's to the couple of the year.

Except...well...the entire thing is in Ali's mind. Turns out, Dale is basically just a nice guy who drives a sensible mid-sized car and would much rather offer his date some tea than tell her to shave her privates. And as for his house? It's less a log cabin in the woods than a comfortable little domicile in the L.A. suburbs. It's decorated with Ikea-esque bookshelves and an arty print of a guy on a bicycle, not a cow skull and hand-sawed logs.

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We finally see the real Dale (and his real house) after the couple sees Maura and Davina perform in Trans Got Talent. Turns out, Ali is a lot more unsettled by Maura's identity than she was letting on, and it freaks her right the fuck out to see that identity getting performed for the entire world. That leads to Dale saying Ali's probably just on a date with him because she's a trans chaser -- that she sees him as a fetish object that can epitomize her issues instead of as an actual person. With that, Ali's vision snaps into focus and the log cabin disappears.

So...wow. We've spent the entire episode inside Ali's projected fantasy, and homegirl clearly has some impulses she's not dealing with. Dale is also, quite obviously, right. Ali was using his identity as a staging ground for her own questions and desires.

For me, the final scene's jarring shift to reality makes Ali's fantasy feel especially brutal. At first, I thought Dale just had two houses, but when I went back and watched his truck magically change to a car, I realized that, no, the episode was just yanking the rug out from under me with a violent snap. The suddenness of the revelation clarifies how aggressive Ali's imagination can be, and just how desperately she avoids the truth.

And I'm into it! I love it when a realistic work of art suddenly works on a symbolic level. The moment of disorientation wakes me up, and the eventual awareness of what's happening makes me evaluate everything else in a story with a new eye.

I also just appreciate it when television shows and movies and plays acknowledge that no matter how "realistic" they are, they are not actually "real." Scripted television is fictional, so why not discard what would "actually happen in real life" in favor of gestures that make a larger, more resonant point about the world of a show?

Because I'll tell you what: I may not know exactly what "happened" during Ali and Dale's date -- I may not know if he really shaved her pubes or if she really called him "daddy" -- but those details aren't that important. What I DO understand is how Ali's mind and heart work, and how hard she's trying to run from what's in front of her.

When you add the Dale-Ali relationship to Tammy's symbolic deconstruction of the Pfefferman family home, which turns up all sorts of buried artifacts from Josh's childhood, then you get a delicious spate of symbols that will no doubt help us grasp whatever conflicts arise in the final episodes of this first season. Or to paraphrase the song that keeps playing throughout this episode, the symbols make us realize these people were just somebodies that we thought we knew.

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