Maura totally kicks ass in ”Wedge” and “The Wilderness” as she becomes more confident about who she is among her family as well as in public spaces, and the negotiation between public and private selves and the concern for public reputation drives a lot of the action in these episodes.
That concern for reputation is most evident in Shelley and Josh, who are both less concerned about their loved ones than how their loved ones’ actions might reflect upon them. Neither Shelly nor Josh explicitly says that they are worried about public opinion, but their thoughts are made clear by their actions.
On the other hand, Josh and Shelly’s fears of public disapproval are put into sharp relief, not only by Ali, who earnestly begins to explore her identity but also by Maura as she continues to grow as a person.
For instance, in “Wedge”, Shelly doesn’t really seem to care about what might have happened to Ed, who had wandered away from their home again, until the Rabbi of their Temple, Raquel Fein (Kathryn Hahn: Parks and Recreation, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Crossing Jordan), decides to pay a visit to check in on Ed’s health.
Shelley doesn’t want the Rabbi to know about what happened to Ed because Shelley doesn’t want to be embarrassed, nor does she want Raquel to think any less of the family because, practically the moment after Raquel introduces herself, Shelley is trying to fix her up with Josh.
Josh, even more so than Shelly, is terrified for his own reputation after Ali outs Maura. Proving that he is not at all good at handling complexity of any kind, Josh then asks Shelly if she knew about Maura.
Shelly tells him that she has known for a very long time; although Shelly still seems to think that dressing like a woman is some sort of private kink of “Mort’s” and doesn’t actually really know that her ex-husband is a woman.
At the beginning of “The Wilderness”, a clearly hostile Josh, bottle of whisky in hand, visits Maura.
Josh tells her that he doesn’t object to what Maura does “behind closed doors” but is clearly angry about hearing that she has been “parading around in a dress” in public.
His reaction to Maura seems linked to his own personal crisis of identity in the wake of Kaya’s abortion, the loss of his job, what he learned about Rita, the failure of his scheme to make a fortune from the sale of the house, and also to his fears as to what others might think of him because his father is no longer “a man.”
Josh’s ideas of what his own masculine identity should be—having already been undermined by his seeming “failures” as a man—are certainly even more threatened by Maura’s insistence on being who she is: not just around the family but in public.
As he gets angrier, Josh rushes back to his siblings and rants at them— “I think dad’s losing his mind.” —and that he is convinced that their father is delusional and suffering from the early stages of dementia.
He is also extremely confused as to what transgender actually means and asks if Maura is gay; Sarah answers that, since Maura prefers women, their dad is a lesbian.
Josh, not satisfied with this answer, looks up the word “transvestite” and then ends up logging onto a transgender porn cam website in order to ask one of the models questions about how being transgender works—despite transvestite and transgender not being synonyms.
When the model answers Josh’s question about whether she is a woman with “I’m all woman, and I’ve got the cock to prove it.”, he quickly shuts the site down. Josh’s next move, not coincidentally, is to visit Raquel at Temple, where the two seem to begin a friendship that could help Josh rethink who he is.
Unlike Josh—who is still unable to start getting past his kyriarchical programming—Ali is beginning to think more seriously about her own identity and enrolls in a Gender Studies class along with Syd.
Despite Ali not being ready to address her potential gender fluidity, Ali is willing to take steps to explore it and is not afraid to talk about some aspects of her fluidity nor does she seem to be worried about other people’s perceptions of her.
Ali comes to see Maura to ask for tuition money, which Maura gladly offers, and in the course of the conversation, Maura expresses her happiness that Ali is willing to explore her own “gender confusion”, which Ali is still in conscious denial of.
After Syd and Ali snark about the class and the professor, Ali meets Dale (Ian Harvie), Celeste’s TA. Dale is a transman, or as he puts it, “a man with a vag”, whom Ali seems to take an immediate interest in. They have a wonderfully awkward conversation about the wonderfulness of flannel and about their sexual orientations: Dale asks Ali if she is a “dyke” and expresses his own preference for “ultra-femme” women.
While Ali begins to thoroughly explore her gender identity, Maura’s new found confidence comes out both in public and in private. In both cases, she asserts and confirms her identity in the face of contempt and hostility from straight, cisgender males.
In “Wedge,” while out for drinks with Divina and Shae (Trace Lysette: Law & Order: SVU) the Yoga Teacher, Maura encounters Gary (John Kapelos: Graceland, Justified, Forever Knight, Roxanne), an old acquaintance. Gary is ogling Shae, and when he comes over to sleaze at Shae in closer proximity, Maura greets him warmly.
Gary is completely caught off guard as Maura asks him about his wife and reminisces about the times they spent together. Gary’s laughter at the appearance of the person he knows as “Morty” is both contemptuous and confused, and once Gary realizes that Shae and Divina are also transwomen, he excuses himself awkwardly.
Maura, on the other hand, feels triumphant and vindicated as she felt comfortable in being herself with a person who only knew her as “Mort.”
Maura is further vindicated as she and Sarah’s family, which now includes Bianca (Kiersey Clemons: Cloud 9, Eye Candy, Austin & Ally), Tammy’s daughter by her first marriage, sit down to Shabbat dinner.
Maura, whom Sarah refers to as “moppa,” is called on to light the Shabbat candles and to sing a blessing. This ritual is traditionally conducted by the mother of the family, so Maura feels especially honored to be performing it.
Len interrupts the dinner by showing up early to pick up the kids. He violently reacts to the scene and speaks in falsetto in mockery of Maura; and gets so agitated that he picks up a knife from the table. Len does not believe that the children understand Maura—since he doesn’t understand things himself—and he also seems deeply offended that there are no men at the table since he makes a crack about everyone flying away in a “uterus-shaped space ship.”
Maura, however, calms Len down by expressing her empathy for him— “I’m just a person. You’re just a person.” —and by calling for mutual understanding. However, Maura also defends her right to be who she is and the right of her family to accept her by telling Len that “You need to either get in this crazy whirlpool with the rest of us or get out.”
The flashbacks in “The Wilderness” also focus on Maura’s private and public efforts to establish her identity as a woman.
In the first 1994 flashback, Maura asks Shelly if she could wear some of Shelly’s underwear as a way to “spice up” their sex lives; thus Shelly’s misunderstanding that her ex-husband’s clothing choices were a “kink.”
In the second 1994 flashback, Maura and Marcy are thoroughly enjoying being themselves as they run around the hotel and enjoy lunch together. They are especially pleased when a server calls them “ladies”, and they express excitement at the possibilities of going to a camp that expressly caters to people whom the brochure calls “cross-dressers.”
After the tense encounter with Len, “The Wilderness” ends with a quiet moment between Maura and Sarah comparing each other’s toenail polish. That seemingly insignificant moment really serves as an illustration of how important Sarah’s unwavering support of Maura has been.
“Crunchy, crispy, old lady eggs”: Additional Observations
- I love how “Wedge” is a punch line episode as Ed nonchalantly wanders back home as the Pfefferman children and Shelly are airing the family’s dirty laundry in front of Raquel.
- Maura takes her first estrogen pill after helping Divina with a hormone shot and ascribes her new-found confidence largely to the pill. Though Divina tells Maura that Maura is feeling the placebo effect, the pill is an effective metaphor for Maura’s newfound womanhood.
- Maura’s quest for public acceptance also comes in the form of singing a duet with Divina in the “Trans Got Talent” show, and she spends a good deal of time convincing the kids to go.
- In an interesting shift in sibling dynamics, it’s Sarah and Josh who team up against Ali. Not only do they undermine Ali’s search for Ed, but they also rather cruelly make fun of Ali for wanting to go back to school.
- Kathryn Hahn is marvelous as Raquel, who takes in the Pfefferman shenanigans with equanimity.
- Raquel’s sermon evokes the aphorism that “only those born in the wilderness get to see the Promised Land”. This statement is a powerful reminder that those taking part in the multi-generational struggles for equality might not get to see the full fruits of their labor but that the labor is nevertheless necessary.