The second episode of the just-about-perfect second season of Transparent boasts what ranks among the season’s most groundbreaking, emotional, bold, provocative, and normalizing scenes—no small achievement in a series about an L.A. patriarch who, at age 70, decides to live his authentic life as a trans woman.
For Light (66) and Tambor (71), both of whom just picked up Golden Globe nominations for their performances in Amazon’s series, it wasn’t a typical day on set, to be sure. But neither could have expected how meaningful shooting it would become.
When asked about the scene in an interview with The Daily Beast, Tambor perks up and immediately looks at Light, who is beaming with pride.
“We’ve known each other for many years and we texted each other afterwards,” Tambor says.
After they shot the bathtub sequence, “He texted me…” Light jumps in, her voice cracking as her eyes well with tears. “I always get emotional when I talk about it,” she apologized. “He texted me: ‘It doesn’t get any better than this.’”
She and Tambor lock eyes, and smile.
So what exactly happens?
In the episode, Maura is trying on bathing suits to wear to a pool party, the first time her friends and family will see her in a female swim suit. She’s self-deprecatingly analyzing her problem areas and the suit’s fit while Shelly relaxes in a bathtub, giving the woman who was her ex-husband feedback. “The hair up is gorgeous,” Shelly tells Maura.
(Fewer things are as touching in this series—and eventually as problematic—as the intense connection and support between Shelly and Maura as Maura navigates living her public life as a woman for the first time.)
“We had some good times,” Shelly tells Maura as she gesticulates through the bubbles, reminiscing at an intimate moment in their new relationship. “They weren’t all bad times. Nobody makes me laugh like you.”
Then she brings up “that thing you used to do with your finger.” She gets a saucy look in her eyes. “You have a talent… What did we used to call it? ‘Flicky-flicky thump-thump.’”
When Maura mimes what exactly a “flicky” and a “thump” is, it suddenly becomes clear what they were referring to: when Mort used to masturbate Shelly.
Shelly is coming on to Maura.
And what does Maura do? She flicky-flicky thump-thumps. She masturbates Shelly to completion. Shelly, a woman in her late sixties, orgasms in the bathtub at the hand of her ex-husband, who identifies as a woman.
It’s safe to safe to say there has not been anything like this on TV before.
“We understand Season Two, especially in the flashbacks to Germany, to really be about shame,” Transparent creator Jill Soloway says. “To have a scene about a woman, an older woman, letting go and saying, ‘I’m happy’—as a culture that’s something that we can’t tolerate.”
To shoot the scene, Soloway closed the set to just herself, Light, Tambor, and a cinematographer.
“Jill went out herself to get these buckets of bubbles to put on me,” Light remembers. Prior to shooting, she confided in Tambor how nervous she was.
“He said it was going to be fine,” she says. “I never felt so safe and protected in my life. That’s due to his care of me. It’s a remarkable thing. And now I wish people could’ve witnessed the dynamic of what was happening and could see. It was a demonstration of human care.”
Soloway knows that the scene is going to grab attention because of the rare authentic and unfiltered depiction of an older woman’s sexuality. But “it had to be about something more,” she says.
Prior to scripting it, she and the show’s writers pondered what they could portray in the relationship between Shelly and Maura that audiences haven’t seen before. “Not just sexuality of an older woman,” she says. “But [of a] mom. The idea of a mom letting go. A mom having pleasure. I see that as a cultural thing. I see that as a mythological thing: the feminine in our culture.”
For all the attention Season One garnered for portraying a trans experience through the lens of Maura, Season Two’s scope is expanded to include a broader range of the human experience, offered through the prism of the other Pfefferman family members.
“Sometimes it sounds cheesy, but we really do show up for work sometimes feeling like we’re doing something bigger,” Soloway says. “And not just about the trans community, but about feminism and about mythology and storytelling.”
Beyond illustrating the greater creative brilliance and daring of Transparent—can we be more clear about how imperative viewing Season Two of this show should be?—“The Bathtub Scene” doubles as yet another showcase for the talents of Judith Light.
A household name in the ’80s for her work as Tony Danza’s romantic foil on Who’s the Boss?, Light has transformed her career in the past decades as one of stage and screen’s most transfixing chameleons.
Impossibly fabulous—downright regal, really, in person—she’s picked up two Tony Awards and scored a bevy of memorable TV guest spots as a character actress capable of dialing up her role’s curios and quirks while never betraying their underlying humanity.
Her work as Shelly is one of the greatest examples of that yet.
“I don’t know if people really comprehend how much she disappears in that part,” Light’s Transparent co-star Kathryn Hahn says. “And then she takes off that wig and wardrobe and gets out of character and it’s like, ‘You are the hottest thing I’ve ever seen.’”
Hahn had just run into Light a few minutes before. “I was like, ‘Is that a hand-painted dress?’ She was like, ‘Embroidered.’ That was the entirety of our conversation this morning.”
Like we said, fabulous.
Her character in Transparent has been one of much fascination, too. Many people have a hard time wrapping their brains around Shelly’s embrace of Maura’s coming out. After all, this is a person who blew up her life when they divorced all those years before. How could Maura’s transition bring them closer? How is she so OK with it?
“Shelly, she’s in love with this person—and loves this person,” Light says. “You don’t fall in love with a gender. You fall in love with this human being. That’s the want. That’s the longing. That’s the connection.”
She mentions a New York magazine article that explored the lives of the wives and spouses of people who transition.
“Many of them stay, because they love this person, this being, the soul of this person,” Light says. “I think they were very accurate in what they did, our writers and Jill, what they were holding in relation to our relationship.”
For Light and her old friend Tambor, whom she had never gotten to work with on-screen before despite a combined 250 credits to their names, playing that relationship is a treat of an entire career.
“After the first Transparent table read Jeffrey and I, because we’ve been friends so long, we looked at each other and said, ‘This is the best table read we’ve ever been to,’” Light says. Tambor chimes in: “It doesn’t get any better than this.”