Transparent is the story of an L.A. Jewish family based on the life of its creator Jill Soloway. The character that acts as Soloway’s proxy on the show is Ali Pfefferman. Ali Pfefferman, it turns out, is a sociopath. I realize that’s a strange thing to say, considering that Ali is the character one would expect Soloway to give a more sympathetic view of, and because the word sociopath isn’t really a recognized term in the world of mental health anymore, but it’s a very convenient way to classify someone who behaves in the way that she does. She doesn’t just have some anti-social traits, her presence actively damages the society she lives in. The family at the show’s centre is filled with awful people who possess varying degrees of crappy personalities, but at least you can understand what motivates their actions. Sure, there is a listlessness to all of them, moving from interest to interest, not truly knowing what they want out of life and making terrible decisions along the way, but within those moments where they have to make a decision, those crucial little pockets of time, you can understand and even relate to what motivates them. That is not the case with Ali. It gradually becomes clear what lies at the heart of her actions throughout the series, but it’s really difficult to accept as it becomes more and more obvious. One of the central questions of the show is “what does Ali want” and I’d imagine that’s a result of Soloway’s own indecision at this stage in her life, but on Transparent, as it becomes more and more obvious what Ali wants, you just don’t want to accept it. After watching every episode of this show, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only thing that Ali really wants is to cause other people to suffer, whether she’s consciously aware of it or not, that seems to be what truly motivates her actions.
During the show’s first season, she’s presented as the “screw-up” of the three Pfefferman siblings who this show centres on (the twist later on being that they’re all the “screw-up”). She’s lazy and listless, but sparks with a certain intelligence that she completely squanders. One of the first plots about her covers her attempts to organize a threesome with her personal trainer and his roommate, which is then revealed to be a means to get them to have sex with each other in the middle of said threesome. Of course, she made sure they were all incredibly high by that point, but even through their drug addled haze they felt deeply uncomfortable over Ali’s jarring machinations, and at that point, the viewer would assume that Ali just said something stupid in the middle of a high, but eventually you realize it’s just part of her M.O. This is a woman who sees people with various relationships with one another, and then does everything she can to seriously disrupt them.
She often feigns social consciousness and care for other human beings, as seen when she tries to get her siblings to help her search for their Alzheimer’s stricken step-father – only to stop caring part-way through the search and gossip about their transexual birth father. Not caring about where her step-father isn’t evidence of sociopathy, but it’s part of a trend to Ali’s character that one notices over time. She doesn’t truly care about anything or anyone, but she loves to pretend that she does.
She expresses deep concern with people or issues, but it’s all a smokescreen to disguise her raging id and desire to see others suffer. During the first season’s flashback episode we see that she wasted her parent’s time and money by canceling her Bat Mitzvah at the last second for basically no reason. She claims that it’s because she couldn’t be bothered to remember all of the lines but it’s soon revealed that she could easily recite it all without a second thought. In the wake of cancelling it, she runs off alone, picks up a stranger and makes super aggressive attempts at having sex with him, lying about her age repeatedly because she was just 13 at the time. Obviously, a young girl wanting sex at that age isn’t unusual, but the precision and confidence in which she pursued it after running away from home without any kind of prompting was a little unsettling.
More unsettling is when years later Ali finds out that her “Moppa” (what the Pfefferman’s and the real life Soloways affectionately call their transexual father) was secretly delighted that she canceled her Bat Mitzvah (due to plans of her own), Ali instigates an explosive confrontation with her over it in the middle of a party (of course, she does so right after sabotaging her brother’s romantic relationship for absolutely no reason). Ali correctly points out that it simply isn’t normal to let a child decide to cancel a Bat Mitzvah, but the question of why exactly she’s suddenly upset about it is the important one. Maura calls her daughter out on “doing nothing”, referencing her aimlessness, but what she should be more concerned about is the fact that Ali is only angry about the canceled ceremony because she realized that it didn’t cause Maura any displeasure whatsoever. Sure it wasted everyone’s time and money, but in the end it was something that Maura was happy about, and that’s what bothers Ali the most about it all. It’s only during this argument at the end of the show’s first season that one can really see what Ali is after.
In the show’s second season, Ali continues in the same way, almost acting as an agent of destruction in the small world she lives in. She draws her best friend Syd (who has been secretly in love with her since middle school) into a relationship, only to use her as a stepping stone to start dating an old nemesis of her Moppa’s. Having never dated women before, she uses her best friend as a tool to develop a sort of queer cred before going after a much older women. In the mean time, she emotionally manipulates and abuses her, feeds her deluge of crap, and tries to convince her that what she really wants is to have a polyamorous relationship. Of course, Syd doesn’t want that and it’s almost certain that Ali knows this too (something Syd rightly suspects), but she continues to shovel it at her despite how clear it is that it’s destroying her. At some point, Syd has enough and rightly dumps Ali, and Ali reacts… with nothing. This is supposedly her best friend who she’s known for about 20 years, and her reaction when this person’s heart shatters in two for her is… nothing. She doesn’t care, next time you see Ali she’s already knocking on the door of the woman she was really after. Her malice doesn’t come from any ill-will, but just out of a whim. She doesn’t feel anything for her friend, she knew exactly what her behaviour was doing to her and she just didn’t care. It’s similar to her decision to wear her brother’s ex-fiance (who just brutally dumped him) Raquel’s ring around her neck, as if it were a trophy for a beast she slew (but even for all the effort Ali put into sabotaging her brother’s relationship, it was ultimately her brother who ended up felling it).
Soloway likely had a different vision of who Ali was supposed to be, because I seriously doubt she would portray herself as this evil shell of a human being. I suspect she wanted to create a self-deprecating portrait of what a poor person she thought of herself as back then, but instead she created what I would consider to be one of the more realistic depictions of a sociopath put on television or film. Ali isn’t a serial killer that keeps the skin of her victims in a freezer in her basement, but she is a woman that continually tampers with relationships in such a way as to cause the most amount of suffering possible, all for what appears to be for her amusement. Perhaps the “Ali” brand of sociopath isn’t as dangerous as the Norman Bates kind, but it’s chilling in that we can associate so many of her traits with the sort of people we talk to every day.
Quote of the Day:
“Now that you aren’t on the payroll anymore, do you like me? If I didn’t give you any money, would you even talk to me?”
Maura Pfefferman addressing Ali on Transparent.