The mammalian placenta shows an extraordinary degree of variation in gross and fine structure, but this has been difficult to interpret in physiological terms. Transcriptomics offers a path to understanding how structure relates to function. This essay examines how studies of gene transcription can inform us about placental evolution in eutherian and marsupial mammals and more broadly about convergent evolution of viviparity and placentation in vertebrates. Thus far, the focus has been on the chorioallantoic placenta of eutherians at term, the reproductive strategies of eutherians and marsupials, and the decidual response of the uterus at implantation. Future work should address gene expression during early stages of placental development and endeavor to cover all major groups of mammals. Comparative studies across oviparous and viviparous vertebrates have centered on the chorioallantoic membrane and yolk sac. They point to the possibility of defining a set of genes that can be recruited to support commonalities in reproductive strategies. Further advances can be anticipated from single-cell transcriptomics if those techniques are applied to a range of placental structures and in species other than humans and mice.