Like much of Better Things’ run, “Future Fever” is a complicated episode that I like the more I think about it. I tend to like each episode on first watch. But as they percolate in my brain, I like them even more, teasing out each episode’s complexities and subtleties. Better Things can be half watched, and still enjoyed as a comedy. There are the easy gags: when Sam, Max, and the miserable blind date all simultaneously “ew” at the IPA lover hitting on Max, when Phil walks into Sam’s house in her bra and accusing her daughter of wine theft. But this is a show that doesn’t tend to lay everything bare, and that ‘s a luxury that a lot of television — grabbing each and every viewer with as much flash as it can — doesn’t have or care to take.
A lot of Better Things has looked at motherhood as unglamorous and difficult but in “Future Fever,” Sam the Mom finally gets a win, and one that doesn’t come just as her career falters. The first part of the episode deals with physical care. Frankie is sick with a fever and can’t go to soccer practice even though it’s Sam’s day to do snacks — she has cuties for god’s sakes. Sam goes anyway and another mother asks her to pray for a fellow soccer mom, an idea that Sam rebuffs because that mom isn’t really the praying type. That’s not tangible or real care for Sam. There’s nothing fulfilling in that. Good vibes aren’t going to make this woman feel better. Max gets actual fulfillment out of taking care of Frankie, even if her nursing skills go as far as administering medicine. The grape kind, as Frankie requests, even if the grape kind is the grossest kind. Sam revels in not just being a source of a cure for her daughter, but for being needed as well.
Sam tries something similar when she encounters Phil, in her pajamas and drinking a beer in what seems like the middle of the day. Sam attempts to care for her too, asking what the plan is in case of tragedy, but Phil is more worried about her corporeal self than actual reality. Life without a body, specifically without legs (one of Phil’s best features!), is not worth living. It’s ludicrous, of course, life without legs isn’t worth suicide. Phil’s role in this episode is more helpless, less eccentric than it has been in previous episodes, if only to highlight how this maternal role that sometimes Sam embraces — as if with her daughters when they are not being assholes — and sometimes has it thrust upon her, as with Phil.
The second half the episode focuses on emotional care. Almost every scene in Better Things has Sam at its focal point, yet “Future Fever” is the first time she relinquishes that spotlight for Max, played by Mikey Madison. She does some of her best acting when she’s not speaking at all, as when she’s looking off forlornly and communicating this adrift sense that is empathetically terrifying — didn’t we all have those moments at 16? Max is supposed to be an entitled brat, all eyerolls and quick-texting fingers, a foil for Sam. But in “Future Fever,” she actually gets to be a characters and Madison is entirely up to the task.
When Max eschews Sam’s attempts at care in favor of texting her group chat — it’s a big deal, there might be bullying going on — Sam turns her attention to the women on a terrible date. Sam assures this stranger that she’s worth more than a guy who wants to talk about how much he loves IPAs.
But when Max is at her breaking point, she turns to her mother, and even her mother’s friends. At 16, Max believes that her life is over and she’s squandered it away on getting high and being social, or so she says to a group of people who know each other so well they can joke about their non-existent abortions and their mother’s abortions while drinking. While Sam is in effect showing by example that Max’s life is not a total disaster (yet), Max still gets reassurance from Sam’s very own group chat. “I felt exactly like that when I was your age,” Tressa says. “And when I was 20. And this morning.” But it’s Sam who needs to convince Max that a suggestion to go to junior college isn’t a death sentence. So, like a good actor, Sam puts her daughter in a costume. These people who look like they have their shit together? They just put on the right suit, Sam says in a speech that bordered on being too cloying for the tone of the rest of this episode. That suit is even more effective when it makes your ass look fantastic.