Better Things wraps up its first season with the stellar “Only Women Bleed,” named after the Alice Cooper song that the Fox women sing at the end of the episode together. “Only Women Bleed” is a song about a woman in an abusive relationship, and on was read for as misogynist when Cooper first released the ballad that became one of his bigger hits. But when it comes out of the Fox women’s mouth, it feels anything but. It sounds like a plaintive rallying cry. Better Things, unlike any show I’ve ever seen, has illustrated how difficult and worth it is to be a woman, a mother, and a daughter. Adlon has a created a show that feels vital, giving voice to those who often don’t get them: single mothers, young girls, middle-aged women (or, at least women who are not in their twenties). It feel like that counts more than ever now.
One of things that I have been remiss in discussing when it comes to Better Things is how well it’s directed visually. Adlon directed this episode herself (she also did the second episode, “Period”) and she continues the tradition that the likes of Lance Bangs and Nisha Ganatra. I loved the second segment of “Only Women Bleed.” It began with Sam allowing Duke to stay in bed for the day even if she knew she wasn’t sick and continues as Sam goes throughout her morning as soundtracked by Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman.” The scene is paced so well. It feels so slow and yet so chaotic, as Anderson’s song drones behind the mundane and the frenetic. People come in and out of Sam’s morning, some to help, others — namely her daughters — to criticize her parenting skills. She’s trying to fill all these roles — mom, businesswoman, head of house, sexual object — and she’s not accomplishing any of them fully. Everything is half-started and half-assed. But the way it’s paced makes it feel so entirely visceral and real. You’re walking around with her. You’re just as beaten down as she is. You know why she can’t even manage a naughty selfie.
There’s so many facets to being a woman, and it’s impossible to try to accomplish all of them. That scene is directly related to her conversation with Macy (Lucy Davis). I don’t know how you do it with the girls and everything else, Lucy says to Sam. “I don’t actually. Even when I do my best, everyone gets a little bit screwed.” Sometimes that’s out of self preservation. Sam knows Phil just wants a weekend in Santa Barbara. She preps, buys her mom a bathing suit, and yet, she still can’t commit to 48 hours with Phil. “I suck as a daughter, I suck as a mom.” Her and Phil have an unhinged relationship as it is, and her daughters are sad either because a weekend away means a weekend not with them (“Don’t you want mom and gram to have a special time?” “I want me to have a special time”), or complete indifference, as when Max can’t look up from her phone to say goodbye. But at the end, though, despite these differences, Better Things makes it clear that there’s a bond between these women that goes beyond the superficial ability to help each other down the stairs with a suitcase.
Sam doesn’t really suck as a mom and a daughter. She can actually be pretty great at both, and even then she can still be floored by what she misses. When she sits in the office of Frankie’s school, she’s so open and willing to accept any reason that Frankie has for being there. She looks at Frankie without judgment as the principal explains the situation, but it’s Frankie who tells Sam she doesn’t understand before Sam can even open her mouth and say anything contrary to what Frankie may be thinking. This scene displayed a beautiful chemistry between Adlon and Hannah Alligood. Sam is there and present for her daughter. She’s trying to understand, and yet, she still feels like she’s screwed Frankie over. It’s an interesting and purposefully vague take on gender. Frankie has grown up in an inclusive household, with a mom who gave her a masculine name and allows her to wear her hair and clothes the way she prefers. And yet, even she might not be aware of why she really didn’t want to go into the girls’ bathroom. Sam beats herself up when Max says, “Frankie is a boy.” Max may not be right, but it’s nearly impossible for Sam to be flawless in this situation. What Sam can’t see is that her daughters know each other in a ways that they may not fully comprehend yet, and that in itself is a special relationship.
I watched this episode after Donald Trump became our president elect. When the line came up onscreen that Adlon had dedicated this show to her daughters, I started to weep, much like I’ve been doing a lot of for the past couple of days. But here’s the deal that’s given me the tiniest bit of comfort in a time when emotions are high and feeling heavy-handed is sometimes the only reaction that works: Adlon and Better Things and other creators and shows like them won’t affect government or policy, but their voices are more important than ever now, to show the experience and give power to the perspective of those who do not normally have it. It’s not really enough, but it’s little bit of comfort, and a little bit is better than nothing at all.