The last thing Better Things deserves is to constantly be compared to Louie, and the work of Louis CK. But, hey, I’m going to do it anyway. CK may have written the teleplay for “Period” and serve as an executive producer of the show, but it doesn’t hurt to mention that Better Things is an entire entity unto itself. But in the same way CK has been frank about the rigors and difficulties of parenthood — “The other girl, she’s four, and she’s also a fucking asshole,” he said about his child during 2007’s Shameless — “Period” approaches mothers and daughters. While CK may have written the script, the story is all Pamela Adlon’s and it’s so entirely and unapologetically female, starting out with a vaginal exam and ending with a mother stealing a condom from her teenager.
“Period” made me think a lot about Sex And The City, a show now criticized for portraying a limited view of the way women speak and think — either about men or about shoes. Those criticisms aren’t wrong. But it’s also important to remember that Sex And The City allowed its female characters to be sexual beings, rather than objects. It’s a testament to the evolution of women’s roles on television that Sam Fox can be both a sexual being and a woman who wants to stop having her period because it’s annoying and yet another thing she has to deal with. Better Things is not the only show that is expanding the definition of womanhood on TV, but “Period” is an excellent example of the importance of the elevation of a wide array of voices in the television landscape.
Fertility and womanhood are so linked that even Sam states it explicitly while being examined by her gynecologist. “Please tell me I’m close to being a man,” she says hopefully. It’s a joke, menopause doesn’t make her any less of a woman. But it’s also an inversion of how menopause is normally dealt with, as if it is this unspeakable stage in a woman’s life and upon entering, a woman is no longer a woman, but some odd crone. In a lot of sitcoms — from Modern Family to Black-ish — women approaching middle age are more like to find out they are unexpectedly pregnant than to mention menopause. For Sam, having the reproductive system of a 16-year-old is not to be admired, it’s to be annoyed with as yet another burden to deal with. But we’re still afraid to deal with this natural cycle of human existence. When Sam asks the crowd at the women’s empowerment group whether they’ve had their periods, or whether they don’t, hesitance and shame abound as if it’s not something that each of those women have or will have dealt with.
That’s Sam’s whole point: This is our shared burden, so just raise your fucking hand already. The way the episode frames its feminism is much like the way it frames periods: Being a woman can suck. Having it all is impossibly difficult. Life is not easy. It’s messy and gross and a pain in the ass. Initially, Sam speaks to her daughters’ women’s empowerment meeting with rah rah rhetoric. Lean in, ladies! But they’ve heard this all before and it means nothing. So she shocks the audience into paying attention: “Look, we’re all girls, and we’re all women and we all bleed and we all suffer. And then the bleeding stops and we still suffer. But you’re going to find your own path because we’re tough and we can take it.” The music even swells at the end of her speech to give it that extra kick of sentimentality, but she’s not mincing words. Here’s a character talking about womanhood through a basic shared experience that is usually made fun of or spoken of only in metaphor.
As much as this episode is about womanhood, it’s also about motherhood. Sam’s contentious relationship with her daughters was established in “Sam,” illuminated further here. Max, Frankie, and Duke are still just foils for Sam, demonstrating how difficult parenting can be, especially as a single mother. They’re irritating, and perhaps that’s the point because they allow for moments of anger and sadness in Sam. When Max accuses Sam of chasing fame and short shifting her dad, Sam deservedly freaks. What she’s doing — attempting to have a career and be a good mother — is not as easy as Max makes it out to be.
But we’re also introduced to Phyllis (Celia Imrie), Sam’s mother, who lives across the street and insists on discussing her muscle mass with Sam. She too is a burden, an annoyance, much like Sam is to her own daughters, but is comes running when Sam needs her, or, more importantly, needs vodka. During their drinking session, Phyllis reveals the life she had before Sam’s father — a man who is not named, much like Sam’s husband isn’t ever named (in fact, the one guy who gets a name is the parent who laughs at Sam’s Marlo Thomas joke). Phyllis was defined by something other than motherhood at one point, she was a traveller, an adventurer, and, eventually, a settler, all unbeknownst to Sam. But those facets — know to Sam or not — or all a part of womanhood, aren’t they?