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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Better Things’ fractured Halloween episode is oddly one of its most joyful

Illustration for article titled Better Things’ fractured Halloween episode is oddly one of its most joyful
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It’s so rare that we get to see Sam enjoying parenthood. Better Things usually looks at the raising of Duke, Frankie, and Max through either the lens of day-to-day mundanities or through Sam’s pain and suffering, especially when it comes to dealing with Max. But in “Scary Fun,” Sam gets to experience this simple joy of being a mom with each other her children, even if those moments are tinged with sadness or pain. She can revel in Duke saying shit for the first time, even if it’s not really for the first time. She can get a quick hug and help from the groceries from Max. She can pull pranks with Frankie. Moms on TV are so often viewed as harried and scolding, and Better Things plays with that idea by funneling every interaction through Sam’s experience. But I’m glad they stopped to allow her and her children to enjoy themselves.

Like this idea of the harried mother, it’s funny how Better Things can take these sitcom tropes — in the case of “Scary Fun,” it’s the beloved Halloween episode — and remix them so they feel so totally foreign. This is a Halloween episode in that the conclusion of the episode takes place on Halloween and scares and costumes are involved, but it doesn’t feel like a Halloween episode. Reimagining tropes is not new in the current sitcom landscape, but “Scary Fun” did something different in that it was able to use Halloween as a basic setpiece rather a major theme. The holiday exists in the background. Max still would have broken up with Harvey even if it wasn’t Halloween, but this scene is made that much more tragic because she’s wearing angel wings and her mom has to take off her Sonny mustache to comfort her.

And it’s in that comfort Sam can find that joy in motherhood. This episode isn’t universally positive. As Sam wrestles with Frankie, she hurts her foot and Frankie freaks that no one cares, even though the wrestling is how Sam cares. “No offense, but you’re kind of mean to Gram,” Duke tells Sam. “Oh you’re going to be mean to me too. Your sisters already are. I need you to be mean to me when I’m old so I don’t feel so bad about how mean I am to your grandmother,” Sam says. This exchange is quickly followed by another scene in which Frankie doubts that Sam would ever sue her over their pranks. “I sued my mother,” Phil says under her breath, proving in her own weird and fractured way that the cycle Sam talked about with Duke continues on and on, but doesn’t mitigate those moments when being a mom is particularly great.

Out of all three of Sam’s kids, Frankie has proven to be the most complicated. Maybe I think this way because I’m also a middle child who thought of herself as the intellectual and complex one, but Frankie is the perfect middle symbol. Sam has to mother Duke and police Max, so Frankie gets lost in the shuffle. While that guilt exists within Sam, as she tells Frankie’s teacher Trieste (Hana Mae Lee), she still has something to share with Frankie, even if scaring the shit out of each other doesn’t seem all that warm and fuzzy. It bonds them. (Sidebar: I’m not a parent but even if Sam was being pranked, it was weird that they had a parent teacher conference in a bar, right? This scene was perplexing.) This worry is even reflected in the show itself. Frankie has gotten less screen time and fewer significant plots than either Max or Duke because her age and her character make her harder define.

Sam and Max’s interactions felt the most real, beginning with how Sam real talks Harvey. She doesn’t like Harvey, but understands there’s nothing she can do to keep him away from her daughter so she might as well protect Max as much as she can. When Harvey breaks up with Max, Sam can only offer empathy. The worst is when Max cries, “Everybody knows.” These teenage breakups are so much less about the relationship than it is about bruised ego. “I used to have a good mommy toolbox for you. Now you’re a real person and your heart is broken and I wish I had an easy thing for that but nobody does, baby,” Sam tells Max. She has one daughter who is so grown up she’s getting hurt, one daughter she’s losing to the same affliction, and one who is about to. But at least they all want to stay home and watch scary movies together for now. And that’s pretty great.

Stray observations

  • Duke. Still the best.