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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled iBetter Things /ihas Sam and her loved ones going in circles
Photo: Suzanne Tenner (FX)
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That’s the circle of life: You want to kill yourself when they’re gone and you wanna murder them when they come back.”

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“Escape Drill” traces the arc of a romantic relationship in reverse, from acceptance of its end back to the first rush of infatuation, through the storylines of multiple couples. Sam’s teachings come full circle as Max demonstrates a previously unseen level of savviness and empathy. For her part, Sam finds herself rebuilding her career after being shut out of the Ching Of The Mill reboot in last week’s premiere. She has a new manager, Mal (Sex And The City’s Mario Cantone), who pretends to know her better than he actually does. Some are starting over, others are just getting started, and Sam hits pause on her midlife crisis long enough to see them all through it.

Written by Pamela Adlon and Ira Parker, “Escape Drill” opens cold in more ways than one. Sam urges her friends Lala (the wonderful Judy Reyes) and Lenny (the wonderful Cree Summer) to be proactive in the dissolution of their marriages. They enter the office of Dee Willis (Telma Hopkins), whom Sam calls “Eva Braun” because she was Xander’s divorce attorney. “She napalmed my life,” Sam cheerily declares, which just makes Dee smile. And with that, Lala and Lenny know that Sam “really loves” them.

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Lala, who just last season defended her husband to Sam, now admits that while there was “never anything that wrong with him” there was also “nothing right with him either.” There’s more relief than resignation in Lala’s confession; her face brightens immediately after she’s expressed the thought. Divorce is a much harder sell for Lenny, who has an infant at home and is still in love with her husband. She also rightly observes that dating in Los Angeles is like “Logan’s Run”—and she’s “spitting on 50.” Though they’re supportive, Sam and Lala don’t bother to try to convince her otherwise, because it’s the truth. Adlon films their discussion in a restaurant like they’re sitting down to a family dinner, with all the attendant intimacy and honesty.

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When we see Sam back in her home, it’s not long before she’s vacating it to let her best friend Sunny (Alysia Reiner) and Sunny’s maybe-soon-to-be-ex-husband Jeff (Greg Comer) have it out once and for all. Their breakup has been a protracted one, with Sunny and Jeff taking turns living in their home rather than shuffle their kids between two different households. But now Jeff is in recovery and making amends, so he wants to own up to everyone, including Sam (whose carpet he pooped on and then blamed her dog) and Sunny, for his mistakes. It begins humorously enough, with the poop admission and Jeff telling Sunny that he’s sorry for putting laxatives in her mother’s soup (just… why?). But things grow tense as Sunny begins to tally up all the wrongdoings. Reiner takes a page from Adlon, and makes Sunny’s naturally haughty expression give way to everything from shock to dismay to anger.

By the time Jeff is apologizing for stealing her brother’s identity, Sunny isn’t just pissed—she’s over it. She asks if he’s trying to make up for “19 years of asshole bullshit.” All Jeff can do is sit there and look somewhat chastened. Despite herself, Sunny is drawn to his candor. He’s clearheaded for what might be the first time in their relationship. It remains to be seen if it’s too little, too late or the first step towards reconciliation, but we can be fairly certain that they had their first “sober bone” in Sam’s house. (Though they’re both involved with other people, the sex is “grandfathered in,” according to Jeff.)

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Better Things gradually moves from breaking up to patching things up to, maybe, making out. Along the way, Sam spends some quality time with Max, first taking her daughter to the spa for a “Wizard Of Oz treatment,” whatever that is. Sam’s too far away to hear it, but Max shows real maturity in her conversation with the spa owner. She’s set up an IRA in an effort to not be like her mom, who worries about money and still has to work despite being “old.” Max is being far too dismissive of her mom, who’s had to look after an ex-husband and an aging parent as well as her children

Illustration for article titled iBetter Things /ihas Sam and her loved ones going in circles
Photo: Suzanne Tenner (FX)
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It’s the perfect combination of self-awareness and obliviousness, which continues into their trip to the Urban Outfitters. Max recalls the escape drill she practiced with Sam as a kid, and helps a mother find her missing son in the store. Clearly, some of Sam’s lessons have stuck with Max, but Max also recognizes her mother’s feelings of invisibility. When she stands up for the thirty- and fortysomething women being overlooked by the store clerk, she makes Sam even prouder. In typical Max fashion, she still manages to be slightly insulting, but it’s still a lovely moment. Better Things proves that sometimes hard-won progress, like instilling compassion in your self-centered college-age daughter, manifests in small, almost unconscious ways.

Sam will probably have to wait a lot longer for the same consideration from Frankie, who remains the most “middle child” of all middle children. Having your mom walk in on you and some dude isn’t fun for anyone, but Frankie looks like she wants to murder Sam, who stands in the doorway, dumbstruck. Hannah Alligood is onscreen only briefly this episode, but the rage she shows leaves a lasting impression. There’s even an accompanying thunder cue.

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Though it’s not quite clear what Frankie and the other teen were doing fully clothed on her bed, Sam knows there’s been a shift. Max underscores that point when Sam goes to her for advice; she reminds her mom that Frankie is now in high school. Sam is still trying to grasp Frankie’s gender expression, which is a bit masculine of center at times, but doesn’t necessarily denote a specific gender. “I thought you said Frankie was a boy,” Sam whines. “Mom, I never said that,” Max sighs, on her way to work. I’m glad Better Things has picked up this thread again, but just like her observation that divorce is contagious, Adlon declines to view gender as an issue she must tackle head-on. There’s no agenda here, just a story.

Stray observations

  • Pamela Adlon stages Sunny and Jeff’s showdown like it’s live theater, complete with spotlights and monologues.
  • “But I am not sorry for Sorrow.”
  • I need to know what happens to Reiki!
  • “Are the gobblers the same?” So, I don’t blame Max for leaving the room once Sam’s bikini wax began, but I did laugh (partially in horror) when Sam said this. This is in the top 10 worst terms for vagina I’ve ever heard.
  • Mal’s line about Sam and Jessica Barden being “damaged women” just has to come up again, right?
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