“I know you think I’m an idiot, but I swear I know more about boys and men than you do right now.”
Max’s words of sympathy after her row with Sam last week—“Oh, wow, I just realized you’re going to have to go through this three times”—were also prophetic, and “Carbonara,” the midseason episode, wastes no time proving just how right she was. Tonight, Sam feels both of her younger daughters slipping away from her; Max doesn’t even make an appearance. Written by Patricia Resnick, “Carbonara” grapples with alternate visions of what Sam’s life will look like once she has an empty nest. Sam is very extroverted, so she probably won’t handle living alone very well. But though she might not realize it, Sam need only look at her mother Phil for a glimpse into her own future.
Frankie shares the meal prepping duties with Sam tonight, whipping up a carbonara that makes mom proud. The fallout from Sam walking in on Frankie in “Escape Drill” turns out to be fairly limited: Frankie may scoff at her mother for trying to have “the talk” with her, but she diplomatically changes the subject to prevent a big blowout. But Sam doesn’t want to talk about her own love life; she’s perfectly defiant and confident when she tells Frankie she’s “okay” with not having had a “successful relationship” in the last 15 or so years. It’s not hard to believe her; “volcel” (as in, “voluntary incel”) jokes aside, Sam really is content to make her life about work and her children. Which is why, when Frankie reminds Sam that one day all her children will move out and live their own lives, faintly echoing Max’s sentiment, it takes a little of the wind out of Sam’s sails.
In season one, Sam proudly declared she “dates” her daughters, and she hasn’t ever wavered from that commitment. But that relationship only exists while her daughters still rely on her. They obviously love Sam, even if they have a funny way of showing it, acting like jerks a lot of the time (tonight’s episode shows Duke finally catching up). But the time is coming when Max’s room will be empty, then Frankie’s, and finally, Duke’s. After committing to her daughters and working her hands into this painful state, what will Sam do when those obligations no longer exist? It’s a question that Better Things has raised this question throughout its run; look back to season two and her non-starter relationship with Robin. As Sam despaired to Rich (Diedrich Bader) back then about making room in her life for someone with real potential, they both acknowledged the crushing yet comforting weight of their burdens. What does life look like for Sam when her responsibilities are drastically reduced? Is she, in the back of her mind, betting on Frankie and Duke also struggling with a failure to launch like Max?
Sam briefly ponders this potential future over carbonara, but she’s currently more preoccupied with her past and Phil’s past. It’s why she sent in Phil’s spit for a DNA test, and why she peppers her mom with questions while a cameraperson stands ready to capture family secrets on film. Celia Imrie’s impeccable posture and crisp accent suggest a woman in command of all of her faculties; she never lets the confidence slip, even finding a way to mock Sam for her remark about sand and sieves. Phil shares her last wishes (‘scatter my ashes across the seven seas”) with Sam, but she’s given her PIN, money, and key to her safe deposit box to Frankie and Duke.
She seems fine, in other words; keenly aware of her surroundings and lot in life, as a matter of fact. Phil even knows enough to mark down the Prada suit at Goodwill, where she works part-time and regales customers with stories about Cate Blanchett being her daughter. Phil radiates cleverness and confidence in her interactions, but she looks longingly at a couple dancing, while also looking chastened over being caught price-swapping. We’ve certainly seen Phil look vulnerable before, but here, she just looks lonely. She’d never admit it to Sam, which is something she has in common with her daughter. I know Sam swears up and down that she’s not interested in dating, but she does look a bit thrilled when Frankie tells her that her Hinge profile has garnered some likes. She’s not lonely enough that she wants to date an “intense, dad”-like man, but Sam is a people person. She even strikes up conversations with complete strangers, a trait that Frankie worries she’ll inherit.
Sam’s outgoing nature doesn’t get her very far with the dance moms at Duke’s ballet class, but the sprawling “Carbonara” has bigger problems in store for her anyway. Duke takes a liking to the class, despite the imperious teacher (Anne Beyer). She’s even prepared to give up soccer and talking with her mom in the car on the ride home. it’s a pronounced shift from the girl who comforted her mom’s friend in the premiere, but Duke’s been growing up this whole time—it’s just that Max and Frankie’s outbursts and issues have overshadowed her developments. But she’s already displayed a precociousness in “Escape Drill,” as well as a deft hand at contouring. Frankie’s trip to the gynecologist has also opened up a whole new chapter in her life. These are all reminders that Sam will soon have two teenagers and an almost twentysomething under her roof—god help her then. Not because of the hormones and tantrums, but because they’ll be one step closer to leaving home.
You’d think that prospect would bring Sam and Phil closer together, but Sam refuses to let Phil walk all over her and Phil refuses to admit she needs to be looked after. Sam’s relationships with her daughters are marked by a similar dynamic, and everyone’s behavior might be too ingrained at this point to break the pattern. These are the real spirits that haunt the family; the specters that Rosalia (Jennifer Bartels), one half of the “handy couple,” senses when she first enters Sam’s house to help her husband Costin (Oleg Zatsepin) patch the leaky roof. Change is always in the cards on Better Things, but the growing number of omens that signify death points to a heartbreaking development. For a while now, I’ve been worrying about Phil’s future, even more so than Sam’s. Pamela Adlon has said that one of the most terrifying things for someone from her generation to contemplate is a parent’s death. This seems to be her way of processing those feelings and helping viewers come to terms with their own, albeit with a lot of humor and metaphorical flourishes.
- I know eggs are often used for “limpias” or spiritual cleansing, but I was still pretty impressed with how Rosalia pulled one, completely unharmed, from her bag.
- The story of Sam having her collarbone broken during her birth speaks volumes of her relationship with Phil, as well as their respective personalities. Sam needed to be torn from her mother to make her way into the world; she also came into this world in pain for someone else’s good.
- “There you go, we handed each other fishing poles.” This echoed in my head when I swapped paper towels for some fresh herbs (the kind for cooking, of course) from my neighbor. Better Things envisions a better world in the subtlest of ways.
- Romy Rosemont, the mom waiting on her daughter at the gynecologist’s office, is married to Stephen Root, Pamela Adlon’s King Of The Hill co-star. That’s really all I have to say about that whole exchange.