“You’re the one that’s in control.”
Some long-awaited closure comes to Sam in “What Is Jeopardy?,” but first, let’s talk about “No Limit,” the fifth episode of season three, which ends with an incredible rant from Pamela Adlon that’s part tirade, part confession. “No Limit” opens with Sam talking to her gynecologist about the symptoms we’ve witnessed throughout the season: the hot flashes, the nausea, the heavy periods, etc. The doctor’s personable enough, but like so many male medical professionals, he compartmentalizes the symptoms and the patient; he speaks with formal detachment about Sam’s entry into peri-menopause, telling her “This is normal. You’re degenerating.” He’s speaking of her reproductive functions, but as we see later in the episode, Sam questions her relevance more broadly.
Sam makes her jokes in typical fashion, remarking on the intimacy of a gynecological exam, which is made all the more awkward by just how closed-off the doctor is. He’s just being professional, of course, but that doesn’t make his pronouncement about Sam’s “degenerating” sting any less. But at least he encourages her to talk to a therapist when she brings up her dreams about Xander, which she describes here as him “raping” her.
Sam’s behavior has been more unpredictable than usual this season—picking fights with other parents, burning rubber on a go-kart track, indulging in some light, bicurious flirting—yet she’s always found a way to keep up with her responsibilities. After ditching the kids, Sam has a raucous night out with friends, including Lala (Judy Reyes), which includes talking about their growing obsolescence, like “aging out of [their] men,” and all the physical changes that come with middle age. Better Things continues to find the humor in getting older without ever making doing so look like a death sentence. The chin hair, the bloating, the periods, the spiking emotions—they’re all unwelcome shifts, but they’re not the sum of middle age or aging in general. This is another phase in Sam’s life, just like Duke’s brattiness or Max’s flightiness (well, hopefully).
At the end of “No Limit,” Sam goes to see her primary care physician (Usman Ally), which is when we see the real toll that being there for everyone has taken on her. After some prodding and a whole lot of swearing (by the doctor, not Sam), she finally unloads everything we’ve seen her wrestle with over the last three seasons: coming to terms with her mother’s loss of faculties and her eldest daughter’s sputtering independence; spousal support to a clod; a middle daughter who could singlehandedly ensure Sam is miserable; the list goes on, and so does Sam.
When she finally gasps, “I just can’t do it anymore,” Sam is an exposed nerve—wounded but still capable of feeling it all. Her competence is beside the point at the moment because her will seems to have evaporated. Adlon is devastating in this scene, unloading decades worth of frustration and disappointments. Sam’s angst is understandable, but we’re given the scantest of moments to take it all in before her doctor goes all Loretta Castorini and refers her to a psychiatrist. It’s just like Better Things to end on a (rueful) laugh.
If Sam seemed at the end of her rope in “No Limit,” tonight’s episode finds her holding on with a better grip. Adlon has moved away from the cold openings that found Sam sighing or struggling in solitude; last week, she was in the gyno’s office, and this week, she’s making dinner and watching Jeopardy! with her family. The tension that arises when Frankie asks Sam why she left Xander is palpable, but it seems to vanish like a fart in the wind when Phil cuts one to break it up. “What Is Jeopardy?” reckons with Phil’s declining health later in the episode, but when we first see her on screen, she’s coming to her daughter’s aid. Phil’s still got it, sort of.
Eventually, Sam goes to see Dr. David Miller, the therapist recommended by her primary. Played by Matthew Broderick, Dr. Miller (or David, or “Deezy”) is a blast from Sam’s past, someone she went to camp with as a kid. They had some kind of hook-up or at least “went behind the infirmary” when they were preteens, and for a moment, I was worried there was about to be some boundary crossing along the lines of Kal Penn’s run on How I Met Your Mother. But David seems genuinely concerned, not to mention professional. He won’t just write her a prescription for anti-anxiety medication—he sees through Sam’s complaint about paying for her kids’ rideshares, and asks her if there isn’t something else that could have pushed her past the tipping point.
I find it interesting that Sam refers to her Xander dreams as sex dreams when talking about them with David—she’s gone from describing them as completely unwanted, objectionable even (hence “raping”), to grudgingly acknowledging that there may be some residual feelings. (I know, I was wrong about whether or not she had ’em a couple weeks ago.) Through clenched teeth and a throw pillow, Sam tells her prospective new therapist about the dreams, then dismisses the notion that there’s anything unresolved between her and Xander.
Adlon and her co-writer Ira Parker tease the return of the repressed throughout the episode, beginning with Frankie’s interrupted interrogation of Sam, and later, the stiletto “fuck me” boots she’s literally locked away. She gives Max one pair of special boots but won’t let her even touch the others, and as the episode concludes, we learn why. We don’t see the shoes until she’s actually in a hotel room with Xander, posing on the bed and feeling ridiculous (though looking great). But they’re a part of her marriage to Xander, an accessory to their roleplaying. Along with the dreams, the boots are a reminder of that shared past, a past Sam was so certain she’d let go of that she didn’t see a reason to explain her decision to leave Xander to her kids, not even after the initial shock of divorce wore off.
The boots in the safe, that time Sam considered making room in her garage for Xander—these are all signs that she’s actively, if not entirely consciously, kept her ex-husband in her life. Xander’s done a shit job as a dad, so it’s not just about the kids. As much as I’ve enjoyed the show’s depiction of how full someone’s life can be post-divorce, Sam’s unwitting clinging to the past rings as true as the sound the boots make when she throws them in the trash right in front of Xander. You can convince yourself and everyone around you that you’re over someone—see: Frankie lashing out at Sam because she thinks her mom doesn’t care enough to offer an explanation for the breakup—and still nurture a tenuous attachment.
Once again, Adlon’s demonstrative face shows all the phases of Sam’s goodbye: the doubt, the waning desire, the determination. She doesn’t have to say anything to let Xander know that this last thing between the two of them—something apart from their children—is now over. Maybe now she’ll have that talk with Frankie.
- First of all, apologies for not posting a review of “No Limit” last week. Hope you all enjoyed seeing Judy Reyes enjoy some whipped cream as much as I did.
- Phil gaslighting Duke was painful to watch, but at least she finally gave up her car keys. She also accepted the permanent loss of her American Express Black Card, so I hope Marion comes through with the Popcorn Of The Month Club.
- “Why didn’t you drown in a puddle of diarrhea yet?” Therapy clearly brings out the best in Sam.
- Raise your hand if you’ve ever ranted about something mundane at a therapy session to avoid talking about the thing that is actually bothering you.
- I might have to update this Inventory to include Dr. David “Deezy” Miller. (I assume that’s how the nickname is spelled; the screeners don’t have captioning).
- Speaking of Deezy, I hope this isn’t the last we’ve seen of him—or Reiki.