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Pamela Adlon creates her own healing ritual with the Better Things season finale

Illustration for article titled Pamela Adlon creates her own healing ritual with the iBetter Things /iseason finale
Photo: Suzanne Tenner (FX)
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“Listen To The Roosters” because it’s a new day on Better Things.

For someone who’s never been too concerned with closure, Pamela Adlon sure knows how to craft a finale. Once more, Better Things’ star, writer, director, and co-creator bookends an outstanding season of television, contrasting the frenetic energy of “She’s Fifty,” the second half of the hourlong premiere, with something approaching tranquility. Even the rain has cleared, paving the way for a day at the beach for a few, but not all, members of the Fox family.

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I wouldn’t call “Listen To The Rooters” a happy ending to the fourth season, but only because it isn’t an ending (I don’t care that a fifth season has yet to be announced). Like virtually every episode of Better Things that has come before it, the season closer captures a series of moments in time, underlining themes both universal and specific, but without labeling the beginning, middle, or end. Which isn’t to say that this isn’t an immaculately detailed show—Adlon is one of the most giving and conscientious TV auteurs. She’s helped her younger co-stars Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood, and Olivia Edward hone their talents while always leaving them room to shape their characters. She’s highlighted a peerless performer, Celia Imrie, who brings an earthy elegance to Phil that helps us understand how she could be so closed off her daughter Sam while confiding in her granddaughters. Guest star appearances have been just as carefully cultivated: When Sharon Stone showed up as a woman named Reiki who played with a monkey over dinner, the tableau was homey, not contrived.

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“Listen To The Rooters” is not an ending because nothing has ended on Better Things. The world keeps a-turning. Duke may no longer be her ally in dealing with Max and Frankie’s bullshit, but Sam can now look forward to ballet recitals and other milestones, including the ones she has already shepherded her older daughters through. The “change of life,” or menopause, is just another facet of Sam, another chapter in her raucous story. Even the midlife crisis that fueled the first half of the season hasn’t been resolved so much as accepted.

But Adlon, who wrote and directed the season-four finale, does have a sendoff in store for us—and, if we’re willing to accept it, a lesson. Throughout the back half of the season, in episodes like “High man. Bye man,” “Father’s Day,” and “Batceañera,” Sam has been urged by friends, family, and acquaintances to move past her anger towards Xander. Some have been gentler with their critiques, while others, like Lala’s husband, have called Sam “bitter”: “You’re getting brittle, and hard.” Sunny (Alysia Reiner) echoed his sentiments in the penultimate episode, encouraging Sam to let go of the “death grip you have on your anger.” “It’s not a good look on you” = “It is not flattering.”

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We’d be here all day if we tried to account for everything Sam has a right to be angry about when it comes to Xander, but because she is wise, Sam decides to make one act representative of her ex’s wrongdoings. In the back of her mind, Sam has thought she’d always have to take care of Xander. Her former father-in-law said as much, and even she once pondered making room for him in her garage. But for much of Better Things’ four-season run, Xander has come across as an annoyance in Sam’s life, not a great grievance. That’s because for so long, Sam’s response to the impositions has been to roll her eyes, crack a joke, and sign a check.

Illustration for article titled Pamela Adlon creates her own healing ritual with the iBetter Things /iseason finale
Photo: Suzanne Tenner (FX)
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But that simmer came to a boil this season—Sam went from silently fuming at Xander for asking their vacationing daughters to relay a request for money in “Steady Rain” to admitting that she wants a public apology from her ex. When he got Frankie’s age wrong during his “big” speech in “Batceañera,” it was like waving the muleta in front of a charging bull. I was sure Sam would snap at the party. Instead, she listens as Xander tells her he was “moved” by all the care and planning she put into Frankie’s batceañera (a term that looks way gothier than it is). Sam briefly adopts an “is that it?” expression, but she then invites him back for a Friday family dinner.

Maybe it’s because of the general state of the world, but I was not prepared for just how generous, how restorative, this season finale would be. Again, Adlon knows her way around a captivating closer—she is a consummate storyteller, but tonight, she became a healer. “Listen To The Roosters” is full of tension and humor, particularly when Rich (Diedrich Bader) and Xander have words over their after-dinner drinks. But first, Sam (and Adlon) has some words for her peers, her forebears, and her “successors.” Jessica Barden has made good on her desire to collaborate with Sam, featuring her in what is a menopause episode, I think?, on her new talk show. After a series of silhouetted interviews with women on menstruation and menopause, Sam takes the spotlight, and dear god, the catharsis. I wrestled with whether or not to just post the complete speech, but fuck it—this is the last episode for a while.

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Illustration for article titled Pamela Adlon creates her own healing ritual with the iBetter Things /iseason finale
Photo: Suzanne Tenner (FX)

To be a woman in the world is to be built up and then let down. They cut us or sell us or marry us off. You’re primed and you’re prepped and abused and adored and harassed and worshipped. And then it all stops. All of it. We even age out of the bad things, like being fetishized or diminished or talked down to. It’s even worse. You’re invisible, and you’re literally left hunched over and alone with Santa’s belly—and a beard to boot—walking around, shrinking, thinking, ‘what just happened?’

You retreat. You’re ashamed, you’re unseen. No one has prepared you for it and no one ever tells women this is going to happen. Our prize in the goody bag after everyone has had their fill of us is shingles, thin bones, whiskers, and bunions.

You’re not viable. But if you have daughters, you feel it even more because the world wants them now. Then: MENOPAUSE. It’s the grossest thing in the world. Nobody wants to hear about it which is why nobody ever prepared you for it. You’re a lady—you’re supposed to be pretty and attractive. Even the Dalai Lama was like “Ehh, it’s not great if a woman is *grimace*.” Even for the Dalai Lama you gotta be cute. “Yes, inner beauty is most important. But still, attractive.”

I mean, even the fucking Dalai Lama let us down. Why don’t we all say this to each other? Women have to say this to each other. Women are afraid to talk to each other. Women should be brothers to each other. We have to be brothers to each other.

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What a searing, absolutely riveting soliloquy. The rueful inflection on “viable.” The confessing to fear, to vanity, to confusion and rejection. The plea for greater compassion at the end. Adlon’s speech recalls for me the stealthily astute Emilia from Othello, who shrewdly observed that men “are all but stomachs, and we all but food; to eat us hungerly, and when they are full, they belch us.” She knows women are all too often at the whims of men; when Emilia realizes she played a role in Desdemona’s death, she is beside herself even as she looks to bring Othello to justice. But when Sam rallies at the end, she has more in common with Fleabag’s Belinda (Kristin Scott Thomas), who shared her blistering cry against patriarchy.

“Listen To The Roosters” could have ended there and still imparted a great sense of hope. But Sam still has one man in particular to contend with, and three young women to be a “brother” to in the present. So she has Xander over for dinner, though she doesn’t immediately tell him that she asked the girls to stay away. It was a test for Xander, and a way to prevent Max, Frankie, and Duke from being disappointed in their father yet again if he didn’t show. But he does come over, and he even has the decency to look slightly chastened when Sam tells him she’d rather take out a loan and owe the bank $60,000 than continue handing it over to him in increments. And while that’s potentially a solid dig, Sam isn’t lashing out at Xander—she is just trying to get free. Sam doesn’t want to grumble every time she has to write another check; she doesn’t want to feel the bile rise in her throat every time she thinks about the next time. With some help from her loved ones, Sam’s been metabolizing her anger and resentment all season. She decided not to let giving Xander what he thinks he “deserves” cost her anything but money. Sam is really, truly ready to move on.

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Sam celebrates with a night swim with Phil and Rich, exulting in the knowledge that she can still grow, can still change—but on her own terms. All season (really, going back to last year), she’s felt a shrinking, a reduction: first, the menopause, then the decreased job opportunities and increasing problems with her hands. For too long, patriarchal norms have defined Sam’s changes as losses. As she got older, she became “no longer”; no longer “young” or “desirable” or, most devastatingly, “visible.” She might have given away a small fortune at the end, but Sam is not lacking. Adlon creates a beautiful symmetry between the pool scenes and the beach scenes, pairing shots of a beaming Sam and Rich with the girls’ frolicking. Who can say who is happier in those moments, or who has more to look forward to? They are all having the time of their lives.

Adlon takes us out with a laugh, as we see what caused Xander to look glumly at that fat check. It’s followed by a wordless coda on the beach, wherein Max, Frankie, and Duke turn and look back at someone (Sam?) or something (this chapter of their lives?).

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Illustration for article titled Pamela Adlon creates her own healing ritual with the iBetter Things /iseason finale
Screenshot: FX

It’s a potential greeting and a farewell; the end of a day at the beach or the start of night on the town. Like so many moments on Better Things, it’s tough to pin down whether it’s an entry point or a conclusion. But it is serendipitous. Not in the sense of “by chance” or “luck” (when has Sam ever lucked into anything), but in its ephemeral and undeniable joy. That’s the essence of Adlon’s show, which is right in its title: Better Things, which suggests a shifting state. There are lows—abysmal ones—but things can get better. I get it now: Adlon hasn’t been trying to capture life; that’s impossible. All she can do is reflect it, in ever more gut-wrenching, insightful, and impressive ways.

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Episode grade: A

Season grade (taking into account this exceptionally beautiful finale): A

Stray observations

  • Phil: “Oh, very good. Out to the seas. The answers are in the water. It’s where we come from and where we always need to go back to.” I realized far too late this season that all the foreshadowing about something going wrong with Phil is just Adlon’s way of inuring herself (and us) to the day when we lose a parent. It’s a dread she lives with, which is why it both looms over the show yet dissipates so quickly.
  • I can’t wait to see the actual documentaries produced by Sam Foxhole Productions.
  • Callback/gut punch: The Ching Of The Mill ad at the train station/bus stop.
  • Does anyone else think that the older woman Duke met after the ballgame was actually a vision of her future self, who apparently remained steadfast in her refusal to have kids?
  • Rich’s contempt for Xander was so obvious, especially as Xander tried to claim that he’s still trying to find his passion (which is why he still doesn’t have a viable career, and why he still needs alimony from Sam).
  • I’ve heard of karaoke Ubers, but never seen one until tonight.
  • Thank you for reading, even if it was sporadically. I’m sorry we didn’t gather every Thursday for the last nine weeks. I don’t have a backup (both in terms of people and resources) for coverage on this show, which is why I couldn’t ask for a substitute. The number of things I want to write about never matches up with the time to write about them. But, especially as the premieres start to dwindle, I do plan on filling in the holes in coverage here and in Fleabag season two. In that spirit, consider this an open call for suggestions for TV Club Classic recaps. (I know “Six Feet Under season five recaps by John Teti” is probably at the top of this list.) While I can’t guarantee anything, I would like to hear from you on which shows you’d like to see covered.
  • Take us out, Michael Stipe:

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