Olivia Edward and Pamela Adlon star in
Photo: Suzanne Tenner (FX)
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“Sometimes you don’t get to choose what you’re good at.”

“Holding” is basically Better Things in a nutshell, its three acts (or two acts and an opening vignette, if you prefer) working just as well alone as they do as part of a larger story. Once more, the opening scene finds Sam huffing and puffing; she’s red-faced and overheated, thanks to either menopause or the Los Angeles climate. Pamela Adlon hilariously cuts between flashes of her own discomfort and David Naughton’s first transformation scene in An American Werewolf In London. She remains just as uncomfortable on the set of a new blockbuster, where her trailer has a broken thermostat. And yet again, Sam resolves her issue on her own with zero concern for vanity, eating her lunch while standing in front of an oscillating fan in the wardrobe trailer. Sam’s grumbling isn’t made up of complete sentences, but we still pick up on her exasperation with her changing body. But she also knows she won’t be allowed to dwell on it for very long.

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We’re only two episodes into season three, but at least one theme has emerged: change is endless. Chaos has always reigned on this show, but Pamela Adlon is concerned with more than just the flakiness of unreliable exes or the moodiness of teenagers. The season-three premiere saw Max move to Chicago for college, but Better Things knows sweeping changes can come to anyone and at any age. The show is teasing big changes ahead, starting with Sam shooting a blockbuster with Doug Jones (who’s always in full make-up when we see him, but that’s definitely his voice), while also acknowledging the developments of season two, including Phil’s declining health and Duke’s ability to see ghosts (so long, “First Nations man”; hello, Duke’s grandfather). Sam is basically in triage mode with her responsibilities; she deprioritizes her own needs to make time for her mother or college-bound daughter or, as we see in “Holding,” a day of class experiments at Duke’s school. But with every episode opening with Sam in some form of distress, Better Things is also making it clear that she won’t be able to set aside her own issues forever, no matter who needs her.

Sam’s behavior in the third act diverges wildly from her behavior in the second act, which is another indication that things aren’t selfless business as usual. She remains professional on the set of Monsters In The Moonlight, despite toiling away under the desert sun and the bodies of half a dozen extras. She keeps her cool around the PAs, who are either condescending, demanding, or cutting her in line for the bathroom. She has a wonderful conversation with Sylvester (Charles Robinson), he of the quote up top about compromising their high-minded ideals in the face of reality. This isn’t really a new lesson for Sam, who has few illusions about her gigs as a working actor. But sometimes you just need to hear someone else admit they gave up on their dreams to not feel so bad about giving up on yours.

Pamela Adlon and Doug Jones
Photo: Suzanne Tenner (FX)

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Through it all, she is the embodiment of grace—yes, even when she’s eating salad out of a styrofoam container with her pants around her knees. When she makes a practical suggestion to the director Tibor (Love Actually’s Kris Marshall) only to have his AD Nikki (True Blood’s Janina Gavankar) contradict her, Sam takes it in stride and gets right back to work and under all those sweaty bodies. The next day, she heads to school with Duke for some parent-student day of experiments, and almost gets run over by the mom (Artemis Pebdani, who’s actually fairly restrained here compared to It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia) of a boy named Shak, who once teamed up with a couple of other boys to beat up Duke.

Adlon, who wrote the episode with Ira Parker, reveals the bullying incident via a black-and-white, Kill Bill-style flashback, and even though we don’t hear Quincy Jones’ “Ironside,” we know Sam will soon be out for blood. See, it’s one thing for Sam to be ignored or disrespected at work by her director, who at one point all but tells her to smile because she doesn’t look happy to be filming in the desert. She knows how to deal with that, mostly by putting up with it (though she remains somewhat defiant with the PA who keeps trying to rush her from location to location). But attacking any of her kids is opening yourself up for a world of hurt. Duke realizes this, and pleads with Sam to be civil. “He did a mean thing to me, not you,” she tells her mother, who is impressed with her compassion and maturity. But that compassionate statement has an almost Freaky Friday-like effect on Sam; she begins to regress, adopting a cajoling tone with her youngest and becoming incredibly socially awkward with anyone who isn’t carrying a tray of tahdig.

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Photo: Suzanne Tenner (FX)

This is a huge reversal for Sam, who goes from abiding and professional even under the most frustrating of circumstances to juvenile and hot-headed when around people with considerably less impulse control. Sam’s definitely lost her cool before, but not like this—she usually demonstrates her anger in an age-appropriate way, like grounding someone. In “Holding,” she’s itching for a fight, to the point where she nearly drags Shak’s mother out of the classroom for a beatdown. Sam’s plan for vengeance kind of works, though, as Shak’s mother accidentally smacks her son in the confrontation. It’s a tough needle to thread between shitty grown-up and a grown-up who did something kind of shitty, but Adlon makes it work. Her performance conveys the accumulation of professional slights and bad working conditions, even as she acknowledges that Sam could have found a better outlet for frustrations than getting into a fight at her daughter’s school. Then again, Shak and Shak’s mom behaved like assholes, so I guess I don’t feel too bad for them.

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Stray observations

  • Loved seeing Adlon take inspiration from horror films that capture the difficulty and less palatable aspects of growing up; instead of using werewolf movies as a metaphor for puberty, though, she’s using them to denote (peri-)menopause. It’s all part of how she’s slowly but surely redefining “coming-of-age” comedy.
  • I’ve watched the episode twice, but couldn’t quite catch the title of the “Sam Fox deep cut” that came up—was it Little Weirdos?
  • In his first scene, Tibor talks about being criticized for “liking them younger.” He’s talking about wines, but I get the feeling Adlon has a more objectionable reveal in store for us.
  • IMDb had Matthew Broderick incorrectly listed in the cast for this episode, but it took me until the third watch to accept that fact. But we can look forward to seeing him, Sharon Stone, and more of Doug Jones as the season unfolds.
  • Duke’s eyeroll and sidelong glance at the mouse* on the wheel perfectly sum up her relationship with her deadbeat father, Xander, who’s a total asshole for asking her to keep a secret from Sam.

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