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Sam's latest reawakening makes for another exceptionally moving Better Things

Pamela Adlon and Olivia Edward
Photo: Suzanne Tenner (FX)
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Sorry. But I’m not. Sorry.”

More than anything, season three of Better Things has been about a series of reawakenings for Sam Fox, from realizing that, while college-age Max will still come around with her hand out from time to time, she was ready to relinquish her daily mothering duties, to learning she may not be so “strictly dickly” and, as of last week, recognizing that she had gone as far as she could with Tressa (Rebecca Metz), her manager of 20 years or so.

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We could just as easily call these developments growth, especially as many of them have come with literal pains or have involved Sam shaking something loose for once and for all. There’s also the fact that the other running thread for season three has been about all the physical changes a woman nearing 50 continues to experience/endure. But “reawakening” somehow just feels more apt for moments like Sam saying, with no qualifications or jokes about her desires, that she’s up for doing a Broadway run of Skewered, or getting in touch with herself in a van along the side of the road. Maybe it’s just that Sam has been through these paces or hit similar touchstones in the past, like a powerful infatuation or having the menstruation cycle from hell. She’s displaying a greater sense of openness than we’ve ever seen before; she’s allowing herself to feel things she has felt before, but had closed herself off to for her own protection (as well as convenience, because who has time for dating when you’re a part of the sandwich generation?).

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“Show Me The Magic,” the exhilarating antepenultimate episode of season three, brings together several story threads, including Duke’s (and Sam’s) visions of Murray Fox, a new romantic prospect (in this case, Dr. Deezy), and yes, even the shit Sam has seen in her driveway. Directed by Pamela Adlon and written by Sarah Gubbins, the episode opens with Walter informing Sam that a bear has been pooping on her pavement before heading into the backyard party of my dreams: booze, weed, “healthy foods,” a small dog, and kikiing with Tressa, Lala (Judy Reyes), Lenny (Cree Summer), and Rachel True.

This gathering has taken months of planning, and even then someone (Ida) has to back out because she nabbed tickets to a Bruce Springsteen show in the interim. The air is thick with promise, especially once Tressa and Sam hug and accept the new stage of their relationship. Tressa calls Sam her “pace car” once more, which is both a sweet callback to season two and some encouragement for her longtime client. There are no handsome Italian waiters around, but when the wine and vodka start flowing freely, Sam and her friends still get rowdy.

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Olivia Edward, Pamela Adlon, and Hannah Alligood
Photo: Suzanne Tenner (FX)

Along with exulting in being together again, a frank discussion ensues about their waning sex appeal and sudden invisibility to younger demographics. “You no longer exist as a woman,” someone laments, but Tressa tries to look on the bright side: going unnoticed can be “a super power.” The casting really shines through in these moments; guest stars Reyes, Summer, and True make the friendships feel lived-in from the start, but their careers—including the recent news of Rachel True’s exclusion from The Craft anniversary celebrations—also offer some meta-commentary about who is seen in Hollywood.

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The lively scene—which recalls a conversation Lala and Sam had in “No Limit,” as well as the Inside Amy Schumer sketch, “Last Fuckable Day”—feels familiar, as does what comes after: Sam getting worked up over seemingly nothing. But though some of her earlier outbursts this season might have been unwarranted, I’m not sure I fault her here for bristling at having her months-in-the-works gathering with friends, in which they’ve all expressed concern about being sidelined or flat-out ignored, unceremoniously interrupted by Lala’s husband Tom. But we also can’t ignore the fact that Sam hasn’t had to share a home with a man in many years, which has to factor into her response here—there is, by choice, no dude busting up her dinner parties, so she’s naturally taken aback by Tom’s intrusion.

Photo: Suzanne Tenner (FX)
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There’s no jealousy or envy on Sam’s part here, but her demeanor throughout the party points to just how carefully she’s curated her inner circle. She’ll patiently wait months to see her good friends, which is why she gets annoyed when the party ends early because someone’s husband messes up the vibe by assuming they were gossiping about men and not, say, earnestly sharing mixed feelings about no longer being overtly desirable. So whether it’s “one in, one out” (per Phil) or filling her life with steady gigs and family commitments, Sam feels she’s structured her life in the most convenient way, even when it’s incredibly inconvenient and demanding. By design, that has meant few men aside from Rich, but in season three, Sam seems more open to dealing with them, if only to exorcise them from her life, as when she gave up the ghost of Xander. But “Show Me The Magic” finds Sam letting in one man—David, whom she texted after getting worked up flirting with Mer in “The Unknown”—and also making more room for her late father in the lives of her children.

Something that’s become very clear to to me this season is that, exquisitely expressive face aside, Sam can actually be very uncommunicative. She grunts instead of uttering yes, or mutters to herself as she walks away from one of her kids mid-fit. Her love language is made up of self-sacrifice and endless toil, which is how we know she cares; she’s also very skilled at the verbal takedown. But she’s also put up with lackluster lovers—thinking of you, unnamed trilby dude from season two—and choked up whenever a viable romantic prospect enters the picture (see: Robin, maybe Mer, assuming the latter wasn’t just a “flipper,” and maybe David, depending on how long Matthew Broderick is sticking around).

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But by the end of “Show Me The Magic,” Sam has opened herself up to the possibility of David, as well as brought a little more of her father into Duke’s life (who does so quite literally by–ack—ingesting some of Murray’s ashes). Adlon’s reliably excellent performance captures Sam’s transition from “fuck this” to “fuck it, why not?,” her wry smile giving way to a grin while listening to Murray’s belated sex/romance talk. These are mostly charted waters for Sam, even if she hasn’t visited them in a while, but they point to another reawakening for someone who’s spent much of the season rethinking the familiar.

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