“I couldn’t help but notice this house is filled with women.”
“Oh, yes, flooding with estrogen. Wall-to-wall vaginas. It’s like a matriarchal dystopia.”
We’ve now reached the penultimate episode of Better Things season three, so there’s no better time to step back and look at the bigger picture, and just how skillfully Pamela Adlon has put it together. It’s a mosaic made up of distinct pieces that, even more so than in previous seasons, took some time to reveal just how well they fit together. Better Things has always been more episodic than serialized, but in season three, Adlon weds those two styles more seamlessly than ever before. Every installment works on its own, from “Nesting” to “Toilet,” and each new episode helps me understand the previous one better. Even when the themes of being haunted and of letting go—both in the sense of detaching yourself from toxic people and cutting loose—weren’t always readily transparent (see again “Toilet”), a week’s worth of hindsight helped nudge those pieces into place.
The new season has built on season two’s incredibly moving finale, when Sam tightened up her circle just a little more—not by pushing Xander out of their children’s lives, but limiting the opportunities for him to let them down. But in one of its many refreshing displays of honesty, Better Things has demonstrated the unintended effects of that protective gesture, as well as the ones that came before and after it. Because her own father is mostly absent from her life—save the occasional phone call to a smartphone she promptly lost—Duke’s had visions of her grandfather, Murray Fox. This prompted Sam to open about her father, though unlike Phil, she’d never really pushed him out of her mind. Soon after first appearing to Sam, they fell right back into their old routine; he even tried to give her romantic advice.
But Murray isn’t the only ghost this season—despite Sam thinking she’d broken her last link to her ex when she got rid of all their role-play accessories, he’s still haunting her and her daughters. It’s the younger girls who are more vulnerable, though; aside from Duke feeling conflicted about the phone Xander gave her, we’ve seen Frankie bring up her dad on multiple occasions, including in her electrifying spoken word performance in “Get Lit.” Previously, Frankie asked Sam point-blank why she left Xander, only to have Phil interrupt. She doesn’t get much more of an answer in tonight’s episode, as Sam still doesn’t seem ready to talk about it. But a medium is brought in to resolve the other ghost situation, much to the chagrin of Phil, who spends the opening moments of “Get Lit” trying to cleanse the house of whatever extra psychic energies have been lurking. Her response to the medium’s description of the spirit proves that she hasn’t entirely divorced herself from the memory of her late husband.
Whether or not he actually communicates with spirits, the medium still picks up on Frankie’s mistreatment of Sam. Even as he applauds her astuteness, he warns her to be responsible in wielding it—she doesn’t have to direct her sharp tongue at Sam every chance she gets. Adlon is as good as ever as she sits back and lets someone else do the admonishing, but I’d be remiss not to mention the great performances from the rest of the cast, especially Hannah Alligood. She works herself into a self-righteous lather with those remarks about “snouts in the trough of privilege,” but she quickly deflates when reminded that Sam isn’t her enemy. Finally, the medium encourages the girls to do what we’ve been watching Sam do all season*, whether it’s Xander or an unsafe work environment: “move past toxic people.” When even Max seems reluctant, he tells her to think of Xander as “someone who let you down.” If their dad wants to be in their lives, he’s going to have to make the effort; their openness is no longer a given.
With such a hugely cathartic moment up top, the episode almost feels like it begins in reverse, but writers Joe Hortua and Ira Parker have a lot more in store in this excellent half-hour of TV. As soon as company is gone, Max (and later Frankie) goes right back to treating Sam like a doormat. Max might have already forgotten the lesson, but Sam hasn’t—after finding a pipe on the stairs (well within the reach of certain 11- and 14-year-olds), she rightfully chews Max out and tells her to move out. I want to believe that’ll stick, but the way Sam reacts to Frankie ditching her in the second half of the episode makes me think she’ll keep taking the abuse.
Sam has been the focus for much of season three, which has captured how much angst and change we experience long after puberty. But the show has also made great use of the slightly more limited screentime for the kids—they’ve hit all kinds of milestones, including puberty (Duke), college (Max), and in this episode, Frankie enters a new stage in her relationship with Sam. We also have a better idea of what their actual passions and interests are: Max dreams of being a photographer (for now), and Frankie, who we learn has skipped a grade, is into spoken word. She puts that talent to use tonight, performing with two classmates at the eponymous festival. She speaks almost as if she’s confronting Sam directly about “the little lies we tell our little ones,” but Sam’s much too proud to feel attacked. Sam is just moved by Frankie’s gift and performance; deep down, she probably feels at least slightly responsible for her daughter’s ability to express herself.
But Frankie is growing up and, on some level, moving on, putting physical distance between them just when Sam thought they were on the verge of getting closer. It’s heartbreaking to watch even as it rings true, and it also dovetails with the rest of the episode, as well as the larger arcs of the season and even series. Sam recognized as early as season one that she’s essentially recreated her dynamic with Phil in her dynamic with Max, Frankie, and Duke. She’s prepared for them to yell at her, to lash out, maybe even at times hate her. What she’s not quite ready for is to be forgotten by them—she can handle becoming obsolete in other areas of her life, as she’s attested to throughout the season, but not with her daughters. Yet as she moves through the foyer in the final moments of “Get Lit,” unacknowledged by the teens smoking weed with Phil on the patio, she briefly becomes a ghost in her home, only visible to the Postmates guy who comes bearing Plan B and Hemingway.
The final act in “Get Lit” is simple, elegant, and devastating. It points to a new stage in the lives of the Fox women, one that hasn’t arrived yet, but when it does, will undoubtedly be handled with the same poignancy as Adlon has shown in shepherding her TV family for the last three seasons.
- *: Something I’ve seen in the comments but haven’t really touched on before is that David is a creep who may be in violation of his ethics. I can see that; I guess I never really saw Sam as taking any of their sessions seriously, hence a lack of a therapeutic relationship to run afoul of, but it is a valid point.
- There was nice symmetry in Frankie’s cracks about their grunting followed by grunt-like scoffing from Sam.
- I, for one, would like to hear more about all the witches in Phil’s lineage.
- Regardless of how you feel about spoken word (one of my colleagues is vehemently opposed to it), the sequence of performances was much more dynamic than it had any right to be, especially given the time constraints. So, great job, teen poets and editing team.
- I can’t believe the season is almost over! There’s been a lot of talk this year about “the great second season,” but Better Things is crushing it in the “exceptional third season” field.