Not since that lovely beach trip (that only went on in Sam’s head) has Better Things really indulged in a fantasy sequence this season. So far, the stories and interactions we’ve seen have been more grounded than in the first season, which, while not wildly fanciful, just felt more.... heightened.
Even the fantastic season premiere, where Sam tolerated the port-drinking, pot-smoking meal prep of an unwanted dinner guest, moved determinedly toward its resolution. Granted, being offered oral sex over chicken skewers from some foxy dude probably isn’t typical for many people, so there were some curve balls. But they still felt like flourishes when compared to that heart-stopping moment in the laundry room, when Max says she’s in over her head, and that admitting that to her mom is just as upsetting as her fears about her relationship with Arturo.
For now, this is merely an observation; I don’t feel at all disappointed by Sam’s straight shooting, which has still had touches of the melodramatic (in a good way). But that more plaintive approach makes the opening moments of “Sick” that much more disconcerting. When Phil’s (mostly) harmless bit of fun at the bookstore ends in embarrassment for her, Celia Imrie’s expression freezes. Unlike Pamela Adlon, who’s done exceptional work capturing the flurry of emotions running through Sam with simple twists of her lips and lowering of her brow, Imrie’s face remains set to shock. And that sudden stillness conveys so much for the otherwise expressive Phil, who is aghast at her sudden incontinence.
At least, the assumption is that this is the first time Phil has had such an accident. She seems genuinely shocked, and the way Adlon captures the moment, it initially looks she’s frightened the little boy to the point of wetting himself. There are other heartrending indications that Phil—and I hate to keep using euphemisms, but I also am not qualified to diagnosis a TV character—isn’t quite herself anymore. In the same episode, she calls Sam when she can’t locate her own car. This oversight is interpreted as general flightiness, but it’s clear that something else is going on here.
Better Things has always embraced the various forms that family takes, whether it’s Sam’s chosen family, which includes Rich (Diedrich Bader, who is always a treat), or Frankie’s friends, or the mother Sam calls by her first name. Phil is the family member Sam’s known and put up with the longest, but this is the first time the series is acknowledging just how many years have passed, and how fragile she is. But even that isn’t quite accurate—earlier this season, Phil begged Duke to “remember her always.” Still, watching Phil struggle this episode is a real gut punch. And when she describes her daughter’s emotional equilibrium—“one out, one in” as far as loved ones go—it’s meant to be another example of Phil’s wry detachment. Who else could comment so casually when Sam is obviously wrestling with something? But taking these other events into account, it just sounds... ominous.
“Sick” makes us sit with that discomfort, which is only slightly ameliorated by jokes peppered throughout, just as Sam must accept that she’s into Robin. Yes, the same Robin who bungled their first real date, and who you’d think had made things worse by being so frank about being so fucked up. But, as Sam adorably notes, that emotional messiness and the honesty about it check a couple of her boxes.
The way Adlon, as both an actor and the co-writer of the episode, builds the levels of awareness of romantic attachment is both slightly over the top and incredibly honest. Forget the stereotypes about love-starved single (or divorced mothers)—Sam has been doing just fine on her own, as both she and Rich remark. Doing not particularly fulfilling voicework day in, day out? No sweat. Raising three kids singlehandedly while abstaining from throwing your ex, who’s made to look all the more generous with his time because he lives in another city, under the bus? All in a day’s work. And serving as the linchpin of a multigenerational family based in Los Angeles? Nothin’ doin’.
But all that, she and Rich agree, is “so easy,” especially when compared to making yourself vulnerable again. We’ve seen this epiphany before, in everything from rom-coms to more straightforward dramas, but there’s nothing cheap or perfunctory about the emotional beats here. Once again, Adlon’s performance manages to be conflicted—Sam is practically contorted at this point, denoting the second half of the double entendre that is the episode title—without ever being overwrought.
And now that Rich, who hardly seems the sentimental type, has confirmed that Sam has a thing for Robin, she naturally rejects the feelings: “I got no place to put it. And I don’t want it.” It’s another simply phrased but loaded line of dialogue from Sam, who’s both describing the frustrations of making room for someone else in your life, and also feeling that you might not need (or deserve) that kind love. Sam and Adlon have always steered clear of martyrdom, while also putting forth all the sacrifices made (of varying willingness).
But the slight smile that replaces Sam’s grimace lets us know she’s going to give this a shot. And when she shuts the door on her ex mid-explanation, even after getting a glimpse at the life she once knew, and was maybe entertaining revisiting, Better Things pushes past “maybe” to “let’s at least try.” It’s not the most affirming language, but it’s a start.
“Sick” proves to be an exceptional blend of dread and excitement, and of hard truths about aging, whether it’s your body failing you, or realizing just how much you’ve built up your emotional defenses. And while we may be seeing a shift toward more grounded storytelling (for now), Better Things is stripping Sam of her center, putting all kinds of events in motion.
- The musical cues this episode were perfectly curated, from the swelling brass that accompanied Sam on her way to meet Robin for another date, to Glen Hansard’s “Her Mercy,” to the Kinks’ “Around The Dial” putting Frankie (and us) to bed.
- I’m stealing “silver singles,” Rich and Sam.
- In addition to fewer surreal segues, we’ve also seen less of the kids. But their storylines haven’t been dropped or forgotten, whether it’s Frankie’s genderqueer identity (at least, I think that’s where we’re going here), or Max’s regression. Duke has had slightly less to do since the premiere, but losing a pet is always tough.
- Speaking of lines of dialogue for ringtones, Phil’s inflection in “mustache” is something I was delighted to hear four or five times in one exchange.
- “Someone is coming into your life.” Please don’t let that be a quid pro quo, Phil.