For an episode that dips into the spiritual, “White Rock” gets awfully literal. The ghosts are from Phil and Sam’s pasts, but it’s young Duke who’s seeing dead people. And despite Olivia Edward’s best efforts—she does the “little old soul” thing well here—the scenes with the First Nations man and the apparition in period dress are clunkers.
Better Things has mostly fared well in its surreal moments, though, as I’ve noted before, they’ve been fewer and farther between this season. These episodes have just felt more grounded, more determined to stay in the moment, even when things go beyond uncomfortable. A firm “no” probably would have sufficed to reject Jeff in “Blackout,” but instead, Pamela Adlon strung together enough negatives to shut down a whole county of oblivious divorcés. She wrings more discomfort and empathy out of two lonely people sitting in the cab of a truck than in some more fanciful depiction of the refusal. Which just makes the decision here to have Duke see not one but two spirits a real head-scratcher. Adlon’s reading of lines like “So then, everyone forgot her?” is much more resonant and wrenching than having an unnamed character shout “Our grandmothers are vanishing” at a child as clueless and pampered as Sam’s youngest. Anyway, it’s an aunt/great-aunt who disappears just as she comes into Sam and her girls’ lives.
The unearthing of family secrets happens far away from home, as Sam and the kids flee to Canada (because of Harvey and Paisley’s affair, not the current administration). There we meet Sam’s uncle Lester (Nigel Havers) and his wife Jarita (Jane Carr; also, I’m not sure how the character’s name is spelled). The surprise trip works wonders on Max and Frankie: the older girl breaks down over Harvey’s betrayal, but that’s the first step to healing. And Sam’s middle daughter learns to be less of a shit, if only for a little while. Also, she may take up carpentry. Duke, meanwhile, is at turns startled by a ghost, lectured by some kind of vision, and later, says farewell to the Sad Lady of the beach.
Adlon does the heavy lifting this episode (but really, when doesn’t she?). As Sam, she shuttles her “heartbroken” daughter out of the country and makes unshakeable promises to her elderly uncle. And when Sam learns she has an aunt who was locked away in an institution in her adolescence, her knee-jerk reaction is heartbreaking: She immediately wants to know if her Aunt Marion needs her. Her response is baffling despite being 100 percent in character. How could Sam possibly want anymore responsibility? Because, as we’ve seen and she’s confirmed this season, she can take it. It’s probably not healthy and definitely not advisable, but this is who she is. Again, she might not be a perfect or even great mom and daughter (although I’d argue that taking care of everyone the way she does, even if she can be snipish, too, makes her at the very least a good mom), but she’s miles ahead of the other parental figures on this show. (Well, maybe not Sunny).
Despite her good qualities, Better Things definitely acknowledges Sam’s occasional cruelty to her mother. But the show has panned out enough to show us the full pattern or cycle: Phil and Sam had a contentious relationship (still do), and that’s the model that Sam and her daughters have followed. The question is whether any of them can break it. “White Rock” attempts to answer that, but in increasingly silly ways. There’s the Sad Lady specter, then the First Nations Man (that’s how Ray Thunderchild is credited) who confronts Duke at the museum. They have a message for Duke or maybe it’s for the whole family, and that is… something about your past or ancestry? Delayed white liberal guilt over colonialism? I’m not sure, but those parts of the episode are confusing and a little bit embarrassing, really. Lester has a similar message for Frankie about flowers and bees going extinct that isn’t any less obvious, but at least it’s not borderline offensive.
Sam is haunted by what she learns, though. She may tell the hospital worker to burn Marion’s file, and she may observe, with much resignation, that this is “what happens when you push them out”—which might be an introspective comment—but she is saddened and probably angry by what happened to her aunt. This was a woman who was cut out of her family when her mental illness made her inconvenient. But this is part of Sam’s family history. As Nigel points out, it’s their pattern. They shut out Phil for marrying a Jew. And even Donal, who just made the mistake of dying, was practically wiped from their memories, his name never uttered again after his death.
The question now is, what will Sam do after identifying this pattern, this behavior that she doesn’t really condone, but of which she’s also guilty (albeit to a lesser extent)? “White Rock” gives us some insight at the very end. Consider how different the act of bringing in the trash and recycling bins is compared to that in “Arnold Hall.” Last week, after fighting all night, Sam and Frankie move in concert to complete this task; but here, Phil struggles to keep up with her daughter. It’s not just because of her cane/injury; Phil missed out on the trip, so there’s a lot of catching up she needs to do. She also doesn’t know that Sam knows about Aunt Marion; she may not even know that her sister is dead. But Sam is just as tender as combative with Frankie; likewise, the look of dread on her face that replaces the reflexive one of annoyance when she talks to Phil at episode’s end suggests she’s not going to keep shutting her mother out. At the very least, there’s reason now to hope she won’t.
- Jane Carr and Nigel Havers (that handsome old rogue) are just a delight. I hope we see Phil’s visit with Jarita and Lester next season.
- “Moonlight Bay” or “On Moonlight Bay” is an old Percy Wenrich/Edward Madden song that I first heard as part of the Beatles Anthology 1.
- Pamela Adlon has said Frankie is gender-fluid, so you can expect pronouns and daughter/kid/son/other signifiers to change.
- Sad Lady of the beach is what I call myself on vacation.