Wonder. Irritation. Bemusement. Indignation. Resignation. Curiosity. Forebearance. Throw in a couple of sighs and shakes of the head, and you have the first 30-40 seconds of the season two premiere of Better Things. Add a houseful of guests (wanted and otherwise), a tipsy mother, a jilted lover, four kids under ten, a couple of preteens, and two kinds of paella, and you have the kind of chaotic gathering that by all rights should end with something, if not someone, catching fire. And yet, peace being restored without a drink or a punch thrown feels just as likely under the watchful eye of Sam Fox (Pamela Adlon).
This is the controlled chaos of Better Things, which has lost none of its momentum or charm in its second season. “September” throws us right back into the mix with Sam and her children Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Alligood), and Duke (Olivia Edward). There’s relative peace in the house, even with all the party guests. Duke entertains her friends away from the adults (though that hardly keeps her out of trouble), Frankie sings the blues, and Phil (Celia Imrie) regales her daughter’s friends with the story of her “strange” looks. The camera follows Sam as she tends to her guests, offering chicken skewers, lamb sliders, and again, two different types of paella. The winding shots are reminiscent of a TV show’s—you know, the kind that go backstage to show us the breadth and intricacies of any given production.
It’s a subtle nod to Adlon imitating her life with her art (she did direct every episode this season), as well as a reminder of how that life is a whole to-do. Mother, actor, daughter, and friend—these are all the roles Sam (not to mention so very many other women) plays in this thing called her life. “September” is full of surprises, but the biggest might be Sam’s ability to pull them all off. Not only does she throw one hell of a party, but by withholding judgment, she’s able to regain her eldest daughter’s trust. (Of course, she didn’t really do anything to lose it in the first place, other than be a mom to a teenager, but I digress).
Things take a turn, as they’re wont to do, when Max arrives at the party with her 35-year-old boyfriend Arturo (Arturo Del Puerto) and his younger brother. We’re not treated to much backstory beyond a flashback to Arturo “collapsing” upon learning that 16-year-old Max directed a whole play. But their relationship has left Macy (Lucy Davis) heartbroken, maybe?, and created even more tension between Max and Sam. Sam is rightly disturbed by Arturo’s interest in her daughter, but, as she tells friends, she knows she risks not seeing Max if she rejects her daughter’s new boyfriend. But Sam’s not about to play the cool mom—she’s only cool in the sense that she manages to remain collected even as Arturo requests port before eating.
Arturo is clearly smarmy—in fact, he’s the mayor of Smarmtown—and Better Things wastes no time pretending he’s at all suitable for Max. He smokes hash at her mother’s house and talks about sleeping next to bulls, inadvertently providing a perfect metaphor for their relationship. And whatever charm he had for Max quickly disappears as she tells him “I’m not a lion.” Max’s revelation could have come at the very end of the episode, putting things in motion for a multi-episode arc on her eventual reconciliation with Sam. But Adlon, who co-wrote the episode with Louis C.K., knows there’s always more drama, and has Max wise up not long after the halfway mark instead.
It’s a smart move for multiple reasons, not least of which because we no longer have to cringe over Max’s proximity to a man who could be her father and who, as Sam points out, probably hasn’t dated anyone over the age of 17 since he was 14. But it also gives us one of the most poignant and moving exchanges between a mother and daughter I’ve ever seen on TV. Sam shifts from a wait-and-see strategy to sort of flirting with Arturo’s brother Pedro, and the sight of her mother hitting it off with a younger man puts things in sharp relief for Max.
Of course, she first has to make her mom feel bad about herself, but given how vulnerable she makes herself, Max probably needed that. Better Things is often praised for its realistic (but still biting) dialogue and scenarios, but I was still somewhat surprised by Max’s frank admission. “I’m in over my head… I hate saying this to you,” she tells Sam, whose face runs through about half the emotions it did when she was sitting on the toilet in the episode opener. The words ring true; I’m just impressed that Max was able to set aside her ego to say them. This might speak to how unsettling her brief relationship with Arturo really was, which just makes me even gladder that she actually asks for help.
For Sam, concern wins over anger or pride—she skips the teachable moment and acts on a much more instinctual level. She ushers Arturo and Pedro out of her home before they realize what’s happening. Sam calls out Arturo, who drops a line I’ve heard in many a teen drama and Lifetime movie: “If you try to control her, you’re going to lose.” This just makes her spine stiffen, and she tells him “I’m protecting her.” There’s a ferocious quality to Adlon’s delivery of the line as it dawns on Arturo that right now, Sam’s the lion in the family.
- Welcome back to Better Things reviews! I’ve taken over for the wonderful Molly Eichel. Looking forward to discussing the new season with you all.
- Phil’s pronunciation of “spectacular” is nothing short of spectacular as she describes being drawn to Sam’s father. Equally impressive is her ability to get in all kinds of digs at Sam in such a short period of time; she talks about beauty skipping a generation, but that’s not why Sam looks “strange.” She had an ugly father.
- Also in the Phil Files: Her “it comes naturally” statement to Frankie’s friend Jason (who’s Harry Belafonte’s grandson, apparently) about his musicality is obviously a racist assumption. But he just agrees with her because his father played the piano, which is an effective way to deflect her backwards notions.
- The musical choices are often inspired, but given what Max and Sam go through this episode, I found The Blenders’ “Daughter” especially appropriate as the episode’s intro and outro.