“What we know is this—you have survived another year. You made it. We all made it.”
The season-three finale of Better Things, “Shake The Cocktail,” is in some ways an inversion of the premiere, “Chicago”—not in quality, of course, but in terms of where, and with whom, Sam begins and ends the episode. When the season began, Sam thought she had sent her eldest daughter out into the world to deal with all-night cram sessions and setting her own alarm clock. She assumed she would no longer need to mother Max the way she had up until that point, and prepared to refocus her efforts on Frankie and Duke. “Chicago” saw Sam say goodbye to Max and come home to Frankie, who begged her mother for help with the intro to A Raisin In The Sun. Sam readily accepted, camping out on her daughter’s bed, reading Lorraine Hansberry’s words to her the way she must have read bedtime stories to her once upon a time. But in “Shake The Cocktail,” Sam and her middle child couldn’t be further apart.
That’s not to say that their parting is acrimonious, because it isn’t, exactly—as Sam listens to Frankie in the final moments of the episode, she is already trying to reorient herself to this new arrangement. After hearing her daughter, who’s been staying with friends, say she’s going to stay away, Sam just takes a breath and offers Frankie food and a bathtub (I guess couch-surfing is a grimy business). Frankie eventually owns up to being “an asshole,” but gives no other reason for why she feels the need to live apart from her mother, and to a lesser extent, her sisters (she stays in touch with Max, whom she’s apparently been asking for money). But Pamela Adlon and her writers, including Sarah Gubbins, Joe Hortua, and Ira Parker, have shown us the fractures in Sam and Frankie’s relationship throughout the season, fissures that came about quite naturally, created by adolescence and Sam’s withholding. There’s no emotional knock-down, dragout fight, no obvious last straw that sends Frankie packing. For all of the heightened moments it’s featured, that just wouldn’t be Better Things’ style, just like a tidy resolution has no place in the Fox home.
The ending of “Shake The Cocktail” is as bittersweet as it is honest, as Sam technically spends the final minutes of her birthday with all three of her kids under her roof. And it’s obvious the peace she does find, however momentary (and with the help of Rich’s gift), is so incredibly well earned. Most of season three has been rooted in Sam’s experience, which is why, along with Adlon’s performance par excellence, her surprise and dismay resonate so much. So many other things came together or fell apart—a movie, a business relationship, a budding romance—and Frankie’s always been such a shit that Sam (and the audience) couldn’t anticipate this is how the season would end. But it also feels like Better Things has been building to this moment, both in previous episodes and in the scenes leading up to Frankie’s revelation.
I called Adlon a visionary at the end of season two, and season three is more evidence that her stewardship has always been more vital to the show than anyone else’s. The bite and humor remain, but Better Things also feels subtler and smarter overall this year, even when you take the toilet episode into account. All the elements have worked together in concert, especially the multiple musical moments; and even the most devastating moments immediately track once the dust settles. When I realized that, in Frankie’s mind, she is doing to Sam what Sam did to her, i.e., picking up stakes without giving an explanation, I was glad I was sitting down. There are other moments that, while not justifying Frankie’s decision, do foreshadow it or at least color it in some—Sam admitted just last week that she has no idea how to communicate with Frankie anymore. And though Frankie could stand up in an auditorium and call out the harm that Sam’s protective measures have done, she doesn’t take that conversation any further when her mom would be only too happy to serve as an audience.
Better Things has shown us time and again, across multiple generations, how often words can fail the otherwise loquacious members of the Fox family. Sometimes the words are too few; other times, they’re not apt enough. But I’d still say that “Shake The Cocktail” overflows with optimism, as Sam and Rich make up after airing their grievances—Rich observes, probably accurately, that Sam is having a hard time sharing him with Alan/Allen, but also says he can’t remain single for her—and Sam learns to accept that while she’ll always be looking after someone, they might not all be in her care at once. “One in, one out,” remember? As Max found her way back home, where she clearly still wants to be mothered, Frankie had to break out. And Duke, well, she’s the wild card, still looking to Sam for reassurance after one of Phil’s careless slips, but also chiding Sam when’s too tough on the old girl.
Once again, Sam is reminded that the broad strokes of history are repeating themselves—her daughters miss their father just as she once did, and her daughters are gradually turning on her, as she has with Phil. There’s a great deal of consternation at the end of “Shake The Cocktail,” but there is also reason to hope, whether it’s Frankie remembering Sam’s birthday, or Max and Duke presenting their mom with a cake, or listening to your boyfriend’s solid one-word impression of John Lithgow. Better Things has been unsparing in both its honest look at how families, biological and found, come together and grow apart, and in just how generous it is with those characters. Though there’s been a greater focus on Sam this season, we’ve also gotten inside the heads of Max, Frankie, and Duke enough to have some understanding of their actions. And in the cases where we still don’t or can’t, the show has fostered enough empathy for us to accept that we might not ever.
After spending much of the season showing Sam struggling with her changing body and life, the status quo temporarily returns in “Shake The Cocktail.” Sam still has one daughter abroad and two daughters at home, and a mother who needs to be looked after. But as she blows out the candles on her 50th birthday, the camera closes in on her face to show her looking eagerly toward the future instead of just bracing herself for it. “Graduation” also combined hope and realism, but in “Shake The Cocktail,” that mixture feels more 60-40, which feels right for a series and creator who just delivered their best season ever, in the wake of a development that could have easily derailed the show (and did delay it).
Ahead of the season-three premiere, there were questions about how the show would keep going, both in practical terms and in maintaining its wrenching and inventive storytelling. In interviews, Adlon was upfront about how she was knocked for a loop by Louis CK’s admission to sexual misconduct, but you’d never know it from how cohesive, funny, and poignant season three has been. This superlative final outing for the year shows the way forward, and once again, it’s with fewer disappointing men.
- It wasn’t until halfway through my third watch of “Shake The Cocktail” that I reacted to Frankie with anything other than “seriously, WTF?” The episode outlined the very real dangers she faces on her own—which, to be fair, would also be issues even if she lived at home, given that we’re talking about abusers and shootings in schools—just as it demonstrated her ability to handle those things (see: David’s advice). It may have taken me a while to see how it all fit, but again, Better Things had already laid the foundation.
- Murray’s final(?) words of encouragement to his daughter are more a question than anything, which feels perfectly in character for father and daughter. We learned in a previous episode that he gave Sam more room to find herself than he did Marion, and the show has amply shown that Sam is more than capable of figuring things out on her own.
- I was wrong about David’s lasting power, huh? We don’t know if he’ll be back next year, but that doesn’t make seeing Sam open up to him any less captivating. Ditto Mer.
- One thing I’m still curious about: how long has Frankie been gone? She turned off location services or whatever on her phone on May 8, and I’m assuming the date on the card—June 7, 1969—reflects Sam’s birthday (though not the year), so does that mean she’s been gone a month? Or did she just turn off the location services in a preamble to her departure?
- I don’t know how they would have been worked into the story, but I still wanted to see Mer or Reiki pop up again.
- Adlon wrote and directed the episode, as she’s done with all Better Things finales (well, she co-wrote the first two). She bookends all the turmoil with such beautiful opening and closing scenes that I know I will watch anything else she makes, but the good news is, the show was renewed for a fourth season earlier this year! So I hope to see you back here, whenever it arrives (please don’t let it be 1.5 years from now, though).