“Didn’t it all go by so fast?”
“No, it all went by really slow.”
Rich and Sam’s exchange applies just as much to Max’s final year of high school (and, I guess, her whole upbringing) as it does this superb second season of Better Things. Like Sam, I also feel like it was just yesterday that she was rescuing her eldest daughter from some predatory creep, while also thinking that happened so. long. ago.
With Pamela Adlon at the helm all season long, the show covered more ground than usual, from the tracking shots used in the premiere to all of Sam’s getaways. We followed her from dinner parties to the hardware store; from auditions to vacations; from a state of not-so-blissful ignorance to the painful revelation about her dead aunt. She cooked, she worked, she worried. She endured. And at one point, she died. Adlon treated all of those journeys and interactions with the same level of care, because that’s what moms do. They celebrate our near-misses and our decisive wins. And, in the show’s “what’s sauce for the goose” spirit, we were invited into Sam’s stumbles and victories, whether she was ghosting on a viable romantic prospect or losing her cool with her kids and mother.
But, as Rich sighs, all of those highs and lows also flew by. When the episode opens, Sam and Max are working out the details of the latter’s graduation party (“no keg, no mom” is the compromise they reach). From there, Max’s last hours as a high school student dominate the story, which remains surprisingly linear while making quick work of the usual teen drama touchstones. Max wakes up hungover after the party, but she gets a prank, not a lecture, from her mom. Then, after a night of heartbreak (more on that shortly), she sits in bed admiring her diploma.
Adlon and Louis CK (ugh, more on that shortly, too), who co-wrote “Graduation,” don’t bother with any “a funny thing happened on the way to the auditorium” gags. For the first time, Max completes these rites of passage with little interruption or even fear. Where she was once stagnant and refusing to get a driver’s license, Max is now, if not exactly eager for the future, then much less afraid of it. She doesn’t flip out when Sam asks her about her plans for the future; she just admits she’s not sure. But to prove she’s still in many ways just a kid, she wonders about her graduation present.
Despite being the oldest kid, Max is still plenty capable of being disappointed by her father. As she breaks down after learning Xander won’t be attending her graduation at all—even after making all those plans behind Sam’s back—you can sense Sam pick consoling her daughter over being pissed at her ex. She’s ready to bail on Phil (but really, when isn’t she?) to escort Max to her rehearsal, something her daughter actually appreciates. And even though she doesn’t end up taking Max to the rehearsal, Sam does have her covered, as the Fox women’s extended family and chosen family come through. I choked up when everyone from Marion (Kevin Pollak) to Rich and Tressa offered to fill in for Max’s dad. Once again, it speaks to how well Sam really looks after her girls, that she keeps such good company.
In a nod to the premiere and Max and Sam’s shared arc this season, “Graduation” returns to the laundry room where mother and daughter had their big talk about Arturo. Back in “September,” Sam chose her daughter’s safety over making a point, and in the season finale, she again puts Max’s heartache above her own resentment towards Xander. But though she doesn’t chew him out—even after he makes the gross statement that “It’s not fair to judge someone for something they must do for themselves”—there is an unmistakable shift. It’s there in Frankie’s expression when she realizes her mom is talking to her dad about him bailing on them again; it’s there in Sam’s frustrated sighs in the laundry room; and it’s in Max’s relatively short grieving period. They’re all over Xander’s bullshit, albeit to varying degrees (as for Duke, well, she’ll probably come along eventually).
It’s nowhere near as loud or profane a shutdown as we’ve seen this season, but it’s a much more significant development. Sam was keeping a door open for her ex, because she’s been guilted into feeling responsible for him. But that hold is loosening; she could have lied to Max about why he couldn’t make it, but she didn’t. She laid it all out for her eldest and let her make up her own mind about what to do next. So Sam’s grown, too.
These moments before the conclusion are all so stripped down that when the song-and-dance number starts, it does, as Max puts it, feel like “a fever dream,” especially after that Pulp Fiction moment with the jewelry case in the kitchen. But it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Sam/Adlon would put on such a show for her daughter. It’s a rallying cry for the girls as well as a kiss-off to their dad. It’s also a sendoff for the season, which surpassed the first one in cohesiveness and daring. Some gambits didn’t pay off, but overall, Adlon has proven herself a consummate player in the world of TV. She’s gone from being a face to a voice to a visionary, exploring the obligations and tribulations of being a working mom while never forgetting the woman. There is no doubt that she will be able to execute season three just as well on her own.
Which brings me ever so briefly to the Louis CK revelations. I’m glad Adlon addressed his admission of guilt, and that she’ll be able to move forward without him. Because I know she can. At the same time, I have such mixed feelings about their longstanding collaboration that extend to this season of Better Things, which I’ve tried hard to keep out of my reviews—and I hope I’ve succeeded. So, that’s it for now. See you next year.
- Their house is huge, but I have a feeling Adlon would have been able to make any structure feel expansive. From the bathroom to the laundry room, she’s dipped into all the nooks and crannies of a home. It’s a great reminder of everything that goes into making/keeping one.
- The cast was so great this season, so as I’ve already commended Adlon on her performance so much, I want to single out Mikey Madison this episode. She shows so much confidence in her unreliable father before weeping like a little kid when he lets her down for the umpteenth time; it’s heartbreaking.
- Between this and BoJack Horseman, I call the latest phase of Diedrich Bader’s career “soothing.”
- Thanks for reading! I’m sorry I wasn’t able to get into the comments much, but I did often find them helpful.
- Here’s that closing song, “I Am Actually Good,” by Christine And The Queens, fittingly enough: