“Why do you have ‘penis’ on the wall?”
“We have a lot of ‘penises’ on the wall.”
Better Things never shies away from showing the emotional and psychological toll that being a working actor and looking after three kids, an aging and imperious mother, and an ungrateful ex has taken on its lead character. Sam remains resilient and ready to crack a laugh, but we’ve also witnessed her temper flare over Xander’s manipulations, as well as seen her at a loss when one of her children forced a new dynamic into their relationship. And that’s all while delving into the demands that strangers and acquaintances make of her as a (single) woman. In “DNA,” the fourth episode of the fourth season, the wear and tear is a bit more literal.
After another typically lovely opening scene, in which Sam fitfully performs Elton John’s “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” for an audience of herself, she’s off to run yet another gauntlet. She stops first at Phil’s, who’s entertaining her friends Gloria (Pamela Roberts), Lorelei (Irene Roseen), and Patrick (Hal Alpert). The card-playing fivesome discusses #MeToo and consequences—Gloria recognizes her father’s bad behavior, while Phil shrugs off the advances of her former co-workers, insisting it was all part of the way things worked back then. Patrick and Lorelei seem to fall into the same camp; in fact, Lorelei jokes that she turned the tables on handsy men. It’s a brief exchange, but it still reveals the many different attitudes toward abuse and shifting social mores that exist within the same generation.
Sam shares Patrick’s raunchy, vaudevillian sense of humor—we already know how well she handles herself among swaggering men—but she’s dropped by to collect some spit, not to shoot the breeze. Where the DNA test storyline will lead, we don’t know; but Sam’s persistent tendonitis (or is it carpal tunnel?) is the health concern in the spotlight tonight. She goes to see a specialist (Richard Steinmetz) who’s made out to be some kind of magical healer in commercials. But he can’t do anything for Sam’s chronic pain. All he can do is make what is, for Sam, a twisted observation: that she’s much “younger” than her hands. There is currently no medical treatment available to her, a fact that “sucks dead donkey dicks.”
Sam has dealt with unsettling news and unpleasant bedside manners from doctors before; it wasn’t that long ago that one physician bluntly told her that she was aging out of (reproductive) usefulness. She’s struggled with peri-menopause, if her El Camino purchase is any indication. But Sam has had time to accept those changes. She’s also had children and been married; she’s loved and been in love. She may get around to dating again, but for now, she’s content to spend time with her family and friends. So hearing about her “deteriorating” reproductive parts isn’t like having a door shut or a path blocked—she’s been down those roads. She isn’t being precluded from anything. But the limited use of her hands, the same hands that make those inviting meals every episode and tuck strands of hair behind Duke’s ear or high-five Frankie or sign for some new purchase for Max? That’s an entirely different ordeal.
Sam’s diagnosis, if that’s what “old hands” is, is nothing life-threatening but it will eventually impede her way of life. And Sam might have just gotten her head around no longer being considered desirable (by certain demographics, not us), but to no longer be useful is something else. In a way, it reminds me of that first dinner scene in Something’s Gotta Give, when Frances McDormand’s character Zoe waxes on about “productive, interesting women.” That’s the part of her identity that Sam engages with the most, which is why her current lack of work is throwing her. Sam’s willingness to take on less than glamorous jobs in order to maintain steady work hasn’t actually yielded that much stability. Last week, Max shuddered at the thought of ending up like her mom, a working actor in her 50s. This week, a conversation with Jessica Barden makes Sam wonder about her lack of a legacy.
It might not occur to Sam in “DNA,” but her influence on her daughters is evident. Frankie’s nonconforming presentation isn’t a far cry from Sam’s boxy blazer looks. Max’s persistent questioning echoes Sam’s lifelong issues with Phil. But Sam’s also passed down her nurturing side, though Duke is the one who has primarily demonstrated it this season. Her sweet advice to Rich in the premiere made her sound like an old soul, and tonight, she shows composure when everyone else around her is freaking out. After Duke swaddles the owl that found its way into Sam’s room, even her mother stands in awe of her. As all of the Fox women (minus Phil) take a moment to admire Duke’s poise while cradling a wild animal, it’s hard not to think of what it’s been like for Sam to raise these girls on her own. But she can take some comfort in knowing that she had a hand in Duke’s Dr. Dolittle ways.
This being Better Things, that sweet calm is soon shattered along with the newly serene image of Duke. First, Duke accidentally chops off the tip of one of Pepper’s fingers, which one of the dogs immediately eats. It was definitely unintentional, but Duke’s nervous laughter in response to her friend’s injury reminds us that she’s still very much a kid. Look no further than the vomit she spews at the thought of the dog’s latest meal. This is another accurate reflection of Sam’s life—she gets things right with one kid only to make a mistake with another.
But tonight’s big, c-word-laden finish isn’t a mistake or the result of any shortcoming on Sam’s part. Max is being unrelentingly selfish, chiding her mom for everything from not doing enough laundry to not telling the girls she hadn’t gotten to all of the laundry, the run-in with the owl and Pepper’s injury notwithstanding. From the moment she starts stalking around the house, bitching about a dress and being late for work, Max is clearly gathering a head of steam. Her confrontation with Sam is like a collision of air masses, because Sam is also pissed off. She can’t believe Max won’t cut her any slack, let alone help her look after the younger girls. Max’s insults are all over the place—first, she snipes that acting isn’t real work, then she threatens to move in with Xander. Sam rolls with it, even the “disaster of a mother” remarks. But Max goes too far when she says Sam no longer knows what it’s like to be a woman.
The way the attack registers on Adlon’s face—the hurt and fury are only briefly visible before the firm set of the jaw returns, but it’s enough to buckle the knees. When Sam’s lips begin to form words, we have no idea what she’s going to say, but “cunt” isn’t the first thing to come to mind. But Sam says it, to Max’s shock. But then Max says it back, Sam says it again, and then “cunts” are flying across the room. For a moment, we think there’s no coming back from this. That’s one of the worst things you can call anyone (in most people’s estimation), and Sam and Max just said it a handful of times to each other. But just as quickly as this storm gathered, it dissipates. Sam’s famous sense of humor kicks in as she takes in the image of this epithet-filled showdown with her eldest. To her credit, Max immediately backs down, too, and seems genuinely ashamed. And the sigh we let out as viewers isn’t just relief that the argument is over, but that it took place.
The c-word clip was shown to TCA members back in January, when Adlon explained the thinking behind the big fight. “It’s this big moment for the women, and it’s a diffusion,” she told journalists. Even though Sam has all her kids under her roof again, things have changed—her daughters have changed. Sam has changed. And living with your adult kids (or, living with a parent when you’re an adult) is a whole different kind of contentious. Better Things is as perceptive as ever in its depiction of family dynamics, homing in on how the way arguments are waged can change; how the arsenal for the combatants becomes a shared one as everyone involved becomes an adult. Max stumbled upon a new way to hurt her mom, and it won’t be the last time.
Pamela Adlon was reliably excellent tonight, but Mikey Madison might actually be the standout this episode. She more than holds her own against her TV mom, showing the same infinitesimal shifts in her expression when she hears that word lobbed at her for the first time (from her mom, anyway). She begins to shake, either from rage or from the fear of the consequences of being unable to control that rage. It’s an incredible scene because of their joint commitment, and “DNA” is equal parts enervating and exhilarating for how it builds to this confrontation, then lets any ill will evaporate.
- “DNA” was written by Ira Parker and directed by Pamela Adlon.
- Frankie has already bonded with the snake, which makes sense.
- Owls are a “harbinger of death” and a “sign of fertility and change.” We saw evidence of the latter omen tonight—does that mean death is on the horizon?
- Frankie is one step closer to her quinceañera, albeit a double one. Again, I’m really hoping for a goth aesthetic.
- We know the DNA test results will pop up later this season. As the family tree gets shaken, let’s start a betting pool for secret siblings.