There’s really no such thing as being disappointed by an episode of Better Things (certainly not yet). And I don’t expect the show to plumb the emotional depths it did last week in “Phil” with every outing, because it would be exhausting for everyone involved. The show often operates in standalone mode, mining as much pathos from a handful of storylines as it can before moving on to the next batch. So, all things considered, jumping from the poignant exchanges between ailing mother and flailing daughter to a kind of montage of working-actor scenes for Sam is very much in keeping with the show’s structure.
But there’s still something jarring about shifting from the closing scenes of “Phil” to the kind of “business as usual” opening we get this week in “Eulogy.” It feels like there should be some follow-up or check-in or something after Celia Imrie dropped Phil’s act. Sam didn’t tell her kids that their grandmother is in the hospital last week, not even when asked directly where Phil was. She’s likely just protecting them, especially if she has reason to believe that Phil is going to be okay (that is, reason beyond optimism and her stubborn insistence on looking after her mother no matter what). But at first glance, it seems a little careless to drop that particular thread.
At least Sam’s lessons to her students seem to touch on similar subjects, her directive to find a way to “make it work” echoing last week’s themes. Unlike in previous episodes this season, we don’t get any cutaways or flashbacks that illustrate where her mind is wandering, or if it is. Instead, she’s focused on imparting the lesson that “the skill you’re gonna need for steady work is to make shitty writing mean something.” She urges her students to elevate whatever dreck they’ve been cast in, while also reminding them that they have to appear real onscreen. And to do that, they must always be vulnerable. “They want to see you at your weakest,” she says of audiences.
Cut to Sam experiencing a “20-second version of Groundhog Day that’s somehow still longer,” or: a car commercial shoot. It’s a smart, funny sequence that once again underscores just how tedious acting can be. Not just commercial or sitcom performances, either. Better Things makes it clear that no matter the gig, whether it’s opposite David Duchovny or in a car with a co-star making speeding noises with his mouth, there’s so much repetition and seemingly meaningless distinctions that it often sucks the fun right out of what you’re doing.
Even though she’s not in school, Sam gives so many different readings of “Can I drive now?” that she really should be charging anyone who’s keeping track for the lesson. And it’s another indication that Pamela Adlon is having so much fun showing off the nuts and bolts of a working actor’s career. But she also manages to rein that all in to demonstrate the workaday nature of it all. And the patience Sam shows throughout—even though she jokes with the makeup artist and her car companion about the drawn-out shoot, she’s also quick to let them know that there are worse gigs. And again, she would know.
That soul-sucking experience is more than enough to earn her some peace at home, but as we see in “Eulogy,” her house isn’t much of a refuge for Sam. The lead up to her really laying into Frankie and Max builds so gracefully, pulling from Sam’s description of the audience that craves your vulnerability—like say, your preteen and teen daughter would, especially if they then wanted to exploit that weakness. And that revelation comes together in a way that rattles everyone, including Rich and Tressa.
Adlon takes us through Sam’s day to show just how worn out she should be (and is) by the time she gets home. On most nights, she would brace or numb herself for more abuse. But there’s something different about this particular evening. This time, when Max and Frankie blow past a commercial Sam did, she does tell them it was rude. When they scoff about prestige of her projects, she reminds them that those gigs paid for their lifestyle. And when they tell her she’s being overly dramatic, she storms out of the house. It’s hard to say what it is, exactly, aside from exhaustion or frustration, that finally makes her snap.
The build-up here is realistic, as the drip-drop water torture nature of Sam’s day eventually breaks the dam. And Sam’s exasperation (or whatever comes after) rings true. That speech—“I want it now. I don’t want to wait until I’m dead for my kids to appreciate me”—is cathartic and revolutionary for her. She’s never quite vocalized what she needs from her kids, in part because moms aren’t really supposed to ask for anything in return. But there seems to be a step missing between this blow-up and their reconciliation. Cutting away to the bar just stalls for time instead of forcing Max and Frankie to confront the way they treat their mom. “Eulogy” doesn’t really touch on what prompts their change of heart; if it was the simple act of Sam walking out, then why didn’t she get a bigger response to leaving for the weekend with Robin a couple episodes ago?
But though there’s some glossing over of the third act, “Eulogy” still works overall. The sweet speeches and tears that flow for the second attempt at eulogizing Sam (and Duke, sorry; I forgot she also “died”) are affecting; it was as much a revelation to learn that Frankie has seen so many of Sam’s credits as it was for Max to reveal that she refuses to do the same because she’s never really wanted to share Sam. Their eulogies provide some much-needed context for their behavior this season; knowing about her jealousy, Max’s attachment to Sam this season makes more sense and seems less sudden. And I know I’ve commented on the foreshadowing this season, I can’t help but think that this will somehow end up tying in with Phil’s storyline. Then again, maybe all that “Eulogy” is putting to rest is some of Sam’s resentment.
- The acting students’ rapt attention during class ended up providing the perfect juxtaposition to Sam’s indifferent family later.
- “She’s my pace car”—Tressa doesn’t try to keep up with Sam, but she does find her superhuman capability comforting.
- The first two thirds of the episode paid off to some extent, as was pretty brutal to watch Frankie and Max be so dismissive of poor Sam, especially after the day she’d had (and seems to always have). Adlon really dealt a blow there.
- Did the eulogy scene remind anyone else of Empire Records?