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Goodbye to 'Better Things,' a show that embraced the messiness of life

Max (Mikey Madison), Sam (Pamela Adlon), Frankie (Hannah Riley), and Duke (Olivia Edwards) in Season 5 of <em>Better Things</em>.
Suzanne Tenner
/
FX
Max (Mikey Madison), Sam (Pamela Adlon), Frankie (Hannah Riley), and Duke (Olivia Edwards) in Season 5 of Better Things.

This article contains spoilers for Season 5 of Better Things.

It's extremely difficult for me to land on a favorite episode of FX's Better Things, co-creator and star Pamela Adlon's semi-autobiographical dramedy about Sam Fox, a single mom and working actress living in L.A. Over five seasons, it never failed to make me feel something, anything, during the course of an episode: mirth, empathy, embarrassment, sadness, introspection, catharsis, hope, a glass cage of emotion.

It was the kind of show you put on not knowing exactly what you were going to get – more mood-forward than plot-driven – but understanding by the end you were going to come away feeling a little bit closer to Sam and her world, as though they were a part of your own. Sam is a hub, the kind of person who serves as the central link for a wide and diverse network of family and friends, a woman who values and nurtures her connections by showing up for them and creating a home where they can all comfortably converge. I believe most of us crave a Sam in our lives, if we don't have one already.

The final episode of Better Things aired Monday, and I'm going to miss this series so, so much.

But one of the wonderful things about Better Things is that it's always been keenly interested in showing how life unfolds in cycles, and in confronting the ends of things even when they're scary or sad. And the episode I've kept coming back to while reveling in the excellent final season (and mourning its departure) is "Eulogy," from Season 2. The first half focuses on watching Sam at work in two different settings, as an acting coach, and then as a performer in a car commercial. In these environments, we understand how seriously she treats her craft, pushing her students with a blunt but encouraging sensibility, and gamely trying out various ways she can say her one line in that ad, in take after take.

One of the wonderful things about Better Things is that it's always been keenly interested in showing how life unfolds in cycles, and in confronting the ends of things even when they're scary or sad.

These vignettes are setup for the meat of the episode, which takes place one evening when she's lounging in front of the TV with her three children, Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Riley), and Duke (Olivia Edward), and family friends Rich (Diedrich Bader) and Tressa (Rebecca Metz). While flipping channels, they catch a glimpse of one of the fruits of Sam's acting gigs, but Max and Frankie are completely disinterested in going back to watch it, much to the others' disappointment. "What, do you want me to go back so we can watch your thing?" Max, who's holding the remote, says dismissively. Frankie joins in on the sass, and Sam becomes upset.

"I don't wanna have to wait 'til I'm dead for my kids to appreciate me!" she says, before storming out of the house to get away from it all.

When Sam returns sometime later, the living room has been turned into a memorial of sorts, with candles everywhere and a bed of pillows in the center of the room. They've surprised her with a "funeral," and she and Duke lay on the bed as everyone else takes turns eulogizing her. (The scenario they've concocted for their demise: a car accident, while en route to pick up Frankie.)

For a show awash with moving and heartfelt moments, this one is way up there. Max and Frankie's remembrances are loving yet honest and true to their personalities. "I was always proud of her and never told her," Frankie admits; "I never cared about what she did because she was mom ... I don't like that she's famous ... she's my mother!" Max indignantly pronounces. The whole thing is morbid yet warm, just one example of how the various identities and generations within the Fox family butt up against one another, but always manage to come together on their own terms, eventually.

By the end of the eulogies, it's clear that that's all Sam wanted – a little respect for the things she does from the people she loves most.

Rich (Diedrich Bader), Sam (Adlon), and Max (Madison) in <em>Better Things.</em>
Suzanne Tenner / FX
/
FX
Rich (Diedrich Bader), Sam (Adlon), and Max (Madison) in Better Things.

"Eulogy" and other episodes from throughout the show's run reverberate intensely as transition and death become even more pronounced themes throughout Season 5: Sam and her brother Marion (Kevin Pollak) clash over finances and what to do about their aging mother Phil (Celia Imrie); Sam and Frankie tour the Hollywood Forever cemetery and discuss Frankie's nonbinary identity; the Foxes attend a Zoom funeral for a family member; Duke, now fully in that horrible phase of life known as tweendom, wrestles with not "feel[ing] connected to anything."

One scene in particular feels like a direct callback to "Eulogy." In "Family Meeting," Sam is bombarded by Max, who comes home extremely inebriated after a night hanging out with her friends. Max crawls onto Sam's bed rattling off nonsensical ramblings, and embraces her puzzled mom, rubbing her hands all over Sam's head. Suddenly, Max grabs Sam's face intensely, and blurts, "Mom! I love you SO MUCH! ... Listen to me, I would DIE if you died, mom, I would KILL MYSELF!"

This goes on for several seconds – in between Max giving the side of Sam's face a big, long lick because, well, she's very wasted – until the drunken daughter finally blubbers: "DO. NOT. DIE!" embraces her mom one last time, and then promptly passes out. Sam removes Max's shoes from her feet, tucks her into bed, and lays down next to her, cradling her.

This exchange says so much about the evolution of their relationship, which has at times been challenging and hostile; Max displays a knack for spewing cutting words at her mom when she's angry, especially with regards to her absentee, deadbeat dad. But the energy has shifted now. This season Max has had an abortion, and can't bring herself to tell Sam; she's asked Rich, who accompanied her to the procedure, to tell her instead, and it's in this episode that Sam finally learns the truth. When Max barges in on Sam, she doesn't know her mom knows yet, but it's clear the abortion has marked a change in her, and a newfound appreciation for everything she does. Max may be drunk, but she's speaking from her most unfiltered state.

In a lesser show, the pronouncements would be gooey and corny, but these bonds have been forged since day one.

Season 5 is lush with testimonials like this, of the people in Sam's orbit taking the time to tell her how much she's meant to them. In a lesser show, the pronouncements would be gooey and corny, but these bonds have been forged since day one. And the proximity to mortality and finality undercuts the sweetness beautifully.

In the very last episode, there's a montage that cross-cuts between Sam, putting up a for sale sign outside her mother's home, and Max, taking an art class where a short film is shown. In the film, directed by Kira Dane and Katelyn Rebelo, a woman's voice explains how in Japanese Buddhism, "life is described like water": "something that's poured in and out of our bodies, like moving from one container to the other." You start pouring into the world gradually at conception, and are fully poured in by seven years old. By the time a person reaches 60, "you've already started the slow process of pouring back out. So: there's no single moment, where you start or stop being alive."

For Sam, it's absolutely crucial to tell, and show, the important ones in your life how much they mean to you, whenever you can. Such things cannot wait until after it's too late and they've gone.

That feels like the mission statement of Better Things: this idea of pouring one's self into the world, of being fully present, of feeling all the feels. It's been palpable from the very first episode and through to "Eulogy" and these last episodes. As much as the show invokes death, it's always in the service of promoting the small joys of just existing and living. For Sam, it's absolutely crucial to tell, and show, the important ones in your life how much they mean to you, whenever you can. Such things cannot wait until after it's too late and they've gone.

And so, though saying goodbye to this celebration of life and all its messiness makes me a little sad, there is a bright side. There have been five great seasons of this show filled with characters who laughed, danced, cursed, fought, gave each other advice, delivered harsh truths, and most of all, loved each other fiercely, in deeply relatable ways. During its run, there was no single moment when Better Things started or stopped being alive.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aisha Harris
Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.