[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for the “Better Things” Season 2 finale, Episode 10, “Graduation.”]
Even professional writers have their limit, and mine arrived the moment Max (Mikey Madison) lifted her blindfold and saw her mother, Sam (Pamela Adlon), sisters Frankie (Hannah Alligood) and Duke (Olivia Edward), and grandmother, Phil (Celia Imrie), dressed all in black, standing on a shiny black stage, about to recreate Christine and the Queens’ “Tilted” music video as a graduation present for the family’s eldest daughter.
How do you expand upon something so perfect?
Up until that point, plenty of beautiful moments had stacked up over the course of Adlon’s Season 2 finale, “Graduation.” There was the cohesion between the premiere and the finale. The first episode of Season 2, “September,” finds Sam dealing with Max’s very adult new boyfriend. She’s put in an impossible position: Flip out, demand they break up, and forbid Max from seeing him, or do what she chooses to do: privately fume, keep her daughter close, and step in when called upon.
The finale opens with a similarly unreasonable request from Max — two of them. Along with a taco spread, ice cream station, and a professional DJ, Max wants a keg of beer for her graduation party… and a mom-free house. Though Sam doesn’t back down on the beer (“I go to jail!”), she painfully relents on the latter point. Sam is so hurt by the very request she stay away that she tries to ignore it was even asked, and then refuses to consider it as an option.
But Max is persistent. She wants this night to be about her and her friends, and they can’t have that with a parent present. So, even though it’s a lot, Sam agrees. She sits across the street with her mom and watches guests arrive. The next morning, she spiritedly pranks her daughter with a fake hangover cure — that onion had to be killer — and makes nice. She swallows everything to make her daughter happy on her graduation day.
And she has to do it all over again later that day. When Max’s father calls to say he can’t make it, Sam retreats to the bowels of the house; so far removed from her daughter’s guests that, if her pain and rage boiled over, it wouldn’t be noticed. Aside from a dislocated washing machine door, she holds it together. She tells Max, and Max loses it.
In this moment, Sam again proves herself magnificent. As blame is tossed around the room and personal grievances are shared, Sam stays locked into Max. Marion (Kevin Pollak), Sam’s brother, says what Max’s dad is doing “sounds familiar” as a barely veiled insult to his own mother, who missed his graduation. Macy (Lucy Davis), who just finished doing Max’s makeup, steps in to make a bad joke about how her work “was all for nothing.” Phil gets upset when the surprise she planned for her and Sam is tossed aside because Max needs an escort to the ceremony rehearsal.
So many people in the room can’t help but vent their own frustrations and turn the conversation toward their anger. But all Sam sees is her daughter. Max is hurt. Sam wants to help. Her own justifiable rage at an ex who’s never there for their children is set aside, and she tells her mom she’s going to be there for Max, no matter what.
The group turns with her. Each of them voice an eagerness to take Max to the rehearsal, and their collective loves overcomes a lack of it from her father. She chooses Rich (Diedrich Bader) to take her (who, let’s be honest, earned the spot after the eulogy in Episode 7), but not before Max tells her mom the truth.
“Mom, you’re the best mom in the world.”
Sam earns the praise not because of everything she gave up for her daughter, but because of everything she gives her. Sam, in those oh-so-vital emotional moments, is the exact person her daughter needs. She doesn’t think about herself or her own wants — a sacrifice embodied by Sam self-sabotaging her new relationship with Robin (Henry Thomas) in earlier episodes — and gives everything she is to her daughters. She earns that moment for herself, and for so many moms like her.
And then it happened. Just when it felt like “Better Things” was set to wrap on a touching moment of remembrance — that Sam bought her daughter something pretty and left it for her on the table — Max was escorted outside, seated on a bench, and given her real gift.
For Max, it was a perfect tribute to her time with the family, but really, the ending is for all of us. Like last year’s fatefully timed finale, when the words “dedicated to my daughters” flash across the screen, it feels like the sentiment was for more than just Adlon’s real-life children. This moment was for all of us — a peek behind the scenes of a passion for family that could only be embodied like this. Even the last shot feels like it’s a real moment: As Sam/Adlon yells “Cut” and looks at someone off-stage, that shot could’ve been acting or it could’ve been a director saying they got it. It works either way, and it works both ways.
Also like last year’s finale, the Season 2 ending came in with real-world baggage attached. The election gave the Season 1 finale added importance, and the Louis C.K. revelations did something comparable here: Yes, the ousted comedian co-wrote this and many of the episodes in Season 2. He’s a co-creator on the show and was an executive producer.
But there’s nothing about this episode that isn’t fully Adlon’s. The writer, director, producer, creator, and star made a finale, a season, and will continue to make a series that’s about giving without expectation of getting; that’s about self-sacrifice without bitterness; that’s about great mothers, not neurotic fathers. It’s not anyone else’s story but hers.
Such an idea is difficult to convey in words. Adlon put it on screen without them, mouthing silently along with the lyrics to “Tilted” as she danced with and for her daughters. Like Sam’s embarrassed (but proud) post-routine posture, I don’t know how to talk about it outside of acknowledging that it happened. To add anything to that scene could cloud the very purity that makes it perfect. It just is. So let’s live in it, shall we?
“Better Things” has been renewed for Season 3 at FX. Season 2 is available to stream on FX NOW. Watch the “Tilted” music video below.