[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Better Things” Season 3, Episode 12, “Shake the Cocktail.”]
For Sam Fox’s 50th birthday, she gave herself the gift of peace. Of acquiescence. A break from her persistent quest for perfection — not that she thinks she’s perfect, but, like most people, she wants to get it right whenever possible. Mainly, Pamela Adlon’s lead character wants to be good to her daughters, but there’s Rich (Diedrich Bader), her mom (Celia Imrie), and her friends, as well. There are a lot of folks to look after in Sam’s life, and yet, as Season 3 made clear, who she really needs to look after is herself.
Ghosts haunted Sam this season. If they had to go through her family to get to her, so be it, but they drove her back into her memories, her past, and the problems they create in her present. Self-assessment became a fixture in Sam’s life, as she moved from physical health to mental health to “shtupping” her therapist (Matthew Broderick) — a complex relationship dying to be unpacked (and hopefully will be in Season 4). Whenever her progress stalled, Sam’s father or ex-husband made their presence felt. Sam, with her begrudging grunts and deflecting eye rolls, needed a push, and as she blows out her birthday candles, her father is there to give one last nudge.
The Fox family grandfather first showed up in the Season 3 premiere, sitting at the back of an airplane that was going down. His ghost, a term Sam was reluctant to utter, kept popping up throughout the season, speaking to his daughter and granddaughter, Duke (Olivia Edward). So it’s fitting that the youngest child would kick off the episode sprinting through the yard with a red balloon, tying it to her mother’s empty bed just as she ties together past and present for the mourning mother. (Duke is the future, her grandfather the past.)
Of course, Sam isn’t in her bed. She’s sleeping in Frankie’s room, torn up over her daughter’s unexplained sojourn away from home. Frankie (Hannah Alligood) hasn’t spoken to her in eight days, and while her friends keep Sam up to date on her general whereabouts and safety, a mother can’t help but worry. That worry distracts her from everything going well around her. Her bad attitude outright spoils things with Rich, as a disagreement over phone etiquette over lunch escalates into harsh words and hurt feelings. She can’t enjoy her time with Max (Mikey Madison) and Duke, while her mother’s disconnect extends so far she forgets her birthday.
Luckily, Dr. David (Broderick) is there to give her some good advice (and a solid John Lithgow impression). “You told me she’s going to school and taking care of herself,” he says. “Let her be. Focus on the other two. They appreciate your parenting. Frankie will come home when she’s ready.” Sam hears him — whether it’s as an attentive partner or experienced therapist is unclear — and applies it. She sings the “Phineas & Ferb” theme song with her homebound daughters and their friends. She goes to Frankie’s recital and makes up with Rich.
As Frankie’s rendition of “Shake It Out” says, there’s always darkness before the dawn. The advice works, and Frankie does come home, maybe just for a little while, and she gives her mother a birthday card to boot. It’s in these little wins Sam’s dawn rises: When she apologizes to Rich and they hug, he says, “I’m still mad at you,” but all Sam says in response is, “That’s OK.” When Frankie breaks the news she’s not home for good, Sam doesn’t snap — she holds it in, lets Frankie take a bath, and gets the card Frankie made for her acceptance. Sam doesn’t like these things; she doesn’t want her daughter to leave, and she doesn’t want her friend to be mad at her. But she accepts them in exchange for the greater good.
Season 3 saw Sam dealing with a past she’d always repressed. She saw her ex-husband. She talked about him. She sees her father, and deals with him, too. A medium shows up to help her children, and Dr. Dave helps Sam. None of this stuff just goes away, but like the most insightful trips down memory lane, Sam leaned into her history to find a future.
When Sam prepares to blow out her candles and make a wish, she sees her father again; she hears him challenging her to do something with the time he didn’t get. And with a gust of air, she accepts. Does that mean she’ll have better relationships with men? Does it mean she’ll explore her attraction to women (as acknowledged in the excellent Episode 9, “The Unknown,” with Mer (Marsha Thomason)? Does it mean she’ll stop or keep shtupping her therapist? Those are questions for the future, but Sam is now ready to confront them. She wrestled with the worst relationship of her life to have better ones now, and she answered her father’s call so, in short, he’d stop calling on her family.
Sam’s got 50 imperfect years behind her, and the decades left won’t be perfect either. And that’s OK. It’s time she enjoys the better things in life, and not let the rest bog her down.
“Better Things” Season 3 is available via FX. Season 4 has already been picked up by the network.