Over the course of 10 episodes, FX’s “Better Things” has proven to be yet another fantastic addition to the canon of groundbreaking TV shows in this era of “peak TV.” Not only has it demonstrated skillful storytelling through the writing of creator Pamela Adlon (“King of the Hill”) and co-executive producer Louis C.K. (“Louie”), but “Better Things” has also become an anomaly in and of itself. The half-hour sitcom captures characters rarely seen on television — single mothers, young girls and middle-aged and elderly women — and depicts them in an authentic, thought-provoking light.
Adlon has been a particularly growing creative force since “Better Things” premiered in September. She showcases her comedic and dramatic talents as the writer and star of the show, playing the thick-skinned mother and struggling actress Sam Fox. In the show’s first season finale, “Only Women Bleed,” Adlon makes a compelling case for the underlying importance of “Better Things:” motherhood is difficult and emotionally taxing, but at the end of the day, it can be the most rewarding part of a woman’s life.
We see the ebb and flow of Adlon’s frustrations and triumphs as a matriarch in the very first sequence of the episode, where Sam plans on spending a weekend with her eccentric British mother, Phyllis (Celia Imrie, “Bridget Jones’s Baby”). During a long, uninterrupted take, Sam and Phyllis begin to argue to the point where Sam expresses that she doesn’t want to spend time with her mother. It’s a heartbreaking, sad moment in their already complicated relationship, but “Better Things” isn’t afraid to show the nitty-gritty facet of difficult family dynamics.
“I suck as a daughter, suck as a mother,” Sam laments, as she pulls back into her driveway.
Funnily enough, the following busy sequence begs to differ on that argument. As Sam wakes up her youngest, Duke (Olivia Edward, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”), we observe the controlled chaos that begins to ensue in the Fox household. Sam’s vexing middle daughter Frankie (Hannah Alligood, “Paper Towns”) and petty oldest Max (newcomer Mikey Madison) are fighting over clothes; her side piece is asking her to send him racy pictures; her housekeeper comes in late with an ache from a previous night of food poisoning; and she has to take care of some paperwork.
This part of the episode, underscored by the minimalist electronica of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” is anxiety-inducing to watch, but it is nevertheless paced extremely well. Thanks to Adlon’s auxiliary position as the episode’s director, she knows exactly how to show all the moving parts to Sam’s roles as mother, businesswoman and sexual being and the difficulty in fulfilling all those roles simultaneously. Though she is clearly exhausted by the end of it, Sam certainly doesn’t suck as a mother; at least she’s trying to make everything work, despite no one ever seeming to acknowledge her efforts.
Her annoyance continues when she has to bring Frankie out of school for the day for using the boy’s bathroom. During a conversation between the two, though, there seems to be a disconnect between the two that mirrors the emotional barrier between Sam and her own mom. Sam is upset because Frankie’s action and subsequent punishment has ruined her schedule for the day, but Frankie is mad about how alienating the girl’s bathroom is at her school. Both of their concerns are valid, but what makes “Better Things” great is that it neither downplays nor trivializes the complex relationship between mother and daughter.
This theme unexpectedly unravels into something more intricate and unnerving, as Max later tells Sam that perhaps Frankie is actually a boy, using her traumatizing experience in the girl’s bathroom as a cover. Max may not be right either, but her remark reveals a sobering truth about her daughter’s ambiguous gender identity, as well as the generational divide between daughters and mothers.
Sam’s revelation over this new reality for her daughters will most likely be discussed in the show’s second season — FX already renewed the show. But as troubling as it may be for Sam that the Fox household could have one less woman, “Better Things” will definitely portray that impending situation with the sensitivity it deserves.
That being said, the thread between the Fox women remains strong, their connection fully realized in the episode’s last sequence. While driving down the freeway, Sam, Max, Frankie and Duke sing along to the namesake of the episode title, Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed.” As sentimental as these final moments are, “Better Things” does what it does best; it recognizes the beauty in the ordinary chaos of life and holds onto the love in a family that often spews hateful things at one another.
In the very last scene, the words “Dedicated to my daughters” appears at the bottom of the screen. After a heavy week that has tested people’s hope, love and patience for a country that has been spewing hateful things for a long time, it only makes sense that “Better Things” ends its phenomenal first season with such a triumphant, relevant message.