The plot description of this week’s episode of Better Things states simply: “Sam deals with lady problems.” That’s both a tongue in cheek, somewhat reductive characterization of what happens in this wonderful episode and a thoroughly accurate summary of its central concerns and themes. This episode is all about lady things: menstruation, fertility, the precarious relationships between mothers and daughters, and the benefit of the doubt that dads receive even when the moms do all the hard work. It’s about how much weight comes with having a pair of X chromosomes, and the fact that many women wouldn’t give up an ounce of that weight, no matter how cumbersome it gets.
“Please tell me I’m close to being a man,” Sam says to her gynecologist early in the episode. “No more periods.” Sorry, the doctor replies, but you have the reproductive organs of a 16-year-old. It’s not what Sam wants to hear, but as she makes apparent when she happily shares that information with her girlfriends, it’s also exactly what she wants to hear. What woman in her 40s doesn’t want to receive the news that, even though she may look like a middle-aged mom to society, she’s actually still a teenager according to a legitimate medical professional?
The notion that adolescent hormones are still raging against Sam’s aging machine is also illustrated in the scenes with her mother, Phil, who makes her first appearance. On another show, it might seem unrealistic and a little too Everybody Loves Raymond to have the protagonist’s British mother living right across the street. But knowing that this situation is modeled on Adlon’s own life lends it authenticity, and so does the way that Adlon and veteran English actress Celia Imrie feed off each other.
No matter how mature they get, daughters are often mean as hell to their mothers, even after they become mothers themselves. One of the many things I respect about Better Things is its willingness to depict that dynamic without softening it one tiny iota. After an exhausting flight home — and all those hours spent wallowing in the unspoken truth that she was just fired from an acting job because someone didn’t like the way she looked in an alien costume — Sam can’t stand the sound of her mother’s voice as she chirps about how, in Canada, “it’s illegal to pay for a prostitute but it’s legal to be one.” (That’s one of many funny-on-the-surface lines that, on closer examination, also speaks to this episode’s themes about the paradoxical nature of womanhood. Just like last week’s premiere, this episode — with a story by Adlon and teleplay by Louis C.K. — is staggeringly well-written.)
Sam moans, groans, and yells at her mother, then waves her away like an irritating gnat. Only after she’s been screamed at by her own daughters, who threw a rager while she was away and don’t seem to understand why they should immediately clean it up, does Sam call her mother back. It’s hypocritical to expect your kids to treat you with respect and not show that same respect to your own parents. Sam knows this; most people know this. But actually behaving according to that principle is hard as hell. Regardless of how ripe or unripe our tubes may be, we’re all still 16 years old when it comes to dealing with our mothers. Or, as the sign at that women’s empowerment seminar puts it: We’re all women and girls and future women and past girls. Am I right, ladies?
That seminar scene — which forces Sam to be the sole keynote speaker charged with inspiring a roomful of her daughter’s peers — is this episode’s signature set piece. After charging forth with the usual rhetoric about how great it is that today’s young women have choices, Sam changes course and starts talking about periods. “Who’s cotton-holing here?” she asks, insisting that her own daughter Frankie raise her hand. (Hannah Alligood, the actress who plays Frankie, nails the mortified stare of death, along with the “Oh my GOD” and “Mom!” that are the standard, frustrated birdcalls of the North American Teenage Girl.)
Sam then continues her Tampax Inquisition, asking everyone in the room who’s currently menstruating or who’s hit the menstrual stop sign that is menopause to identify themselves as well. “We all bleed,” she tells them, “and we all suffer. And the bleeding stops and we still suffer.”
“As long as you believe in yourself and you take care of each other and watch out for each other, you just make the rest up as you go along,” she adds. In other words: No one knows what they’re doing, girls. We’re all still 16! Just try to have each other’s backs.
It is rare to hear this particular kind of empowering “period talk” on TV. It’s also refreshing. Seriously, if God had said even half of this stuff to Judy Blume’s Margaret, she would not have felt nearly as strongly that she must, she must, she must increase her bust.
The one part of this scene that rings false to me is when Frankie hugs her mother after the speech is over, partly because she’s so clearly humiliated while it’s happening and also because, as a past girl myself, I cannot imagine responding that way at that age. Granted, my mother would never have made a speech like that; she could barely bring herself to say the word period privately, let alone to half the damn PTA. But if she had done such a thing, I wouldn’t be writing this recap right now. I’d still be standing in a field outside Tilden Intermediate School, wallowing in my humiliation while attempting to dig a tunnel straight off of planet Earth.
Nevertheless, I love this episode of Better Things. I love it for all the things it’s willing to say about becoming a mature woman, and also for the things it pointedly chooses not to say. We still have not officially confirmed the identity of Mather Zickel’s character, the guy Sam sleeps with at the end of this episode. I said in last week’s recap that he must be her ex-husband, and all evidence so far supports that. But I appreciate how the show has withheld that information from us, much the way Sam is withholding it from her daughters.
More poignantly, I love that Phil passes out before she can respond to Sam’s extremely important question: “Why did you marry my dad?”
Phil has consumed too much vodka to answer, or maybe she’s just pretending she has. But Sam knows the answer anyway. Sam’s mom married her father because she got pregnant with Sam. Having a set of ripe tubes changes everything in a woman’s life. She bleeds. She suffers. But in some cases, she also gets a daughter who, occasionally, eases the suffering a little.