“Woman Is the Something of the Something” is a smart, funny, brilliantly written half-hour of television. That would be true no matter when it aired, but the fact that it comes near the end of a week dominated by the Trump-splained presidential debate and an ongoing conversation about the Republican candidate’s misogynistic behavior gives it an extra shot of timeliness.
Better Things has already established itself as a comedy told from a distinctly female point of view, and “Woman Is the Something of the Something” offers its most pointed commentary so far on the sexism that creeps into every aspect of Sam’s existence, even in ways she doesn’t always see or hear. Every scene — co-written by star Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K. and directed, like last week’s episode, by Nisha Ganatra — reflects the impossible-to-achieve standards women are expected to meet on a daily basis, from Sam’s demoralizing visit to a plastic surgeon (apparently a fresher face and neck costs $95,000), to that recording session where Sam is asked to be “more cheerful” while describing the side effects of erectile dysfunction medicine (when discussing boner pills, always smile, ladies!), to the smoke detector that brings the fire department to Sam’s house while her daughters loudly note that their dad would be more equipped to handle the situation. What a great metaphor for what it feels like to be a parent: You spend tons of time trying to figure out which alarm is beeping, and in the end, you just wind up causing more noise while being told that the other parent is better than you.
Every scene keeps piling on the gender biases until they feel totally crushing, which, hi, by the way, is how it often feels to be a woman. Sam can’t even steal a few quick minutes for a nap in her minivan without a homeless woman reminding her that, in addition to being a good mother, she also needs to make sure she remains a sexual being. “You gotta sometimes be a lady,” the woman says, “with a man putting his full weight on you, making you feel good.” She means well, this woman. But given that her three supposedly wonderful children seemingly abandoned her, she’s also a walking cautionary tale. “They take everything,” the woman says of her kids, after accepting a pair of shoes and a coat from Sam. “Then you’re like me, hoping you find some nice lady to give you a jacket.”
Women helping other women is also an omnipresent theme in this episode, particularly in the primary story line in which Sam skates extremely close to being cast as the lead in a high-profile network comedy. Jen (Deborah S. Craig), who represents show creators Danny and Zach (Danny Pudi and Zach Woods), and Sam’s manager Tressa (Rebecca Metz) both play key but non-influential roles in the long negotiation that ultimately results in Sam being dumped for Rachel McAdams. (Just as in the audition scene that featured Julie Bowen, it’s the blonde who wins the part.) Through every step of that process, it’s clear how jaded both women have become about seeing an older actress like Sam actually get such a big role. Neither of them thinks it’s actually going to happen — and of course, it doesn’t.
And so Tressa does the Hollywood equivalent of giving Sam a jacket: She doesn’t tell her any of the details, knowing she should wait until it’s really a done deal so she doesn’t crush her spirits. (Even the smallest bits and pieces of the Tressa scenes are great, including the fact that we see her meeting with an actress who could pass for a younger version of Sam.)
Jen’s situation is a bit more complicated, as illustrated by her deceptively straightforward meeting with the network executives.
“Sam Fox is funny and that’s our bottom line,” Jen tells Charles, the head of the unnamed TV behemoth poised to green-light Danny and Zach’s new show. “You’ve got cute all over the network and there’s cute in the show. But Sam Fox is like real people.”
On one hand, just as Tressa did, this is an example of a woman protecting another woman. It’s also a sharp portrait of what it looks like when a woman is hung out to dry by her male colleagues in a staff meeting. Danny and Zach are extremely enthusiastic about Sam, yet in the meeting with top brass, all the talking on Sam’s behalf falls to Jen.
There’s a third element at work here, too: the fact that one woman feels compelled to preemptively undercut another’s appearance because she’s been trained to believe that’s the best way to persuade a powerful man. Basically what Jen is saying to Charles is this: Before you point out that Sam is kind of old and not pretty, I’ll acknowledge it first, then note that those qualities actually make her relatable to many old, unattractive TV viewers! There’s something particularly cutting about Jen’s choice of words: Sam Fox is “like” real people, as opposed to an actual person.
Right away, Jen knows she’s hurt her credibility with Charles and also has a feeling that, even though he said he would cast Sam, he probably won’t. Which he doesn’t. So Jen loses status points, and all she gets in return from her boys is an accusation, via Zach, that she’s a “gender traitor.” Being a woman: It really is the best.
Despite all of this, the episode closes on an optimistic note via a grand feminist finale, set against a rally that Sam attends with Frankie.
“We’re not misandrists but the patriarchy must be stopped,” announces one of the speakers, while Frankie, wearing a pink sticker that says “Stop the Hate and War on Women’s Bodies,” informs her mom that, “Woman is the n—– of the world,” marking the second week in a row that the show has invoked the N-word in an attempt to highlight the specter of casual white racism.
The preteen is quoting a controversial feminist anthem that, like “Mother,” the Better Things theme, was recorded by John Lennon, but Sam isn’t sure her daughter understands what she’s saying or the context of those words.
Sam admonishes Frankie for using such an ugly word and for implying that women’s struggles are inherently the same as those faced by African-Americans. She also makes a point of noting that Lennon’s song was inspired by a passage from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, which specifically refers to the oppression of black women. Frankie, perhaps more enlightened than she sometimes appears, seems to know all this and get it. To the credit of the writing and the performances by Adlon and Hannah Alligood, who I love more with each passing episode, the entire conversation flows with a natural lightness that makes it sound authentic but also doesn’t undermine the subtext of it, either. That’s an awfully tough thing to do, given how they touch on weighty subjects like intersectionality and cultural appropriation. The broader point is made, in this moment and in the title of this episode: Women are definitely the something of the something.
Instead of leaving us with an image of Sam bemoaning that fact, the episode ends with a frame filled practically from corner to corner with the color pink, as Sam, Frankie, and a bunch of pink T-shirted feminist ralliers dance side by side. They all look like real people, the kind of nice ladies willing to give their jackets to other women if the need arises. Inevitably, it will.