Sometimes it’s hard to tell when people are being serious and when they’re just messing with you.
This is true in life and it is true in this week’s Better Things, a Halloween-themed episode that opens with a hilarious sight gag — Sam dashing away in horror after stumbling upon her mother gardening naked — and ends with a moment of poignancy. “Scary Fun” isn’t about treats so much as tricks, which almost makes it feel like an April Fool’s Day episode that arrived six months early. No, wait: It also might be a Mother’s Day episode.
In the first few minutes, when Max’s boyfriend Harvey is hanging out at the house, Sam corrals him into the basement as if she’s about to take a hostage. “I don’t mean to scare you,” she tells him, which is usually a sign that someone is about to be terrifying. Then she sits him down in the laundry room and lectures him about what he can and can’t do with regard to his relationship with Max. “That,” Sam says, gesturing toward the poor kid’s penis, “cannot go anywhere near my daughter.”
“You can’t just point at a 15-year-old boy’s dick!” Tressa tells her immediately afterward. This is true. You really can’t, and as it’s happening, you expect Sam to announce to Harvey that she’s just kidding. But she isn’t. The idea that Max might have a boyfriend is serious business.
That situation sets the viewer up to believe just about anything from there on out, which is why the increasingly elaborate back-and-forth pranking between Sam, Frankie, and Phil is so effective. What starts as a simple attempt to startle each other escalates in ways that catch Sam (and us) completely off guard.
When Frankie’s art teacher Treiste (Hana Mae Lee) tells Sam that Frankie invited her to move in and become the girl’s permanent tutor, it seems like a joke. It isn’t until a couple of scenes later that Frankie confesses that this was all part of an attempt to fake out her mom. And when Sam and Frankie go over to Phil’s to drop off some misdelivered packages, for a minute, it really seems like Phil actually might have had a heart attack and died.
Nope! Just playing dead! “I’m staying sharp, that’s all, just staying sharp,” says Phil, in between cackles. I think she’s doing more than that, actually. Freaking out her often rude and dismissive daughter may be Phil’s way of reasserting dominance in their relationship. I also wonder if it’s a way for her to verify whether Sam actually would be distraught if she did suddenly die. In relationships between mothers and daughters, even a juvenile attempt to fake a death contains layers and layers of meaning that will have to be sorted out via months and months of therapy.
As I implied before, that’s what this episode is really about: the way we mistreat our mothers and the fact that even the kindest, most patient person is usually hiding a hostile side somewhere.
“Mom, no offense, but you’re kind of mean to Gran,” Duke tells Sam.
“Oh, honey, you’re going to be mean to me, too,” Sam says, as if this is a comfort. “Your sisters already are. In fact, I need you to be mean to me when I’m old so I don’t feel so bad about being mean to Gran now.”
Duke asks if Gran was mean to her mother, making a lack of consideration for the women who raised you sound like a family tradition that’s passed down like some heirloom of daughterly bitterness. Sam says no, but in the next scene, after Frankie first frightens Sam with that coat and hat hanging in the foyer, Phil says Frankie shouldn’t do things like that because someone might sue. Mom’s not going to sue me, Frankie replies. “I sued my mother,” Phil says under her breath, suggesting that everything between Gran and Great-Gran was hardly all roses and peaches.
We also learn that sweet little Duke isn’t as innocent as she might seem, either. After she apologizes profusely to her mother for accidentally letting the word “shit” slip out of her mouth, a moment that Sam treats like a baby’s first step, it becomes clear that Duke regularly curses like a sailor and throws dark shade at her sisters. Perhaps the most elaborate prank of all is the wide-eyed wittle girl act Duke’s been pulling on her mother for all these years. (Based on her behavior in this episode, it seems fair to assume that when Sam is asleep at night, Duke sneaks out of the house, hits the bars, plays poker, drinks whiskey, and tells filthy jokes that all have the S-word in them. Also, in her infant years, I’m pretty sure she was secret besties with this guy.)
In the end, the episode circles back to where it began. Max, wearing angel wings while in her own personal hell, gets dumped and humiliated by Harvey. As she cries, it’s natural to wonder: Is Sam about to get punked again? But she takes her daughter’s pain at face value. Because Max almost having a boyfriend and then not having a boyfriend is serious business.
“I’ve been a total bitch lately,” Max says during a brief break from bawling her eyes out.
“That’s okay,” Sam says. “I can take it. That I can do for you.” Taking abuse from a daughter and still loving her anyway — it really is a family tradition. When everyone decides to skip trick-or-treating so they can stay home with Max and watch scary movies, it cements the notion that getting spooked or doing the spooking is a weirdly soothing family tradition, too.
“Ha! I scared the shit out of you!” That’s just the way these women tell each other, “I love you.”