“He lies right at you / You know you hate this game / He slaps you once in a while and you live and love in pain / She cries alone at night too often / He smokes and drinks and don’t come home at all / Only women bleed / Only women bleed.”
The final moments of Better Things season one come in the form of a montage, set to Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed,” that captures the women of this show in moments both private and shared. The fact that this ‘70s ballad is performed by a male rocker with a traditionally female first name is relevant to the themes of this episode (I’ll discuss Frankie’s gender situation momentarily) and a clever nod to all the ladies on this show with masculine monikers. Women bleed and they suffer, this wonderful TV show tells us. But the ways they define themselves are as boundless as the open road that Sam navigates while her three daughters sing in solidarity to a song that’s four decades old.
The first time I watched the episode’s wonderfully shot and edited closing sequence, I found it poignant, especially those last couple of seconds when Sam embraces Frankie and locks fingers with Duke. But watching it again, in my depressed post-election haze, it made my heart want to burst out of my chest, put on a pantsuit, and start campaigning for Congress in 2018. The way those moments illustrate the connective tissue between multiple generations of females, then signs off with that dedication to creator Pamela Adlon’s daughters, speaks so beautifully to the bond that women share. I doubt that Adlon, who directed this episode and co-wrote it with Louis C.K., was thinking about politics when she filmed and crafted this finale. But that ending immediately made me think of Hillary Clinton’s political slogan. Women: Look how strong we can be when we’re together. Or at least when we’re trying to hold each other’s hands.
The big story in “Only Women Bleed,” as alluded to earlier, involves Frankie, who gets in trouble at school for using the boys’ bathroom. After an annoyed Sam picks her up following a meeting with the principal, Frankie explains to her mom that she wasn’t using the other restroom because she identifies as male. Frankie acknowledges that other students are saying this about her, but denies that it’s true before her mom can even follow that line of inquiry. No, Frankie explains, the problem is that girls in middle school are “disgusting,” and, to prove her point, she says that one girl stuck her hand up her own “p—-” and wiped it on another girl’s face. Sam’s response to this information is really the only appropriate one: “Whuuuuuuut?” But she immediately gets why Frankie prefers to have an alternative toilet option. Or she thinks she does.
Later in the episode, when Max brings up Frankie’s insistence on using the boys’ room, Sam repeats what she heard about this from her middle daughter. “She’s just weirded-out by the middle-school girls,” Sam says. “She’ll get over it.” But Max looks at her mother like she’s the most naïve maternal figure on planet Earth. “Mom,” she says. “Frankie’s a boy.” A few seconds later, while sitting beneath a painting of what appears to be a girl tying the laces of a sneaker, it seems to dawn on Sam that Max is right.
When Adlon recently appeared on the Vulture TV podcast, my fellow host Gazelle Emami and I asked her about this story line. Adlon told us she kept things deliberately vague about whether Frankie really identifies as male or female, although she did say Frankie’s orientation will be addressed again when the show returns next year for season two. When I asked if Frankie was telling the truth, lying, or in denial when she told her mom that she didn’t want to be a boy, Adlon said she actually was not sure.
Keeping all of this unclear works pretty effectively, partly because the scene between Frankie and Sam enables the subsequent moment between Sam and Max to land with more of a punch. It also underlines the idea that Frankie herself may still be working all of this out. For many people, gender identity and sexuality is amorphous and the way this story line plays out mirrors that feeling. It also made me contemplate how willing I was to take Frankie at face value. She sounded so convincing when she told her mother that the bathroom stuff had nothing to do with wanting to be a boy that I completely believed her, then I felt just as naïve as Sam did when Max corrected her.
As close as mothers and daughters can be, there will always be secrets between them and distances that can’t be bridged. The very beginning of this episode, when Sam appears to be all set to take a giddy Phil away for a mother-daughter weekend, touches on that idea, too. The two of them are barely out of the driveway when Sam calls the whole thing off, realizing that spending a full weekend in a Santa Barbara hotel with her mother will drive her completely crazy. After Sam cancels, Phil acts like it’s no big deal. But the hurt on Celia Imrie’s face is evident, both in that scene and later, when Phil appears in the “Only Women Bleed” montage. “I suck as a daughter, suck as a mom,” Sam mumbles to herself after booting her mother out of the car. Sam doesn’t suck, but she’s flawed. And in that particular scene, it shows.
After a season’s worth of moments like that one, Better Things has shown us how hard it is to be a mother or a daughter — and especially how hard it is to be both at the same time. Even better, it’s done so with an exquisite and incredibly sharp eye for details. (One of my favorites in this episode: The fact that Frankie can do such a dead-on impression of Stewie from Family Guy, a hint that perhaps she’ll grow up to be a voice actor just like her mother.) It’s also proven that the normal stuff parents do to get through each day can be interesting and even cinematic.
That much comes through in the episode’s other stand-out sequence: a long, occasionally broken take of Sam racing through the house on a school morning, dealing with arguments between and irrational requests from her daughters (“Mom, I need a dress from the 1940s”), sexts from her still mysterious lover, lunch-making, conversations with the people who help around the house, and unexpected visits from friends, all while Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” pulses like a rapid heartbeat. Sam’s morning may not look exactly like every mom’s morning. But the chaos and constant movement of it are very recognizable. That’s what I have valued most about this show. It makes me, and other working women raising children, feel recognized.
“I don’t know how you do it,” Macy says to Sam at one point, echoing a refrain so often heard (or coveted) by mothers that Allison Pearson wrote a novel with that very title.
“Even when I do my best,” Sam responds, “It ain’t never enough.” That’s a phrase that also resonates with mothers and women, especially at the end of this heartbreaker of a week.
So as this season and this election week come to a close, here’s to Better Things: both this gem of a series and the idea that, for all of us women who bleed, there may be something better for us in a future that’s less distant than it feels at the moment.