Sam And Frankie Turn A Celebration Into An Ugly Fight On ‘Better Things’

11.02.17 3 weeks ago 6 Comments

FX

A quick review of tonight’s Better Things coming up just as soon as I remember the end of The Flintstones

One of the fundamental truths of Better Things is that Sam has had to raise the girls on her own, because Xander’s been gone for years, and was useless when he was still around. For the most part, this has been a good thing for her, as it’s helped her recognize and focus on what she cares about most, and spared the girls years of watching Mommy and Daddy fight because Daddy’s a loser. But she’s never entirely free of Xander, even when he’s not present, as deftly illustrated throughout “Arnold Hall.”

It’s an episode in which he doesn’t appear, but the first main vignette involves his arrogant symphony conductor father, the eponymous Arnold Hall (played by Croatian actor Rade Serbedzija) asking her to continue supporting Xander after the legal agreement lapses, and the second involves Frankie(*) being so relentlessly awful to Sam that the idea of letting Xander move into her garage (since, unlike her actress friend who still supports her shiftless ex, she doesn’t have a basement) suddenly seems less terrible. (Or maybe it’s just more inevitable.)

(*) Pamela Adlon has said that Frankie’s fluctuating gender identity is based on things that both she and one of her own daughters went through over the years, which is why Max’s “Frankie’s a boy” line from the season finale hasn’t been the final word on this question. Everybody still refers to Frankie as a girl, and she wears a dress and makeup to the bar mitzvah, even though (like her mom) she could have easily gone with a jacket and tie.

Like most Better Things outings, it’s an episode built on the small, underplayed details, like how impressed Sam is with the symphony hall even though she hates having to deal with Arnold — whose parenting philosophy very clearly made Xander the man he is today — or how Sam and Frankie are so conditioned to go to war with each other that Frankie doesn’t even flinch when Sam starts spilling food and water on her dress as retaliation for the non-stop stream of insults. For that matter, just when it seemed like the bar mitzvah scene was going to be just another opportunity for the show and its characters to kiss up to Sam, we got that brief exchange between Sunny and her sister establishing that the two of them have a very complicated relationship that has nothing to do with Sam. Louie was always great at establishing the inner lives of guest characters so that they didn’t just exist as props in Louie’s story, and Adlon and CK have done a fine job of continuing the tradition here, in a way that can make certain scenes feel like we’re eavesdropping on real life in that Robert Altman way.

It’s also one of the most beautifully shot episodes of the series, from the way Arnold looms above Sam to how Sam and Frankie move and work in unison in dealing with the garbage cans, even after they’ve spent hours tearing each other to pieces at the bar mitzvah. It’s a fakeout setting up The Flintstones punchline, but the two move so fluidly as extensions of one another, and the show has done so many other stories where mother-daughter rage turns into laughter or tears within seconds, that it seems entirely plausible they’ve put the cupcake stains and oral sex innuendo behind them already.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@uproxx.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His next book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.

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