There’s a thread that directly connects the season two finale of Better Things to the season three premiere. An evolution for Max (Mikey Madison) that started with her high school graduation, her heartbreak at being let down (again) by her father, and the way Sam (Pamela Adlon) laser-focused her on getting through that moment and then charmed her (and the audience) with a beautiful family dance number/graduation gift. But while the finale was, to a certain extent, focused on Max, the premiere is more about Sam transitioning to a new phase in her life after dropping her oldest off at college in Chicago. Which creates an interesting layer on an already interesting show.
The process of settling into new roles within the parent/child dynamic when we become grown and both sides get confused — never really knowing when to offer or ask for help, to push away, to pull back — is an insanely difficult move that invites frustration and resentment. Even when there’s already a seemingly cool foundation of mutual respect (as there is on the show between Sam and Max) it’s hard to not walk away with a kind of irreversible deformity in the relationship. And it can break bad at any point once the music starts to play and everybody tries to find that new chair.
Look at Sam and her mother, Phil (Celia Imrie). There’s so much love there, but also so much emotional constipation, especially with Phil’s slowly fading mental faculties. Sam has to think of her mother as if she’s another child to shadow and care for, a role reversal that Better Things handles so well.
Adlon, the show’s co-creator, showrunner, director, and often writer/co-writer, creates a space for Imrie to portray a woman stubbornly clinging to her independence and place at the top of the parent-child hierarchy (even if it’s becoming obvious that that’s not the case). She also creates a space for her own character, Sam, to observe, respect, and occasionally fight to preserve that independence while taking on an awful weight of worry about if she’s making the right decision. That’s sort of Sam’s MO with everyone under her wing, including Max during these first two seasons of the show — she doesn’t throw herself in front of every mistake, blocking her kids from the pain. She has the foresight to let them get tempered by life’s fire a little bit. But it’ll be interesting to see how that attitude matures for Sam with Max as she takes the wheel in her life and that natural role progression between mother and daughter settles.
Speaking of taking the wheel, it has to be noted that, for reasons obvious and not in need of re-hashing for the umpteenth time, Louis C.K. is no longer a part of the writer’s room on this show. But season three of Better Things isn’t a triumph over a missing piece, it’s a reminder that Adlon was always the main engine of the thing.