[Warning: The following contains spoilers for Season 4 of Better Things. Read at your own risk!]
The characters on Better Things love to cook. Any fan of Pamela Adlon's bittersweet, semi-autobiographical series will know that: Throughout the FX show's four seasons, countless scenes have found Sam, the show's heroine, played by Adlon, in the kitchen, whipping up an elaborate meal for her three daughters; for her friends; for her flighty British mom, Phil (Celia Imrie); for anyone happening to pass through her home. Sometimes we don't know who Sam's cooking for. Sometimes she's simply washing vegetables and cracking eggs and shaking her wrist when her chronic hand pain gets to be too much, and the scene moves on unacknowledged.
In one Season 4 episode, Sam finds her middle child, Frankie (Hannah Alligood), making carbonara in the middle of the night. In another, her youngest, Duke (Olivia Edward), helps Sam prepare bruschetta. Food has historically stood as a symbol of togetherness, a way of caring for others, a rare thing people can agree on, and it's become one of the best examples of what Better Things excels at -- casual, comforting displays of familial domesticity. That's part of what's made the show feel like a warm hug during a time when, well, we're not really supposed to be hugging anyone. And it's one of the many things about the series that make it peak "call your mom" TV, which has become a hallmark of the show.
There's something about the way Better Things celebrates life and the joy of spending it with people you care about, even in its most unpleasant moments, that has felt especially heartwarming lately. When Sam and Frankie are experiencing a tide turning in their relationship because Sam is afraid Frankie is growing up too fast and Frankie thinks 15 is old enough to be independent, Sam can still watch her cook with pride, knowing it's a pastime she's passed on to her daughter.
It's hard not to see shades of my mom and all the moms I've ever known -- from grandmas to aunts to friends' moms to everyone in between -- in Sam Fox. She's an invariably challenging woman: brash and loud and willing to throw her own mother out of a car in the pouring rain. She's plagued by a long-festering bitterness toward her ex-husband that she's only just starting to confront. She says things she doesn't mean, and her arguments with her kids can get vicious, like in Season 4's fourth episode, which features an instantly legendary blowout between Sam and her eldest daughter, Max (Mikey Madison).
"You're a disaster, Mom," Max sneers. "And you don't always have to be so hard. Just because you don't know what it's like to be a woman anymore."
After a beat, a visibly stunned Sam shoots back, "You c--t. You're a c--t, Max."
They fire the slur back and forth at each other for a few furious seconds. Sam is furious about Max's refusal to help her around the house; Max feels misunderstood and attacked. When the tension finally breaks, they dissolve into hysterical, disbelieving laughter, apologize, and cling to each other.
"I don't want you to move out," Sam says. "So you shouldn't. But please move out soon. But don't."
"Oh, Jesus," Max says. "I just realized you're gonna have to go through this three times."
It's the moment after Max delivers that line that stuck with me the most, when she lets Sam collapse against her, an argument behind them and a newfound understanding in its place. Because that's how many families fight: It's cutthroat until it's not, and then you move on, and you keep loving each other anyway. Season 4 was about, among other things, forgiveness, and the way people who are tied together through blood or children or friendship forgive each other. It told viewers that there's no time like the present to let the petty things go.
Following the delightfully bizarre, sweet, and chaotic happenings of the Foxes (along with their extended gang of supporting players, like Diedrich Bader's Rich and Cree Summer's Lenny) has been a soothing balm in an increasingly uncertain time. At its core, the show is an ode to the love between a group of intensely strange women. Take the episode where Sam tackles Phil to the ground to get her to spit in a tube for an ancestry test, or the one where Sam, accidentally high on medicinal weed, follows Max to the bathroom to sit on top of her while she pees. Or maybe even the one where they adopt a chinchilla and a snake to make up for the death of Duke's pet mouse, named Mandy Patinkin. They call each other "bro," just because.
These characters have rituals and traditions that, years in, still haven't been explained, like the statue at the top of the stairs that all four Fox women put their hands on every time they walk by it. There are incidents referenced in passing that we, the audience, will never know anything about, like the time Sam apparently jumped off a boat to save Frankie. The show has a knack for nailing the lived-in intimacy of family, the way some things can just go unsaid thanks to the specific secret language spoken only with the people who, for better or worse, know you best, and vice versa -- the kind of language that could sound incomprehensible to anyone outside your bubble. The one you ache for when you spend time away from it.
In the Season 4 finale a season-long subplot comes to a close, which is significant, as Better Things is not typically a show that bothers with traditionally linear stories. In earlier episodes, Sam encounters Jessica (Jessica Barden), a young, spritely actress who desperately wants to work with her, resulting in Jessica airing a mini-documentary made by Sam on her talk show. The finale opens on the documentary, with a group of women, their identities disguised, talking about their first periods, about romance, about physical appearance.
They continue to appear throughout the episode until the lights come up and Sam takes their place, which is also when the camera pulls out to reveal that, in the present, she's gathered the girls and Rich in her living room to watch her project as it airs. The Sam in real life sees her daughters watching the Sam on TV as she speaks frankly about her menopause, about her body and desirability, about what happens when women have the audacity to age. About what it's like being a woman with daughters, whom she's now forced to witness be desired the way she once was. "Women are afraid to talk to each other," the Sam on TV says. "Women should be brothers to each other." Her kids are floored.
"Damn, Mom," Max says. "You have balls."
"Eggs," Duke corrects. "She's got eggs."
Suddenly, something becomes abundantly clear: Sam's daughters now appreciate their mom, and their own womanhood, in a new way. The Fox women smile at each other fondly, recognizing the storms weathered to get them to that exact place at that exact time. It's a moment that practically demands you call your own mother to talk to her about her own weathered storms, or to apologize for your own c--t moments, or to forgive her for fighting with you because she was afraid you were pulling away from her, or maybe just to tell her how grateful you are for the weird, imperfect life she gave you. And then maybe watch Better Things with her. That's what Sam Fox would want you to do.
Better Things is available to stream on Hulu.