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'If that sounds cheesy, I don't give a sh--'
[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the series finale of Better Things, "We Are Not Alone." Read at your own risk!]
The final season of Better Things began and ended with a salute to Monty Python. The British comedy troupe's quirky astronomy lesson, "Galaxy Song," played over its opening scene, and its final sequence saw all of its characters breaking the fourth wall for the first time in the show's history to sing the cheery funeral banger "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" directly to the audience. It's the kind of ending that feels appropriate for a series that for five seasons has been about celebrating the mundanity of everyday existence, the small pleasures, and frustrations, that make us who we are.
The ending is a joyful spectacle that brings back all the major and minor players from the season, including Danny Trejo, Ron Cephas Jones, and Lennon Parham's cranky receptionist, to participate in this one last celebration of the little world Better Things has carved out. Mikey Madison's Max and Celia Imrie's Phil both sign off from England, each having kicked off their own new beginnings, while Duke (Olivia Edward), Frankie (Hannah Riley), and Rich (Diedrich Bader) say goodbye from the party after Sunny (Alysia Reiner) and Jeff's (Greg Cromer) second wedding. But Sam (Pamela Adlon) isn't with any of them, a slight departure for an episode that was all about togetherness in its many forms. Instead, she's alone in her car, listening to the voice of paranormal broadcaster Art Bell on the radio as he wonders if we're alone in the universe. As shooting stars fly over her head, she winks into the camera and drives off into the night. Adlon, the show's creator and director, doesn't allow us to see where her heroine is headed, pulling the camera out and up into a dreamy wide shot of the expansive road ahead of Sam.
Adlon, who's also been unpacking the making of the season on her podcast, Better Things with Pamela Adlon, caught up with TV Guide over Zoom to discuss crafting the otherworldly series finale, how Duke's music video came together, and the true story from her childhood that was woven throughout the season.
I'd love to talk about that last sequence, with everyone singing and breaking the fourth wall. How did that come together?
Pamela Adlon: I knew that I wanted to bookend this season with the "Galaxy Song" and "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life." Because in the "Galaxy Song," [Eric Idle] starts singing, "Whenever life gets you down, Mrs. Brown, or things seem hard or tough," which is what we've just been through. [In the final scene,] Sam is driving off, and it's this whole revolutionary act that this woman is alone and happy. But she's not alone, she loves what she has, she's grateful. She's looking up at the stars, and you hear Art Bell on the radio saying, "Are we alone in the universe?" All the things that for me were significant, and for the writers this season that we all talked about that a lot of people may not catch, and it's fine.
It was the simple act of love, of people saying, "I love you." Then watching young Sam [Aster Laine] with her ghost dad, and seeing Max in England, and seeing Celia and Clive Russell. I mean, I'm telling you, that was not easy to cut together that way. That's Annie Eifrig, my editor. She deserves a f---ing Nobel Peace Prize. I really wanted it to be this feeling of love for the super fans of the show. It's like a goodie bag. Thanks for being with us for five seasons. I felt like… is the wink going to be too much? Sam winking? I didn't think so, because we were still in the pocket of the show, and it's just a way that we all give a hug to everybody. And if that sounds cheesy, I don't give a sh--.
Better Things has never been a show about big events, or big plot points. It really is a series of moments. Was it difficult for you to decide what moment to end it all on?
Adlon: I wanted the village to be together at the end. That was something that was big to me. If you go back and you look at this table and how my art department and my food department laid out all the food that's on the table — it's a long table because it's the Last Supper. It was later in the writers room that we realized Max and Phil are going to stay in England. It's so exciting, because Max is looking at her cousin, and she's like, "I don't want to go back there. I want to go forward." She made this choice for herself this season, for her future and her life and her health. Who even knew that was going to be a f---ing thing, you know? Them being there and doing their sign-offs from England, and Max is the only one who's on her own, like Sam. All of that was very, very mapped out.
It was really hard, because they pulled the plug on me. We didn't have time. Sadly, I could tell you that we all said goodbye — not a f---ing chance. We didn't have enough earwigs, and people were tired, and I didn't even get through it. I wasn't able to get all the bits and pieces that I wanted. They shut the lights off on the stage. It was like, "Okay, walk away now." Certain people were wrapped, and I couldn't give everybody the send off that I wanted in terms of the people in my cast. My dearest hope is that they're going to be able to watch this and see that they were part of this, because the way it turned out is just so beautiful.
You know what people don't even remember, or are not even bringing up, is the "Woke Up Looking" video at the beginning of the finale.
Do you want to talk about that? Was that song written for that scene?
Adlon: So, my friend Gideon Irving, and his two friends Raky [Sastri] and Ewen [Wright], they made that video, they made that song. If you look it up on YouTube, it's called "Woke Up Looking." I got wind of this a couple years ago, and then I somehow became friends with Gideon. I was like, "This is f---ing genius. I can't believe how hard this is." My oldest daughter is Gideon, and his name's Gideon. I thought it was just the most brilliant thing, and I knew going into this season that I wanted to make that video. Then I was weaving it in that Duke just loses it. She's thirteen, and it f---ing sucks ass to be thirteen. Her friend is building her up, and her friend's like, "I know what I am, I'm good with me. You need to be good with you, I want that for you." She keeps writing, and Sam's like, "Oh, you're writing?" Then the final thing is that Duke wrote this beautiful song.
All season, I kept thinking of something you said the last time we spoke, which was right before the Season 4 finale. You said that you wanted people to walk away from that season knowing that it's OK to be alone, which I think is even truer of Season 5. Was your intention to expand on that theme of being willfully on your own?
Adlon: Oh, yeah. I doubled down on that this season. One of the themes was secrets from Sam, everybody's keeping secrets from Sam. Another one was finding your roots, another one is ephemera. Birth and death, and all of these things. By the end, when we figured out that we were going to have Sunny and Jeff get married — after the shutdown, people started really appreciating what they had, and so it wasn't just them getting married. They've been through all of this. Like when Duke says to Rich in Season 4, "You're going to meet somebody, and he's going to be better for you because you're going to be better then, too." Then Rich is back with Alan. And then when Caroline comes in, and she says, "You're going to be better." Everybody gets boo'd up at the end, even Phil. But Sam does her one phone call, and she calls her mom. And her mom says, "You can't be alone, you need somebody." And Sam realizes, you watch all her wheels turn, and she goes, "No, actually, I don't. I don't want that. I'm good." And that's such a gift. You know, people are so scared of single women. Terrified!
I want to talk about that last FaceTime conversation between Sam and Phil a little bit more — I know you went to England to film all of Celia's scenes this season, so I'm wondering if when you shot that call, someone else was reading her lines to you?
Adlon: Yeah, we hadn't shot her side of it yet. We were here from July through October, and then we went to the UK to do all of Celia's scenes. That was Tiffany [Elle], the dialogue coach. She was reading with me.
I ask because there was so much warmth in both of your performances that it really felt like you were speaking right to each other. What was important to you about showing Sam calling her mom?
Adlon: She's just sitting outside, she's looking back at her house and listening to the village. That's her whole family. Then it's another timezone, and she thinks she's going to get Phil, and Phil is too busy to talk to her, which is so great. The nature of the show is that it seems that Sam is so burdened with her kids and her mom, and she chooses them over and over.
There was a refrain I kept noticing through the season, where every time Sam got annoyed with Phil she said, "I have arms because of you," and she says it again when she's talking to Caroline in the finale. Where did that sentiment come from? Is it something you remind yourself of in your own life? It seems so specific.
Adlon: So, this is so interesting, because it's in the show, but you've got to really pay attention, because it's explained in [Episode 9] "England." When Sam falls down the stairs, and Phil helps her into the bed, and she pulls her t-shirt off, and she says, "You were a runty little child, and I was nauseated, and the doctors were giving out thalidomide like candy, but I refused to take it." And Sam says, "I have arms because of you." That's because I grew up in New York in the '60s, and a lot of moms who had morning sickness took thalidomide, and the kids were born with a birth defect. So literally, I'd be in the park and kids would have hands growing out of their shoulders. My mother was so sick with my older brother for all nine months, and she never took any medication or drugs, and she was as sick with me. I so easily could have been like one of those kids, and I realized this as an adult.
You've been doing press for the final season for a while now. How has it felt for you, revisiting it over and over like this?
Adlon: I like to hone my answers to each person individually. A personal pizza, if you will. I love to talk about it, I love to pick through it in my head, it's fun for me to reflect on it. That's what it was like making the season. It was a time of great reflection — for it to be the last season, and also because of the time that we came out of. There were certain things that I wanted to hit, and I wanted there to be wins for the characters, and I wanted people to have a great amount of satisfaction, and also keep it in the Better Things wheelhouse. Not wrap everything up in a bow, but just to keep it in a way that people walk away feeling changed and inspired.
Does anything in particular stand out in your memory from your experience of making the show?
Adlon: I think about the changes from the first seasons. I started the show seven years ago, and my kids were all really young, and now two of them don't live at home anymore. There have been so many significant changes. I just feel very grateful and privileged to have been able to make the show that I wanted to make and that it means so much to so many people.
Where do you imagine Sam's driving to the last time we see her? Do you have a destination in mind?
Adlon: I would never. That's up to you guys. She's going to the moon!
Better Things Season 5 is now streaming on Hulu.