A review of “No Limit,” this week’s Better Things, coming up just as soon as my name is also Olivier…
“No Limit” is bookended by a pair of doctor visits for Sam. The first is mostly a comedy sketch, as Sam makes things deeply uncomfortable with her gynecologist by joking that there’s only a thin layer of latex separating a clinical exam from a sex act. The second is more serious, though it generates some laughs from the blunt profanity of Dr. Babu (Usman Ally). Sam has had a lot on her plate so far this season: Max dropping out of school, the troubled Monsters in the Moonlight production, Phil growing more erratic, the sex dreams about Xander, etc. By the time she goes to Dr. Babu, she’s also injured herself in a crash at the go-kart track and drunk herself into a nasty hangover at a friend’s birthday party. She’s looking for a physical treatment for her pains, but Babu is perceptive enough to realize that our heroine just can’t cope with all this stress, no matter how much she’s carried in the past. As she lists all the things on her plate, she breaks down crying, “I just can’t!” Unlike what the title suggests, Sam does have a limit, and she’s reached it.
This is as vulnerable as we have seen Sam Fox. Through two and a half seasons of Better Things, she has been defined by her resilience. No matter what life — and her frequently terrible daughters — throws at her, she manages to shrug it off and move on to the next thing. We even see a great example of her capacity to shift the mood with the delightful scene where the girls are all mad at each other at the end of their trip to the go-kart track. Exasperated, Sam chooses to cut this particular maternal Gordian knot by giving the three of them license to say the worst possible things to each other, but only for one minute. The creative parenting works, as soon all four of them are in stitches over the tidal wave of profanity that flows out of Duke‘s mouth. But Sam’s also not a superhuman, and Babu is able to prod her into realizing she needs to see a therapist to deal with all the stress she can’t as easily dismiss.
It’s also striking that her breakdown comes after the birthday party sequence, where we see her catching up with old friends (played by a bevy of familiar faces, including Judy Reyes, Cree Summer, Monica Horan, Jen Richards and Rose Abdoo). They drink, they ogle the hot waiter and swap stories about the difficulties in their respective lives. Like the house party episode with Sharon Stone a few weeks back, it’s a nice acknowledgment that while the series is shown through Sam’s eyes, it’s not so tunnel visioned that it can’t see that other people have plenty of problems of their own.
This has always been a show about a woman trying to do everything (parenting, work, friendship, sometimes dating) on her own. But we’re also seeing Sam be pushed to her limits in a season where Pamela Adlon has had to run the show by herself due to the unfortunate actions of her former partner. Whether that’s something she and the new writing staff are intentionally working through, whether it’s more subconscious, or just a coincidence, it adds even more weight to what’s already a very emotionally complex series.
Previously: Sexual Healing