Better Things is back. I reviewed Season Three earlier in the week, and I have a review of “Chicago,” the season premiere, coming up just as soon as I get you some more ramen and Plan B pills…
“If I told you what my day was like in the first place…” -Sam
Early in “Chicago,” we see Sam go through a ritual that will be familiar to anyone old enough to put a kid through college, or just observant enough to notice what their parents were doing when they first arrived at college. While Max is rushing to check out her freshman dorm room, it’s left to Sam to guard and then carry in the small mountain of clothes, furniture and other supplies her daughter will need on this new adventure. Sam is a tiny woman — albeit not as tiny as she might like, as we see in the episode’s amusingly self-lacerating teaser — shouldering a big load. It would seem deeply symbolic, except that everything on Better Things in general, and “Chicago” in particular, is about the burden Sam has to carry as a mother (and as a mature caretaker of her increasingly erratic mother Phil).
“Chicago” spends only part of its running time in the eponymous city. Those sequences pull off that thing Better Things has always done so well: invest the recognizably mundane with enough specificity and emotion to feel like art rather than fly-on-the-wall docudrama. Sam and Max’s early time in the Windy City is presented mainly through Max’s black-and-white photos, which look gorgeous and neatly convey that Max shares some of her mother’s gifts. (The photos were taken by set production assistant Keith Pikus, who has a good eye.) Sam’s insistence on buying Max a military regiment’s worth of condoms speaks amusingly and directly to their relationship and Sam’s understanding of her daughter. For that matter, Sam is (relatively) okay with meeting Max’s “mostly” gay male roommate, and with getting a look at her daughter’s longtime fake ID, which claims she is Tracy Cromwell from Arlington, VA. These two have been through a lot of drama as Max was growing up. Sam’s job as her mother is far from done at this point, but a border has definitely been crossed, and Sam at least seems acutely aware of it when she demands her “big This Is Us milestone moment hug” before Max runs off to party with friends.
What follows is a series of air travel mortifications and nightmares. Sam has to endure a TSA patdown at the airport, where she confesses she’s essentially wearing a diaper to deal with her heavy late in life period flow. At the bar, she seems almost giddy at first when she gets carded (a nice counterpoint to Max smugly pointing out that she never gets carded anymore), then is embarrassed to learn it’s a state policy, and customers considerably older than her receive the same treatment. She seems to be making friends on the flight back to LA(*), but then the cabin goes on fire, forcing an emergency landing in St. Louis. Everyone survives, but Sam feels the possibility of death so acutely that she spots her late father Murray as a leisure suit-wearing apparition in the back of the plane.
(*) Last season, we saw a King of the Hill episode on in the background of a scene, but Pamela Adlon declined to say whether that meant that Sam was the voice of Bobby in the Better Things universe. The airplane scene may or may not provide us with an answer, as the fanboy passenger cites “Rooster in Ching of the Mill” as one of his favorite Sam Fox roles.
Murray links us to the Fox house, where Duke (who was established in Season Two’s amazing “White Rock” as being sensitive to the supernatural) can also see him, as she’s pulled the occult ritual of pouring a line of salt around her bed. But it’s Sam’s middle child who takes the episode home, and draws the important link between its many small vignettes. Frankie is her usual exasperating self, letting her friends have free rein of the house while she pouts over a homework assignment to read Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. Sam, emotionally and physically spent, tries to tell Frankie what she’s been through, between saying goodbye to Max and facing death in mid-air, but Frankie doesn’t want to hear it. Sam has been to Hell and back over the past 24 hours, and it matters not the least bit to the daughter in front of her. Sam gives everything she can to her kids (even when they very much don’t want whatever she’s offering), but one of the crosses any good parent bears is the cold fact that you will often matter less to your offspring than they matter to you.
Still, there’s a reward at the end, for Sam and for us, as she agrees to take turns reading the play aloud. Frankie’s demeanor immediately softens (she can be both the worst Fox kid and the best, often within moments of each other) as she recognizes in the description of the Younger family’s home echoes of the house her mother has built for her and her siblings. And sure enough, as Sam goes through this very detailed and weighty description of what the furnishings mean, the camera explores the rest of a house that Sam (really, Adlon and the production team) has so carefully decorated. Frankie doesn’t often pause to consider the incredible home, and life, that her mother has given her. Every now and then, though, the light bulb goes on and she sees both her mom and the paintings on the wall as more than just vaguely familiar backgrounds. Sam doesn’t get to tell Frankie about her terrible trip, but they share a moment, nonetheless. In this long, strange journey through life, often the best we can hope for are lovely moments of recognition like that. And few shows, past or present, capture those moments better than this one.
What did everybody else think?