Better Things and Silenced Women

Caroline Hagood
December 4, 2017
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The second season of Better Things recently came to a close and, although it did so memorably with a multi-daughter dance performance, I want to focus on the distinctive second-to-last episode, White Rock. I considered not writing on it because of everything that’s happening with the show’s co-creator, with the glorious Pamela Adlon, Louis C.K. Then I realized that writing on this episode that considers the silencing of women was more important than ever as we await the verdict on whether Adlon’s marvelous show will be silenced because of Louis’s multiple misdeeds against women.

Despite the obvious ickiness of letting a show Louis played a major role in continue, it seems sad that Adlon’s work should be erased, especially since Better Things often feels like the antidote to just the sort of thing Louis did. I’m thinking now of the episode where Sam’s best friend’s ex tries to kiss her and she says no to him about a thousand times while covering his mouth like he’s a bad dog.

How to process the fact that this show co-written by Louis (he and Adlon wrote the story for White Rock but he wrote the actual teleplay, for instance) deals so beautifully with the messiness and complexity of being a woman and a mother? Better Things feels very much like a woman’s world. When Sam (Adlon, who also stars, co-creates, co-produces, and co-writes the show) starts to date a guy she somewhat likes (although I saw the death of this tryst when he mopes for hours after she requests her own hotel room), she says,“I don’t know where this goes; I’ve got no place to put it.” And it’s true. Where would it go? It doesn’t really fit the almost utopian, gynocentric household.

Sam lives with her three daughters, Frankie (Hannah Alligood), Max (Mikey Madison), and Duke (Olivia Edward), and next-door to her mother, Phil (Celia Imrie). As you can see, they all have gender-neutral names that seem to secure a space outside at least some of the typical televisual gender bullshit. More specifically, gender, like the show’s other issues, is allowed to drift mostly undefined from episode to episode. An indication that Frankie may be transgender from the first season is not neatly summed up in that season; rather it’s allowed to float in all its messy ambiguity through all subsequent episodes, laughing in the face of any tidy after-school special coda.

In addition to its almost documentary capturing of the lovely and maddening details of mom life, in a manner more akin to experimental poetry than ye average television show, Better Things leaves spaces in its scenes for our reactions—quiet parts, brief pauses for us to have our experience of the more transcendent questions posed by that particular scene. We see these moments a lot in the female Gothic ghost story that is White Rock.

The White Rock episode starts with the greatest horror of all. Sam’s youngest daughter Duke sobs when she finds out that the oldest daughter Max’s best friend has gotten pregnant. It’s as though the show has her unknowingly mourning the shitstorm that is reproductivity in a woman’s life. Sure, it’s potentially massively joy-making but it’s hard to deny that pregnancy is almost always a life-shaking revelation to a teenager.

Sam calls her uncle Lester (Nigel Havers) and proposes a visit to see him and his wife Jarita (Jane Carr) in Canada. From the moment he picks up the phone in his light-filled, quiet house by the sea, we see that it functions on a different register than the dark, painting-and-kid-filled chaos of Sam’s female-dominated lair. There’s an episode where Sam’s making lasagna and asks Duke if she wants to help her with the “layers,” and that’s very much how the show functions. The meaning accumulates from episode to episode rather than the information just being handily delivered to you. The characters and their environments, too, are layered, all but ready to topple over with the things and things and things that form us.

Lester built his house himself and Frankie wants to learn to do this, too. Instead of teaching that, he schools her on the harsh truth about time, and old age, and houses, about what passes into but also what passes out of these spaces. He says, “That’s how life goes, you build it, you grow old, and you die in it.” Thanks to the combination of Adlon’s tight direction and Michael Alden Lloyd’s deftly-wielded camera, the shot of Frankie’s face after she hears this seems to suggest she’s learned so much about life and death in that single moment. She’s learned life’s very real ghost story.

Later, in this same elegiac mode, when Sam and her girls are frolicking on the beach, Duke sees a ghost, a woman in a white dress. In true fairytale mode, the youngest daughter is always the one to see. She calls frankie but she doesn’t seem to catch it. Later, as they eat, Frankie says she wishes she could just live on that beach. Jarita tells her it’s called “Sad Lady Beach” because back in the 1800s there was a woman who went and gazed at that water before throwing herself in front of a train.

Duke looks flabbergasted. Lester tells Jarita to “shut up,” but Sam wants to hear more about this sad lady. Then Lester accidentally mentions another sad lady, an aunt Sam has never heard about. Marion was apparently also silenced when, after being deemed “mentally unstable,” she was sent away to a mental institution at seventeen—Max’s age. Lester may attempt to silence Jarita, but Sam and her daughters want to hear more about the sad lady. Better Things is one of my favorite current shows because, far from silencing them, it gives sad ladies starring roles.

Sam finds out that her aunt died in 1983. Lester tells her that’s the year they moved there, and that when they first arrived he used to think he saw a ghost. “Perhaps it was old Marion haunting me,” he says, concluding that maybe it serves him right. Before they leave, Duke confronts the ghost. She says, “Hi, um, I don’t know if you’re here right now or if you’re real or if I made you up or if you’re dead or if you’re the sad lady or if you’re aunt Marion but I brought you these flowers and I wanted to just say I hope you’re okay and that you can not be sad and that you feel better and I’m not scared of you. Thanks.”

She throws the flowers and they come back in the wind, and hit her face, and she smiles with joy. In many ways Duke’s speech reminds me of Sam’s approach to parenting, and perhaps the approach all mothers eventually come to if they want to not be driven crazy by their kids: the “I’m here to help, I’m mostly not scared of you, but I’m standing back and giving you space” approach. Both Sam and Duke want to care for the ghost and give it a chance to speak. I hope Better Things gets the same chance.

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