No show depicts a single working mom raising teen daughters in the social media age with such genuine consideration—and profound shamelessness—as Better Things. Star, showrunner, and director Pamela Adlon understands the feeling of receiving an AARP letter for the first time, or what it means to feel like your child no longer needs you, and she’s committed to portraying those moments with candor.
“I have the ability to put information out there that I could have used in the different stages of my life,” Adlon tells ELLE.com. “When I was a new mom and didn’t know what the fuck I was doing, any kind of handout for me meant the kindness of sharing information, especially between women.” As Sam Fox, Adlon isn’t creating a handbook for middle-aged moms. Rather, in her earnestly funny tone, she’s reflecting what’s long been her reality, and finally letting herself off the hook. By extension, she’s encouraging her viewers to do the same. It’s the kind of useful, engaging, stigma-shattering knowledge that’s made the series a must-watch since 2016.
Better Things‘ fourth season finds Sam—along with daughters Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Alligood), and Duke (Olivia Edward)—facing new challenges in communicating about sex, dating, and womanhood. She’s also decided to take better care of herself: going to the doctor for pervasive hand pain, confronting how she feels about dating apps, and embracing the value of her friendships. And as the series continues to annihilate the boundaries between mother and daughters, Adlon draws our attention to a lingering yet virtually unmentioned person in their lives: Sam’s ex.
Better Things is so rooted in the moment, but this season there’s a lot of movement: Sam’s turning 50 and her daughters are going in different directions. What was the biggest challenge in shifting the narrative forward while also retaining its natural flow?
I want to keep the show feeling organic, like the way our lives are. I’m not sitting there like a puppet master, like, what do I do now? How do I manipulate? Because it’s such a personal show, every year it’s a massive shift for me. The characters have changed so much. It’s like a patchwork quilt made of flesh and vascular systems—a living, breathing thing that moves itself forward, and I’m the Dr. Frankenstein.
What is it about Sam at 50 that you wanted to pursue in the storytelling this season?
Twenty years ago, I don’t think any woman would walk around going, “I’m 50!” But now it’s not a shameful thing. I strip away the shame because as I’ve gotten older, and especially where I’m sitting right now, I have a confidence I never had before. I used to be very self-conscious. I used to be waiting for threats and things to happen, certainly as an actor waiting for jobs. [It’s about] taking ownership of your life and where you are. Sharing with other women and being okay on your own is a big deal. It doesn’t matter what age you are.
Sam’s disinterest in dating is so striking this season. I was raised by a single mom who dated a lot more when I was a child than she does now. Why is Sam so indifferent?
That’s so interesting. Can I ask how old’s your mom?
My mom is 57.
Yeah, because we’re over it [Laughs]. I look back on my life and I’m like, I’ve been in and out of relationships since I was 18 years old. I’m not saying I’m not looking for love and I’m fine and don’t mean it. I’m really fine. I really love where I am in my life right now. When your kids are younger, you want to escape, whether with men or your friends. But now, my escape is my family and my work and my friends, and it is so fulfilling to me. I’m not trying to get into the ranks. You guys go date the 25-year-olds. I’m fine.
“I have a confidence I never had before.”
I imagine watching her daughters enter the dating world has sharpened Sam’s perspective.
Because the generations are so different. I think kids right now have gone so much faster than your mom. They have all this information, and it’s fucking scary. In that scene when Sam looks at Frankie and says, “I know you think I’m an idiot, but I can guarantee I know more about boys and men than you do right now.” There are some things we can help our kids with. It’s a matter of how we’re there to handle the information: “Do you want to come to me? I’m here if you need me. I’m not going to approach you too quickly in case you bolt.” And there’s only so much you can do because they really need to find things out on their own.
I remember my mother maneuvering how to be as available as possible as I was growing up and experiencing new things. It’s really moving to watch Sam and see what it’s like for a mom to fear her relevance in her child’s life. Is writing Sam therapeutic for you?
Of course. The way you’re looking at it makes me really happy, because I’ve had that feeling of obsolescence, in terms of other women around that are more viable, since season 1. You can never stop telling that story. I’m seeing my life in a very reflective way. I’m always sitting in the chair like in Annie Hall, just looking over. As you get older, you feel things slipping away. You feel invincible when you’re young and [then] things become, well that’s over for me there. Oh, my ass just dropped. Oh, I’m not eligible for this. Oh, I’m getting AARP shit in the mail. Fuck you. That’s not me. Oh, that’s me in five minutes. It’s a really scary, crazy realization: You’re 50. That’s the oldest age you’ve ever heard of.
It hits you while you’re in it.
And your head snaps around and you’re like, oh shit, how many more times am I going to organize my papers and photographs? What legacy am I leaving? Because you’re arrogant enough to think that, well, maybe I’ll move again and then it doesn’t matter. I’ll get a new car. No, everything matters now.
Everything seems urgent?
Well, everything is important, and I like that. It’s like I’ve always said to my daughters, I don’t want a present. I want you to sit down and think about me if it’s my birthday and write down some thoughts. Take some time and say, it’s going to be mom’s birthday in three weeks. Start to write stuff down and not just do it on the day.
I think a lot about how the series highlights the way relationships between mothers and daughters have changed. There is a more equal dialogue now, but do you think it’s ever necessary to draw a line—like Max calling Sam a cunt?
What I’m saying is there are no boundaries. Because the world is really scary, your family should be your safe room. There should be no limit to what you say or do with each other.
That’s so different from the way I grew up.
Because you can’t regulate the influx of information now. So, if we tell the kids, No, that’s off limits, they’ll go somewhere else. They have it in their phones. When my kids were growing up, I was terrified for them to look at that shit on the internet. I knew I couldn’t stop them, so I said, “just know that it’s all out there, and you could possibly read or look at something that will stay with you for the rest of your life. You’ll regret it and you won’t be able to erase it. Be respectful of yourself and your mental health.”
Is Sam more comfortable with her identity outside of motherhood this season?
I definitely think that. But at the same time, she gets called out on her stuff, because she assumes everybody needs out of their relationships because she feels fulfilled. But is she right? That’s the question I always wonder with her.
There is one boundary on the show that has yet to be really addressed—Sam’s ex and the girls’ dad. Even when the girls ask about him, Sam skirts around the question. Do you plan to delve into that?
You’re going to see.