Better Things: “Only Women Bleed” Season 1 Finale Review

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Better Things aspires to show the life of a single mother trying to balance three kids, her career, her social life, and whatever the hell else comes up on a daily basis. It’s a broad stroke, but also makes way for the show to be as plotless as possible. “Only Women Bleed” has some moments worthy to be this season’s finale, but on the whole it mostly just feels like any other episode aside from a nice montage to tie things together. FX’s better freshman comedy, Atlanta, went a similar route for its finale, seemingly being as low-key as possible to make a broader statement about the show itself. The difference here is that Atlanta‘s season had a number of episode that broke the show’s chosen formula, making the low-key nature of the finale poignant and necessary. Now yes, Better Things is a completely different show with a different tone, but having a finale like this after a string of episode that stick so close to the show’s formula is, frankly, a little boring.

The opening scene was so exciting too. For her mother’s birthday, Sam planned a trip to the beach for just her and Phyllis. Sam feigns excitement to her friend, but Phyllis packs her bag into the car with so much enthusiasm, juxtaposing their opposite attitudes for what could have been a great magnified glass on their rocky relationship. Instead, the trip literally ends before they even get out of the driveway. Sam tells her mother they’re past the point of going on trips together, to which Phyllis just gets out of the car and silently walks home. It’s a depressing moment that continues the trend of Sam just being outwardly cruel to her mother. This being the season finale, it felt like the perfect time to explore that and inch us toward a solution for the two. Nope. Next time we see Phyllis is in the closing montage, where she watches an old movie on the couch alone while Sam and her daughters sing along on a road trip. For a show filled with so much sweetness, it’s distaste for Phyllis comes off uncharacteristically bitter.

From there, “Only Women Bleed” ends up being about Frankie’s struggles at school. Her principal calls saying she’s been using the boy’s bathroom, to which Frankie explains is because the other girls are disgusting. Later, however, Max asks her mother what happened to Frankie, as people from school are talking about it. Upon learning, Max tries to reason with Sam that Frankie is trans. Better Things kind of leaves us hanging here, with Sam just cuddling Frankie within the ending montage. If Frankie is in fact trans, Better Things will continue to push the envelope, but still in the same progressive, family friendly vein as Modern Family. For a plotless show, this moment is treated as a relatively big one. But will the show make it too big next season? Will the show lose some of its appeal simply by diverting from its direct mission statement? It depends on Pamela Adlon’s handling of Frankie’s sexuality from a writer’s standpoint. Better Things is so directly rooted in its middle-aged feminism that pausing to focus on trans issues seems a bit unnatural. Lots of great shows are devoting time to explore trans issues, but Better Things is one of the only shows exploring the unseen lives of 40- to 50-something women in a true-to-life way. Compromising that to make a statement Transparent or Orange is the New Black might’ve already made, and likely very well at that, probably wouldn’t feel right. But this is all speculation for season two, just where an avenue for the show’s potential struggles revealed itself.

Still, “Only Women Bleed” is a perfectly fine finale that fits in with the tone of the show. It has a few laughs, some surrealism, and some progressive statements. But if Better Things is going to stand out from the crowd and do something with its progressive nature, it needs to take more risks. Trying to balance Sam’s issues with Frankie’s in season two could be a solution, but it could also dilute both. With a finale this plain, all there really is to do is speculate. Grade: B

By Matt Dougherty

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