Getting old is never fun.
It’s interesting how, despite not having a ton of screen time, Celia Imrie still manages to deliver memorable performances and lines with each scene she’s in on Better Things as Phyllis. Her retorts are a nice counter to Sam, though admittedly she gets enough of that from her kids.
This family is just filled to the brim with sarcasm, let’s be honest. Many shows would have the grandparent written off as the crazy old relic or just the one family member that tags along for the occasional adventure, but add nothing to the narrative.
But for two seasons now, Phyllis has been given a good amount of depth and dimension. One constant that we’ve seen is the slow deterioration of her memory and mental state as a whole. As recent as the previous episode, we saw her chew out a child in the library before she unintentionally wet herself. The process of aging isn’t a pleasant one, but the show has never played it out at Phil’s expense. It’s treated with the same level of dignity and respect that we’ve come to expect from Better Things.
Enter this week’s episode, “Phil,” which puts Phil in the spotlight while also advancing Sam’s semblance of a friendship/relationship with Robin. For the most part, this is a Phil episode and it’s a welcome one. From the start, as we see Phil and some of her friends discussing Sam, Phil even goes as far as calling Sam’s daughters horrid. Granted, I don’t entirely disagree with that sentiment, but this scene’s more humorous tone and feel will set an interesting contrast from what we see throughout the rest of the episode.
It’s no secret that Sam and Phil are often at odds, but things escalate here when Sam learns of Phil’s plan to re-mortgage the house. But Phil has nothing to fear from Sam’s threats and what I’ve always enjoyed about Phil is that, while most people would find Sam’s abrasiveness unsettling, Phil knows Sam well enough to be able to match her barb for barb.
It’s as the episode progresses that we see the more tragic side of Phil come through. When she’s caught trying to steal something from the museum, rather than trying to talk her way out of it, she’s remorseful, maybe even filled with regret. Whether that’s for being seen or wanting to steal in the first place, I’m not sure, but it’s still a great, sad scene.
One of many, for the scene of her searching endlessly and aimlessly for her car could easily have been written as a comedic moment, but it’s given great weight and seriousness when you consider the possibility that Phil’s memory is leaving her.
And when she winds up in the hospital after her fall, coupled with her coming right out and telling Sam that she wants to go home, Phil has reached the stage of acceptance that things are not going to get any better. Her glory days are behind her and, as Tressa’s conversation with Sam indicates, things are only going to get worse going forward.
On that, by the way, this is nice way to involve Tressa, ever so slightly. Since this isn’t something Sam is equipped or prepared to handle, she has someone in her circle with experience to share that knowledge that caring for your elders is a long, slow road that ends when either you can’t do it anymore or your loved one dies.
This results in a very moving scene between Sam and Phil that’s made all the stronger due to the chemistry between Pamela Adlon and Celia Imrie. And when Phil tells Sam that not only is she proud of her, but appreciative of Sam for taking care of her, we see the sharp contrast to the opening scene where Phil berated her daughter. Now, while in a hospital bed and ready to go home, she says probably the nicest thing we’ve ever heard her tell Sam.
Right now, as Sam tells her brother, Marion- Kevin Pollak in a brief appearance- she can only do this until she can’t. And that’s the best answer Sam can give. She may not have her life altogether, but she cares enough about her mother to be by her side until one side surrenders. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s the best and only option that Sam has.
To be honest, I could’ve done with the entirety of this episode just revolving around Sam and Phil specifically. It’s nice to get some follow-up on Sam’s friendship with Robin and see that develop now that she’s introduced him to her daughters. These scenes are a good contrast to the more emotional moments with Phil and Sam, but also progress this particular arc for Sam, so in that regard, it’s good character development.
But then Sam shows up at the door of her ex at episode’s end and you wonder just how much, if at all, progress she’s really made. “Phil” is easily one of the strongest entries of the series so far and it’s thanks to a strong leading performance from Celia Imrie in an episode all about the challenges of getting older, recognizing the value of what we have while we’re still here, and the undeniable strength of a bond.
Getting old is never fun.