Better Things (S02E06) “Eulogy”

There comes a point when the lines between fiction and reality blur.  What could be an actor giving a great performance could mirror something going on in real life.  Now I’m not talking about a television show or film pulling or adapting a ‘ripped from the headlines’ scenario, like any episode of Law and Order.  But when the show feels like it has shades of the actor’s personal life, it feels like a more intimate and personable viewing.
Now this is all speculation.  I don’t know Pamela Adlon’s personal life and wouldn’t be able to tell you what’s completely fictional and what pulls from reality, though Adlon did say in an interview with Vulture  that shades of “Eulogy” pull from conversations she’s had with friends, which she then took to Louis C.K., the writer of this episode, and here we are.  This is, for my money, another great episode for the series, following up on the equally great “Phil.”

And the advice that Sam shares when she’s teaching aspiring actors feels very genuine, honest, and quite truthful, in my opinion.  It’s less about actors pretending to be characters, but just being people.  And I imagine that this would be very worthwhile for anyone trying to make it into the entertainment industry.
Sam says that the way to make it in this world isn’t to do a scene that’s well written because anyone can do that.  The skill, in Sam’s mind, to get steady work, is to make shitty writing mean something and elevate it. If you can take a bad script and make it work, then you’ll still get work.  I tend to agree.  Consider: how many instances have you come across an actor that you like somehow winding up in a bad television show or film and they look like they couldn’t care less?
Perhaps they’re not trying, perhaps it’s a contractual obligation, or maybe the actor is well connected with the director or crew behind the product.  Whatever it is, you’re left wondering how an actor that you love could end up in something terrible, and hope that at the very least they can salvage terrible material.

I’ll give you an example.  I am an unabashed lover of the 1994 Street Fighter film.   Generally speaking, not a great film.  Pretty hammy acting that wouldn’t win any awards or acclaim, though I contend that, next to Mortal Kombat, it’s one of the more enjoyable video game to film adaptations…and is Oscar Worthy compared to Street Fighter: Legend of Chun-Li, but that’s a longer discussion.  My point is that Raul Julia elevates wonky writing with his very powerful performance as M. Bison.
Again, not a movie that would be nominated for Best Picture, but from Julia’s mannerisms, inflection in his voice, and energy you see in his eyes, despite his stomach surgery, lost weight, and overall deteriorating condition- this would be the last film he appeared in before he died in October of 1994- he’s giving it his all.  My point is, like Sam says, the goal is to make something out of shit because that’s what gets you noticed.

That was a longer tangent than I intended to go on, but back to the episode.  Sam’s deconstruction of acting, saying that people are weak and that an actor’s assets are their weaknesses and fears, serves as great wisdom and experience for those who expect to just waltz into the acting industry.  It reminds me of when Louis C.K. said during his remembrance of George Carlin that, after you’ve burned through your regular comedy material, you can only dig deeper and start talking about your feelings.
And that’s true.  People want to see other people at their weakest or most vulnerable.  When you see someone at their weakest, the only place they can go is up.  But also because Sam’s right- people are weak. No one is optimistic and bubbly 100 percent of the time because life is shitty.  And Sam knows that better than these actors.  Her words come across as very genuine.  It’s not patronizing in the slightest because Sam has been in this business longer than these actors.
More than that, Sam feels very comfortable and more at home giving advice to these actors than she actually does when she’s at home, as we’ll see later.  And I would like to see more of this side of Sam, her giving advice, because she knows her stuff.

That includes getting how monotonous the acting process can be.  This short driving commercial, to see Sam sit through take after take after take with the same results, and not even be given a chance to drive the car, was agonizing.  Not in a bad way, but I’m left wondering just how many takes does this ad need? In the eyes of the folks shooting, it must be a lot to get the scene just right, no matter how repetitive the process.  It’s like Groundhog Day, but you’re stuck in a car the entire time.

But this is infinitely better than Sam’s time at home where what could’ve just been a normal night turned upside down when Frankie and Max not only ignore Sam’s work, but pretty much stomp on her grave not only when she’s alive, but in their presence.  I’ve never been a big fan of Frankie and Max in particular, but the two come off as just cruel when they disparage their mother at the mock funeral.  Yes, the relationship between Sam and the girls has been combative, but this seemed like the final straw for Sam.

Her work goes unappreciated, even though that’s what funding everyone and keeping a roof over everyone’s head.  She doesn’t feel appreciated- and she isn’t- and despite what Tressa and Rich say about her daughters loving her more when she’s dead, Sam wants that praise and admiration now.  Not out of vanity, but because it’s right.  As the mother, she’s afforded some level of love, but also just respect.  And it hurts that her work means nothing to the girls.

It’s at this point that I can’t help but wonder how much of this is Sam talking versus how much might just be Pamela Adlon’s own voice?  Again, I don’t know the woman’s personal life, but her words come off as so earnest because Sam has been so hurt by her daughters- well, not Duke since she died, too- after expressing to them that she’s warranted some appreciation after all she’s done for her daughters.  Sam is a very resilient person, so for her to leave her home isn’t a small deal.

Even with all of that, Frankie and Max continue to lay the blame on Sam, as if she’s being a drama queen. But what makes this moment even better is how Tressa and Rich are just not having any of this shit.  With just a few words and some very deadly gazes, they put the girls in their place without raising their voice or stooping to their level.  And at the same time, you can feel the tension still in the room, and I was waiting in pins and needles for one of them to lash out, but they never had to do that.

So the best thing that Sam needs is to get away for a moment.  The quick scene with her and Ray at the bar is brief, but telling.  Just as Ray never got to be out and gay as a young boy until he was too old to have fun, Sam feels that she won’t be appreciated until it doesn’t matter anymore.

Of course, that’s not the case by episode’s end when Sam gets a proper eulogy in what I’m assuming was entirely Tressa and Rich’s idea.  Either way, Sam gets the nice words from her daughters that she deserves and it is a very touching moment.  For Frankie to say that she gave Sam her pain because she could take it, or how Max didn’t want to share Sam with anyone, even when their father was around, is very heartfelt.

And the scene isn’t without its humor, as Rich gets in a few digs at Sam, not to mention that when almost everyone is wrapped up in the group hug, Duke suddenly shoots up and reminds everyone that hey, nobody said a nice thing about her!  This was a double eulogy, after all.  It’s a great way to inject humor into an emotional scene.  I’m not an emotional person, but this was a very sweet scene made all the better by everyone’s performances.  Whether relations between Sam and the girls stay like this, I don’t know.
“Eulogy” showed just how much of a thankless job it is to be a mother.  For all the help and advice that Sam gave to up and coming actors early on, the same appreciation there wasn’t mirrored from her own flesh and blood when she needed and wanted it the most.  She finally gets it in what’s one of the most emotionally satisfying endings of Better Things.

And don’t leave Duke out, next time.  She died, too!