Better Things (S02E09): “White Rock”

Earlier in the season, Sam got a getaway with some of her friends, but had a glimpse of what a getaway would look like if it if she’d had that same time out with her daughters.  Never mind that the girls- Frankie and Max at least- give Sam grief most of the time, but it was a glimpse of what time out of the house and relaxing could look like if it had been with the girls.  We kind of get that here with Sam and the girls visiting Uncle Lester and Aunt Jarita.

It’s worth noting the shift in the demeanor of the girls at the start and end of the episode.  Duke is crying, Max is upset about Harvey, and Frankie is indifferent to Duke being so upset.  And at the airport, Frankie and Max don’t offer to help.  They’re too busy either not being helpful or focused on their own devices.  Keep that in mind for later.

Uncle Lester and Aunt Jarita are very fun-loving, but also aren’t above letting the girls just ignore them.  Jarita is there to absorb Max going on about Harvey getting Paisley pregnant, but Jarita can also regale Max with her stories of seeing and smoking with The Beatles.  And Lester, meanwhile, offers to teach Frankie a thing or two about wood work and being his apprentice.  It’s a good way to engage the girls, but they also seem genuinely fascinated.

But then the show gets into a bit of supernatural territory with the story of the Sad Lady- a woman in the 1800s who one day went to look at the beach.  Following this, she stepped in front of a train that cut her right in two.  No one knows why she did it or where the lady even came from, but it’s what gives the beach its current name.  Again, keep this tale in mind because it becomes more important later.

For Sam to learn about her forgotten relative, Marion, felt very relatable, but surprising nonetheless.  How shocked would you be to learn out that all this time you have a long-lost relative?  And it’s not as if this was some big kept secret from Sam- she just didn’t know.  And it’s made even when Lester says that, when Marion was 17, she was deemed mentally unstable.  And since she was put into a mental institution, where she’s lived for the rest of her life, no one’s heard from her since. It’s very tragic.

And Pamela Adlon is great at showing Sam’s turmoil as she processes all of this.  But even then, Sam’s not even allowed to process all of this when Frankie comes in and bluntly says that families fall apart, including the fact that she rarely, if ever, sees her father or cousins.  In Frankie’s mind, her family is already miserable, even as Sam points out that families that stay together can still be miserable.

And then Max piles on Sam’s misery by blaming her for Harvey getting Paisley pregnant because Sam doesn’t let Harvey sleep in Max’s room.

It’s telling how much Sam cares as a person that she’s willing to take in as much information as she can about Marion, including Lester showing some old photos and calling the institution where Marion was held.  She’s never met Marion- probably never will, so in the grand scheme of things, Marion probably isn’t Sam’s problem anymore than she was to the rest of the family.  And Sam doesn’t want anything out of this. She’s selfless in this approach, which I like.

In a way, the fact that Sam knew nothing about Marion, I feel, motivates her even more to at least learn something about her.  Sam could go about her business and, like the family, put Marion behind her. After all, she’s on a getaway with the girls and I wager reaching out to a long-lost relative could feel like a distraction, but not for Sam.

So it’s all the more crushing when, after all the time and effort of calling the agency overseas and then having to wait another day, for Sam to learn that Marion died in 1983.   The representative she called said something very telling- families who call in regards to their relatives usually do so for bad reasons.  In addition, once the relatives are dropped off at an institution, they’re forgotten.

I can’t tell you how true that statement is.  If you have older relatives, particularly if they’re either living on their own or in a home for the elderly, how often do you call or even think of them?  I can tell you from personal experience that I don’t as often as I should, given how much they’ve done for me in my life.  And you realize that the older they get, the more they realize just who cares about them, because folks, unlike Sam, go about their business and aren’t as involved.

And while Sam could be upset…as she says, how can you forget someone that you didn’t know?  She didn’t want anything in return, not even any memories, she just wanted to know something.  And now that she’s got that, there’s not much she can do from here.

All that can happen is she move forward, which she does.  The family has a laugh over dinner, Frankie catches a fish in what I’m guessing is the highlight of her younger life- as well as gets some inspiration from Lester on creating chairs- and Duke says farewell to the woman she saw at the beach.  Was it the ghost of Marion?  Perhaps it was the Sad Lady?  Or was Duke even talking to anyone at all?  Either way, it’s a well done moment and a gorgeous scene to boot.

If I can transition to visuals for a moment, this episode’s looks, particularly all of the shots at the beach, are outstanding.  From a cinematic point of view, it’s probably the most beautiful looking episode of Better Things to date, with the way the sun and water bounce off the characters.  It’s visually stunning and it makes me hope we get more episode at locales like this if just for the great direction and cinematography.

And everything goes smooth after that.  Max actually offers to help with the luggage when the family returns, and Sam has a brief chat with Phil, who now has a cane.   Lester had briefly asked how she was doing, and we learn that Sam didn’t tell Phil that she was going to White Rock.  He says that he’d like to see Phil before the year ends, but given Phil’s deteriorating condition, not to mention the fact that the season finale is after this episode, I don’t know the likelihood of that.

But Sam doesn’t go into detail about her visit to Lester and Juarita and I have to wonder if part of that is due to Phil not telling her about Marion.  We’re not sure because the conversation with Phil isn’t even that long.  It’s all within the very last minute of the episode and, judging from Sam’s eye roll and focusing on the trash bins, it seems like Sam wants this episode and conversation to be over as soon as possible.

Regardless of the reason, “White Rock” is a very emotional run for Sam and is a fantastic looking directed episode by Pamela Adlon as the family gets some time away from home.  Here’s looking forward to the season finale.

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