‘Better Things’ Season 3 Is Pamela Adlon’s Strongest Delivery yet

Better Things” ends its third season on a rather quiet note, binding some characters closer together and leaving the fate of others up in the air. This season has taken on a more episodic feel, with chapters that feel like moments, and storylines that flow with a true to life vibe. Such is the tone of this finale, where it truly is about Sam living and attempting to grow.

“Shake the Cocktail” finds Sam (Pamela Adlon) still wallowing over Frankie (Hannah Alligood) still refusing to come back home. It’s not like she’s disappeared, and Sam easily finds out where she studies with her friends, but she’s just not ready to be in the same house as her mother and siblings. The emotional fallout is affecting Sam’s other relationships in life, like with good friend Rich (Diedrich Bader), who she selfishly chastises for paying more attention to his younger, new boyfriend Alan (Devin Crittenden). But when David (Matthew Broderick) recommends Sam focus her energy on the two kids who do want her around, Max (Mikey Madison) and Duke (Olivia Edward), that’s just what she does. It’s her birthday and Max and Duke plan to at least get her a cake, while even Frankie isn’t so detached as to not leave a card.

Any worries that “Better Things” would be thrown into a tailspin following the sudden departure of co-creator Louis C.K. were quickly dissipated by the direction taken by current showrunner and star Adlon. She’s kept the material growing deeper, richer and even contemplative. It is not surprising considering everything we can imagine she and the show’s team went through during the whole scandal that forced C.K. out. There’s an almost survivor mode to the finale, as Sam lets go of any resentment and even pride, instead accepting what good she does have in her life. Frankie may be rebelliously staying away, but there’s still a daughter’s affection there, especially in the touching final scenes where Sam finds a birthday card from Frankie full of endearing tenderness. By the end she also buries the hatchet with Rich, how she could not? They both attend a performance by Frankie’s choir of “Shake It Out” that is exhilarating in how much heart the moment contains.

For every moment of life’s letdowns there are rays of hope. The writing by Adlon is full of subtle dramatic notes that make quick moments burst with meaning. Sam calls her mother Phil (Celia Imrie), stealthily expecting a happy birthday wish, but nothing is said. At first we might just assume it’s because Phil’s careless or selfish, but it’s actually another sign that her dementia is getting worse. This doesn’t keep Sam from becoming bitter, slamming Phil as a bad parent and assuring Duke that this will never happen with her birthdays. Even in scenes with David, we sense Sam is using the therapist for self-assurance while he enjoys the perks of sex, but they both fill a void, even if the doctor is acting unethically.

All season we have seen Sam and Frankie clash, but it was never a cheap plot device, but a reflection on how kids and parents aren’t always compatible during the hard road of growing up. Frankie never has a villain moment in the finale, if anything she comes across just as confused and seeking as her mother. If she seems a bit self-entitled, well, such are the follies of youth. Adlon, who also directs, throws in one of the show’s most uplifting crescendos, a scene where Max, forgiven for dropping out of college, sings with her friends and Duke to the theme song of “Phineas and Ferb.” It’s a kind of generational bridge, as the older girls are singing to a cartoon they loved when they were Duke’s age. Adlon shoots almost like a musical number Sofia Coppola would do. Sam herself looks over it all from the edge of the bedroom door, the happiness registering on her face.

The final shot makes complete sense, as Sam stares at the cake Max and Duke present to her, the candles forming a 50. We then get the obligatory flashback to Sam’s deceased dad, Murray (Adam Kulbersh), who points out that Sam has now lived longer than him. So what is she to do now? That’s for the next season to answer. For now Adlon can look back and proudly say her work has proved to also be the mark of a survivor. Like Sam, crises have been faced and overcome, and this wonderful comedy keeps going. We look forward to the next turn in the lives of its personalities, who feel like extensions of our own hope for better things.

Better Things” season three finale airs May 16 at 10 p.m. ET on FX.