The Final Season of ‘Better Things’ is a Tender, Magic-Filled Goodbye

As Pamela Adlon's FX comedy series comes to a close, it remains an engaging, indelible look at the magic of everyday life.
Better Things Season 5 Pamela Adlon

Better Things speaks the language of enchantment. Pamela Adlon’s free-spirited, love-filled comedy series has always been fascinated by everyday magic. In its fifth and final season, the show bows out with grace, but not before using every trick in its impressive book to remind us to stop and let ourselves be spellbound once in a while.

The series is ostensibly about parenting three kids as a single mom, but as it’s grown into itself, Better Things has become looser and more curiosity-driven. Adlon, who helms the show as director, writer, showrunner, and star, treats small moments of everyday life like the destination rather than the journey.

When these characters grow or change, we don’t get a monologue about it. Instead, we see them build a signpost, quote a poet, or make a cocktail from scratch. The show brings us so deep into this family that we know what they’re going through based on what they choose to focus on. Better Things doesn’t feel so much a portrait of life as a series of lives actually being lived out in front of us.

By virtue of being an ending, Season 5 of Better Things is more plot-heavy than some of its predecessors, which coasted amiably on vibes. Eldest daughter Max (Mikey Madison) hides a secret from her mother but can’t hide the emotional transformation she’s going through. Middle child Frankie (Hannah Riley), newly graduated, thrives among their close-knit group of queer friends. And baby Duke (Olivia Edward), now a teenager, turns into a taciturn slacker with unexpressed sadness in her eyes. Meanwhile, Sam (Adlon) navigates the prospect of an empty nest, and her mother, Phil (Celia Imrie), reconnects with an old friend.

In the engaged and spontaneous world of Better Things, none of these plot points matter as much as the texture of the moments each character experiences. When Max and family friend Rich (Diedrich Bader) find themselves in an uneasy moment, they shake it off with a cold bottle of Mexican Coke. When Sam sits by a stranger who is crying on the stairs, the pair dissolve into laughter after a rude jogger pushes past. According to Better Things, even the worst bad moods are just waiting for a small delight to come along and break it like a fever. Those small delights are where the magic happens.

Unfortunately, there are moments in the final season of Better Things that frustrate more than the series ever has before. This is probably by design, but it’s still a bitter pill to swallow from a show that values warmth above all else. As she struggles to figure out where she now fits in the world, Sam doesn’t always come across well. She’s the type of person who can’t stop herself from making a joke about the height of a tall guy in an elevator, so you can imagine how cringe-inducing she gets at an Asian supermarket.

In an episode that’s realistically painful, Frankie tries to talk to their mother about pronouns, but Sam responds with unfunny jokes and unusual resistance. “I’ve always been the mom of three daughters. Who would I be then?” she says. “It’s not about you, Mom,” Frankie responds, holding back tears.

If Better Things’ biggest problem is that it made us love Mama Fox so well that it hurts to be reminded that she can be wrong, that’s not much of a problem at all. It’s easy to trust Better Things to get through its bumpy points, thanks in large part to the main cast’s talent. As Sam, Adlon remains joyfully raucous, the type of person who will yell “Goodnight, Detroit!” as she gets pushed out of the first-class section of an airplane.

Sam is more anxious this season, hyperfocused on her worries about technology and bad energy to the point of missing what’s actually happening with her kids. Still, Adlon plays her so tenderly that when she tears up, it’s hard not to match her tear for tear. “The meanest thing that can ever happen to you is your kids grow up,” she says at one point, making the source of all her pain clear.

This season, every actor is given a moment to shine. The Fox family collects friends easily and often, and their home may as well have a rotating door of lovable supporting characters. As gay father figure Rich, Bader puts in his best work of the series here. He anchors some of the season’s best scenes and lends depth to its emotional climax by way of a deep-cut pop culture reference.

Imrie’s Phil, often a petulant presence in the show, also becomes essential to its last stretch of episodes. She’s awakened and softened by her ability to reconnect with her memories through technology, and she shares the love she finds freely, albeit in her own eccentric way. All three actors playing the Fox kids have been standouts from the start, and they continue to flourish tremendously here.

Seas0n 5 of Better Things can’t stop thinking about The Wizard of Oz. The movie shows up in multiple references and in a trip to Judy Garland’s grave. It makes sense that the classic musical would be on the Fox family’s mind. It’s a transportive adventure that reminds us, in the end, that “there’s no place like home.”

Better Things has done the same for five seasons. It’s a series about the places we call home, and the people — strangers, coworkers, old friends we shout to from across the grocery store — we invite into them. In its last chapters, the show is about the homes that came before us, glimpsed through maps and family trees and nostalgic drives, and it’s also about the homes that will come after. Above all else, Better Things ends as an exceptional, beautiful series about the homes we build in each others’ hearts.

Better Things Season 5 debuts on FX on February 28th.

Valerie Ettenhofer: Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)