[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the Season 4 finale of Better Things, "Listen to the Roosters." Read at your own risk!]
Better Things' fourth season, which wrapped up on Thursday, ended the way it started: with water. The finale unfolded, as a Better Things episode typically does, in a series of loosely connected vignettes, starting off with a series of silhouetted women speaking candidly about their first periods (which viewers later came to find out was part of a documentary project created by Pamela Adlon's heroine, Sam Fox) and culminating in an exuberant sequence set to R.E.M.'s "Nightswimming," where Sam, her mother Phil (Celia Imrie), and her best friend Rich (Diedrich Bader) took a night swim in the neighbor's pool while her daughters, Max (Mikey Madison), Frankie (Hannah Alligood), and Duke (Olivia Edward), splashed around at the beach, off in another universe. Rain became a supporting character this season, a near-constant, unacknowledged presence that made the Fox family house leak and characters seek solace inside, but the finale brought them into the water once and for all.
Still, part of the joy of Better Things lies in the fact that it's never been about just one thing. Sam's documentary, which became a focal point of the finale, expanded on the season's frank conversations about womanhood, which creator and star Adlon, who also directed every episode, said was inspired by a particularly haunting pamphlet she found in a doctor's office. It saw Sam take a step toward healing the wound between her and her ex-husband, Xander (Matthew Glave). It made some significant statements about being alone when Duke encountered Bella (Ellen Geer), a mysterious and well-dressed older woman. And amid all of that, it was a quiet, lovely ode to the city of Los Angeles, the backdrop of Adlon's bittersweet series.
As Better Things signs off for a bit, TV Guide caught up with Adlon to unpack the FX show's Season 4 finale, from the power of talking about menopause to why she doesn't care about Sam finding a partner.
How did you decide you wanted the finale to end with Sam, Phil, and Rich swimming while the girls were at the beach by themselves? They feel like they happen in different worlds.
Pamela Adlon: They definitely do. I originally was calling this episode "Nightswimming." That's one of those things where I get obsessed with a song before I even know if I can use the song in my show. I wanted this moment, and I knew I was going to end this whole season with Phil, Sam, and Rich swimming in the neighbor's pool, but I didn't know I was necessarily going to get that song. Water was a theme this season with the rain, and Phil is wearing that vest, and it stops her going into the water to take a shower or go into the pool. It was just a perfect way to get people in the water, in the healing of the water. The girls go to the beach on their own, and I could cry talking about it right now. It has a huge impact on me, seeing them taking care of themselves and each other in a way that's so moving.
How did Sam's documentary come together?
Adlon: My whole thing with this season was trying to make it cohesive. Sam's being given this opportunity from this young girl that she worked with (Jessica Barden), and so I was hoping that people would understand, and that it would make sense. Last season, Sam had lunch with all these altacockers who were friends with her late dad, and she was videotaping it, which was kind of a little foreshadowing of this stuff this season. And the fact that Sam finally gets — I hate to use this word — agency, she gets to control something in her life, her creative process. She isn't just waiting for the phone to ring. She has an ability that this young girl saw in her. I hung this pamphlet on my writer's room board that I got at a doctor's office that said "The Menopause Years." I was like, "What the f--- is that? This is the worst thing ever." Of course I took a pamphlet, and I pinned it up to the board, and then I started ruminating very hard on this and it came to me how much shame is caught up with women in this transition, menopause.
The fact that you first hear the word "kegel" when you're pregnant, and then when you're way on the other side of it they're like, "Oh, you better do kegels so you don't piss your pants every second for the rest of your dying, dissolving life." It's just all of this awful stuff, so I wanted to put it all in in this way, and it was really a gorgeous knot for me how I was going to make this all play out. I put out a call to a bunch of women and I said, "We're gonna be at the studio from this hour to this hour, please come tell your story, you'll be in the dark like Witness Protection Program." And, you know, some of the stories are good and some of them are hard. Some people who I never thought would tell their story came out and did it, and it was one of the most incredible experiences. While we were shooting it I thought, "Well, this is a documentary. I want to make this documentary right now."
You should make that full documentary.
Adlon: I know!
There's a moment in the episode where Sam, Duke, and Murray are doing karaoke in an Uber on the way home from a Dodgers game that became so surprisingly emotional. How did that come together?
Adlon: I originally was calling the episode "City of Angels" because it's really my homage to Los Angeles, and the immigrants, and the city, everything that I love about my new town. So with the karaoke scene, we had this footage and it wasn't working in the editing room, and I just really needed it to have this different feeling. One of my editors, Annie Guidice, had taken over this part of the episode and that scene, and I was like, "I don't know what it is. We're missing it. We're hearing 'Surrender,' the Cheap Trick song, and it's not enough." And she's the one who put that song, when Sam kind of goes to the contemplative place and she sits back and she's looking at Murray (Caleb Mantuano) and Duke and you hear these lyrics, "I will protect you." That's the place that I was driving my editors to get to, and it was almost an impossible task, but when Annie cracked the code on that I lost my mind.
The scene where Duke meets Bella, the woman who tells her that she's preferred spending her life single, and Sam's moments of closure with Xander really complemented each other. What do you think this season says about marriage?
Adlon: This season, I had different cards on the board with themes. One was steady rain, one was couples together, one was forgiveness, one was 'divorce is contagious.' Basically, I really wanted to do this story about a woman who has everything she needs in her friendships and her relationships with her children, and she gets kind of told off by her brother and other people, like, "Not everybody necessarily wants to get divorced." So when Bella is talking to Duke, she's saying, "I never got married and I had a great life." That was something that was important to me because through the years as I've been promoting this show, people are like, "Well, is Sam going to get together with Mel Trueblood (Lenny Kravitz), is Sam going to get together with Robin (Henry Thomas)?" And I'm like, "Why is that so important?" I haven't had a relationship in years and I don't even think about it. It's not part of my life, so I really wanted to show that. It doesn't say so much about marriage as opposed to saying it's OK to be on your own.
You mentioned "Nightswimming." What role did music play this season?
Adlon: Music is a huge part of my psyche. I have songs that resonate with me. Starting from Season 1, I wrote the episode "Only Women Bleed" before I had that f---in' Alice Cooper song. It's just one of those things that gives you a goal and an appetite to be able to share your inspiration with everybody. With all my Slim Gaillard cues, thankfully his son owns his estate, but it's really hard to get certain music that I want and love just because it's prohibitively expensive or licensed impossibly.
Do you have a favorite moment from this season, or one that stuck with you the most?
Adlon: There were so many. I would say the wedding. I would say making peppermint ice cream with Hannah [Alligood]. I would say directing Hannah's typewriter scene. Howling with the ladies in the eighth episode. Even though the pool was f---ing cold, swimming with Celia [Imrie] and Deidrich [Bader], that was incredible. Dancing with the Second Line down the French Quarter in New Orleans without even knowing what I was getting myself into. Being in Preservation Hall with James Williams, who's brilliant and adorable. Being in the voodoo shop. And then just being with my crew — having my crew who've been with me almost the whole time and having them do that and seeing everyone do their jobs at this really high level, and kicking ass. I loved every second of it.
Better Things is available to stream on Hulu.