Is it just me, or was this a perfect Louie episode: funny and dark, bleak and sweet, sweeping and miniaturist, all at once? We started this TV Club on the subject of Louie’s place in the television canon. I’m ready to up the ante. If you want 2012’s finest, most idiosyncratic auteurist reckoning with damaged psyches, fraught father figures, contemporary isolation, and fumbling dives for enlightenment, on any size screen, Louie’s third season is it. Better luck next time, The Master!
I don’t know how this episode didn’t blow up in C.K.’s face. The New Year’s Eve backdrop could have been a gassy, overfamiliar metaphor for renewal and redemption. Liz’s death could have been a facile, cynical rug-pull. The trip to Beijing risked devolving into a trite parable of (Orientalist) reorientation. But I’ve watched “New Year’s Eve” twice through now, and C.K.’s deft way of mining these potential pitfalls for dramatic power left me stunned both times.
The opening bit about the doll was virtuosic. A classic snowball-effect gag at heart, in which bad keeps leading to worse, it was also a dazzling comedic tightrope act. Deeply unsettling imagery—an eyeless baby, a power drill boring into that baby’s head, weird shit stuck all over the baby’s face, et cetera—was transformed, somehow, into a string of laugh-out-loud sight-gags. There was a deeper thematic point being made here in the way that a spiral of violence, messiness, and bumbling error—Santa’s workshop refigured as a little shop of horrors—produced such a blissfully untroubled moment: two kids in love with the gifts that have magically, frictionlessly materialized in their living room.
Isn’t this what a parent, on some level, desperately wants to do for his kids? Obscure the friction of the world from them as long as possible? Subdue the nastiness, hide the labor, ward off the darkness? The dream sequence later on, in which twentysomething Lilly and Jane worry about the psychic baggage they’ve inherited from their old man, is the inevitable flipside to this fantasy. I loved the tragicomic sight of crumpled old Louie with his unreal plateful of cookies, which was yet more testament (as if we needed it) to C.K.’s ability to root out jokes, like truffles, in the darkest of places.
For this reason, I wasn’t as shaken by Liz’s death as you, David. It was too unreal, too heightened, and, yes, too funny to have that effect. The sequence’s rhythm was essentially comic, not dramatic. We’re by now accustomed in the comedies we watch to taking some jarringly nightmarish detour, only to revert a beat or two later to reality—“it was all a dream,” turned, via editing-room sleight of hand, into a punch line. The scene on the bus adheres to this trope, then flips it.
At the exact moment that Louie embraces Liz, she staggers, then gushes blood, and the soundtrack goes bleak. But before you can say “What the—” there’s a hard cut that takes us out of the bus and, jarringly, from broad daylight into nighttime. This kind of cut is typically a wormhole: the moment in True Lies where we discover that Arnold Schwarzenegger did not actually break Bill Paxton’s neck in the ‘Vette, the trapdoor that whisks us back, comfortingly, to a tidier reality. The punch line here, though, is that there is no such punch line: Paramedics are loading Liz into an ambulance, and next thing you know, she’s flat-lining at the hospital.
It’s appropriate that Liz’s reappearance on the bus begins with her offering her seat to a stranger. This echoes her earlier act of altruism with the snake-hallucinating homeless man; it ties her, thematically, to that Season 2 fantasy of Louie’s in which he mops clean a filthy subway seat with his shirt; and it connects her, back even further, to the stand-up bit Louie tells in Season 1 about (not) helping the homeless man at the … Port Authority Bus Terminal. C.K. is fascinated with the idea, and the problem, of the polis: For him, sidewalks and subways and buses are, again and again, the staging grounds for bubble-bursting questions of ethical engagement. Liz did the most to tug Louie out of his bubble this season—more than Ramon, more than Jack Dall, certainly more than Amy Poehler’s Debbie and her husband, even more than Lilly and Jane. Wasn’t there something profoundly sweet, amid the grim circumstances, about the fact that Liz dies not alone, but with Louie, this guy she met in a bookstore, whose life she touched almost by chance, standing by her bedside?
When Louie stands in his apartment building hallway watching the elevator door close on a picture-perfect family tableau that does not include him, he’s Ping on the banks of the Yangtze, watching the boat set sail. I like how C.K. extends and literalizes this metaphor by dropping Louie so abruptly onto a Beijing crossroads. That sequence where he’s looking for the river was beautiful, particularly when his semaphore turned, fluidly, into an impromptu tai chi seminar.
Tony Soprano had his geese, Louie’s got his ducks. Here they are, in Beijing, grown past the duckling stage and caged in the back of a pickup truck—not the prettiest sight, but they accompany him, squawkingly, to the river. Louie doesn’t get his feet wet in the Yangtze trickle, but there’s something baptismal about the ending, which I regarded as ultimately more upbeat than you did, David. Here is a comedian, a guy who lives to make people laugh, making people he’s just met explode while speaking a language he doesn’t understand. This was a more ambiguous picture of “universal connection” than came about in the Afghanistan episode, and it captured something true about travel: the transformative way that being in a different place, stumbling through a different tongue, can take you out of your head and make you feel, exhilaratingly, like a different person. As with the shot outside the Ed Sullivan Theater, the season ends on a moment of potential transformation. Louie isn’t alone, and he’s alone. He doesn’t want to change, and he wants to change.
It was a pleasure watching this show with you guys. I’m off for some pinwheels.