Louie, Season 3
Is Louie’s father a monster?
Photo courtesy of FX.
Man. With this episode, I have to begin, for a second, with the ending, because it’s one that will linger with me for a while, I think. Louie sits in a boat out somewhere in the middle of Boston Harbor, unmoored, symbolically, from his father, and thus at sea in general. The soundtrack is silent as the credits roll. The episode is called “Dad.”
I’ll get back to that in a minute. But the show begins with a funny joke that obliquely sets up what follows—and also makes use of one of Ursula Parker’s many talents. She plays Jane, wonderfully, and she also, as I mentioned a couple weeks ago, played Carnegie Hall, as a violinist, when she was 8. In lieu of the usual opening credits sequence, we get her beautiful playing of a classical piece, followed by her father angrily yelling that it’s not time for that—she needs to do her homework. As someone whose parents could never get him to practice the piano, I enjoyed this classic C.K. reversal of expectations. And later, when I understood what the episode was about, I appreciated that however ridiculous Louie’s actions appear to be—is it really a good idea to yell at your daughter about her beautiful violin playing?—he is, at least, present, and trying. Yes, dads often get too much credit for just showing up (C.K. has poked fun of that on this show before). But that’s partly because so many dads don’t.
And one of those dads is Louie’s. Before delving into that particular father-son relationship, I should at least mention the scene at the big-box electronics store—but honestly I wish C.K. had just cut that bit. Perhaps FX demands that each episode be a certain length, but this interlude added little for me. It dramatized a funny stand-up riff that appeared on the show last season about the entitled (lack of) customer service provided by 20-year-olds, but all I could think was Hey, Louie. Maybe read the DVD box yourself? Or buy the device online? Oh, and why was the man in the security-camera footage briefly played by someone other than C.K.? I couldn’t figure that out.
Anyway, we soon arrive at the episode’s real drama: Louie gets a phone call from his Uncle Ex (what’s with that name?), who speaks in a hard-to-place, European-sounding accent (though he is, presumably, Mexican) and has an imperious manner. “We should have lunch tomorrow,” he declares over telephone static and strange beeping sounds. “Do you accept?” He suggests the Russian Tea Room, and there Louie has lunch with a man played by F. Murray Abraham—last seen on this series as some sort of suburban New Jersey swinger, clearly no blood relation. No matter: Unlike last week, we have dismissed continuity completely. And Abraham was brilliant in conveying a haughty formality that could not feel more foreign to Louie. “We’d like two Cornish hens, and some water,” he tells the waiter. And to Louie: “I was in Boston yesterday, because I bought a credenza in Geneva. I was there representing Mexico in an international finance analysis conference and I was invited to the palace of some sort of duke. He had this wonderful credenza and I asked him about it.”
Eventually he gets around to what matters: In Boston he saw Louie’s father. And Louie, he says, needs to go see him. Even if Louie’s father is the kind of person who would let your horse die when said equine is entrusted to his care—Louie’s father is such a person, apparently—he is family. And, unlike prostitutes, from whom one can separate oneself through use of a condom (so you “won’t catch her wretchedness”), there is nothing that separates a person from his family. At least I think that’s what Uncle Ex was getting at with that tortured analogy, awkwardly illustrated with his middle finger. In any case, this scene was brilliant.
And I loved the poker scene, too, in which Jim Norton confesses to masturbating to his own lewd, child-like drawings. (“It’s a contemporary work,” he admits regarding a folded-up doodle accidentally unearthed from his wallet.) But that was mostly a way station on the path that Louie has to travel toward his father. That journey is so stressful for Louie that he vomits, develops a rash, and starts hearing things. On the flight to Massachusetts, for instance: “Ladies and gentlemen,” a stewardess announces over the intercom, “we’re making our final descent into Logan Airport in Boston, where your father lives. Please return your seatbacks to the upright position.” Louie develops that joke further at the rental car place and then with the rented vehicle’s GPS. It’s all amusing, but as these jokes arrive, the anxiety is building, almost unbearably.
In this discussion a few weeks ago, Patton Oswalt compared Louie to Jaws: The big jokes on the show build like the shark beneath the water. “You know something bad (and hilarious) is coming,” Patton wrote, “if only because of all of the buried death, awkwardness, hostility, and desperation.” This time, C.K. went so far as to commission Jaws-like cello music for the episode, a score that slowly crescendoed along with Louie’s anxiety about the impending father-and-child reunion. It got so tense that I actually covered my mouth in horror when Louie almost crashed his rental car. And then it really did become a psychological thriller: After a tense, hilarious encounter with a muscle-bound Masshole (he calls Louie a “quee-yah” but seems to be a stand-up guy), Louie jumps on to a motorcycle and makes for the coast, where he hops in a speedboat and flees from …
What, exactly? The rental-car GPS told us that Louie’s father wasn’t a monster, whatever the cello music thinks. “Why are you being such a little pussy about this?” the navigational device asked. “He’s your father. It’s not like he touched your dick or something.” But these relationships, our most intimate and fundamental, are complicated. “I just feel weird around him,” Louie replies.
And once he’s out there in the middle of the harbor, hair flying in the wind, Louie cuts the gas, slows the boat, and catches his breath. Then he lets out a big belly laugh, marveling, I think, at the absurdity of his flight. What was he so afraid of?
Whatever the monster is, it hasn’t been vanquished. It’s not under the water. But it exists, probably somewhere in Louie’s own mind. That doesn’t make it any less real.