A review of the “Louie” season finale coming up just as soon I'm a mailbox on two tree stumps with a melon on top…
“You know, Louie, you can't just make people do things!” -Pamela
It's been really fascinating to watch this season of “Louie,” and to see the normally continuity-agnostic(*) Louis CK not only do several multi-part stories, but essentially devote the entire season to a character arc about Louie's reckoning with his own emotions.
(*) Those inclinations didn't entirely go away this season. In the present, Louie's brother Bobby exists again; in “In the Woods,” he's an only child.
We began season 4 with Louie in a fog, unable to feel much of anything, even when garbage men literally invade his bedroom to make sure he's awake. And each time he tries to do something to wake himself up from this stupor, it blows up in his face. The quest for a vibrator and the possible new sexual satisfaction it might provide triggers a back injury. His night with the sexy model ends with her disfigured and Louie in debt to her for the rest of his life. His encounter with Vanessa in “So Did the Fat Lady” is more a matter of her prodding than his – in fact, it somewhat mirrors Louie's pursuit of Pamela in the past and present – but he's still closed off for reasons beyond her physique. But then Amia enters the picture, and Pamela re-appears, and suddenly Louie is overwhelmed by his feelings for these women, by his complicated history with Janet, by his inability to speak to or help Jane. And when the story takes a breather from present day to give us adolescent Louie, it's for a story about how he nearly ruined his life by going through a period where his abundant weed supply muted all his feelings and shut him off from any part of the world that didn't involve getting high again.
And after that detour to 1981, we return to the present for the culmination of the smaller Pamela arc and the larger arc of Louie and his emotions and his difficulty conveying them to himself and others.
But I don't know if the conclusion that CK intended is the conclusion that comes across. I loved many individual moments tonight, but the overall effect was muddled.
Two weeks ago, the scene where Louie bars Pamela from leaving his apartment, demanding that she kiss him – coming so soon on the heels of a scene where he behaved similarly with Amia – left a lot of viewers (this one included) wondering whether he intended to more directly confront the undertones of rape there, beyond Pamela joking that Louie is too stupid to even rape well. And if Parts 2 & 3 were designed as a response, the response came across as Louie understanding Pamela better than she understands herself, knowing that she has even more trouble dealing with her feelings than he does, and having to force them out of her through physical and/or verbal demands. If it isn't quite “the lips say no, but the eyes say yes,” it's closer than I would hope CK meant to get.
And even as CK is setting Louie up as the Pamela whisperer, there remains the problem of Pamela's own awfulness, and how Louie is going to such extreme, and at times creepy, lengths to make her his girlfriend. Even when she's intending to be nicer to him, this is still a toxic pairing. Giving away all of your boyfriend's furniture without his permission, or pretending to make fun of his body after you've gently coaxed him into getting naked in front of you for the first time, or any of the other stunts Pamela pulls with Louie here are not the marks of a free spirit who strikes an irresistible chord in Louie's heart; they are the signs of someone from whom he should run with the same swiftness (and same use of a cigarette boat) he used to get away from his father in Boston last season.
So even though we get that incredibly romantic moment under the stars in Central Park, and even though C.K. gets to give us his version of the cross-cut sex scenes from “Don't Look Now” and “Out of Sight,” it's being done in service of a relationship that seems self-destructive. Pamela has her moments, like the pep talk she gives Louie after his awkward encounter with Marc Maron(*), but there seems to be no way this ends well – and not just because giving Louie a steady girlfriend would radically alter the series going forward (more on that in a bit).
(*) Maron's complaints about Louie are more or less paraphrased from CK's own complaints about Maron on his famous appearance on Maron's WTF podcast. So often on this show (including last week's story, which was based on an incident CK has also discussed in his stand-up act), art imitates life, but here, art inverts life.
Maybe the idea is that these two deserve each other – not in a “happily ever after” sense, but in a “no one else would have us” sense. But that's not the way it came across. Louie getting in the tub with Pamela (after he failed to take her up on a similar invitation back in season 2) is treated as a triumphant moment – and also, when his large, naked body displaces so much of the water, a comic one(**) – rather than Louie embarking on a misguided new adventure.
(**) I generally have no problem at all with the more dramatic direction the series has gone in since season 1, especially when it leads to things like “Eddie” or “In the Woods.” But I have to say that I felt an enormous wave of relief when we got that extended sequence of Louie and Pamela making fun of all the installations at the art show, because it's been so rare to have “Louie” be funny at all anymore, let alone for that length of time.
FX hasn't renewed “Louie” yet, though I imagine at this point that this is a Larry David situation where it's up to CK to decide if and when he wants to keep doing it. Pamela Adlon is free of her commitment to “Californication,” so she could conceivably stick around for a while, and maybe even pitch in with the writing some more. (These episodes are the first two of the series where C.K. hasn't gotten sole script credit, though he's shared the story credit with Adlon a few times in the past.) But part of what makes the show's unique economic model work isn't just that CK can do so many jobs himself, but that he's the only contracted castmember. Maybe something could be worked out where she's still a guest but appears in many or even most of the episodes, and we could get a fifth season exploring how Louie's life changes for the better and (I fear, mostly) for the worse with this new relationship.
But where the previous two seasons stealthily built to powerfully cathartic moments (Louie saying goodbye to Pamela at the airport, Louie being spurred by Liz's death and his own depression to go to China), this heavily serialized fourth season was one where the journey was ultimately more compelling than the destination it brought us and Louie to.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org