This Week on Dear Television:
Man on the Brink
By Lili Loofbourow
June 5, 2014
IT TOOK ME this long just to process what happened there. Wow. Here’s where I landed, and since this Louie shares some DNA with True Detective, I hope you’ll forgive the occasional comparison.
Despite its commitment to noncontinuity, Louie’s long arc might be described as the story of a stalled-out man who — after a period of increasing, stultifying paralysis — slowly, gradually, finds some agency. Liz taught Louie how to want something actively, “Dad” was the dawn of an active principle, even if all he did was run away from his father’s house using a series of vehicles, and the Late Night wars were about Louie finding it within himself to chase something hard — complete with Rocky sequences and gym-training. But the thing about Rocky sequences is they don’t always reckon with the dark side of agency. Louie does.
One criticism of Louie I’ve agreed with throughout the years is that the character’s Good Fatherhood too often exonerates him of all his other human failings. It’s a card Louie plays a lot when it comes to garnering a sympathetic viewership: whatever his faults (and there are many), he is a good father to two angelic blonde white girls and gets along with his ex-wife. That makes us like him. A lot. Last season, that source of absolution received a blow. When Louie told Janet he couldn’t go after the Late Night job because of the girls, Janet replied that the girls didn’t need him that much. What they really needed was to see him succeed. It was harsh, but the takeaway was that Louie’s fatherly martyrdom was serving functions other than the girls’ needs and had to end. We watched Louie painfully accept that and work his way into another identity — not dad but striving Late Night host. We watched him find meaning in the effort, watched him cheer even though he failed. This season we’re back to our initial formula, man with daughters, but Louie’s different now and so — because this is a show from his point of view — is Janet. She isn’t shot anymore as yet another prophetic woman delivering Home Truths. Janet’s flawed, Louie’s mad, and the price of growth, of passivity turning to anger, is a corresponding lack of control: the events leading up to “Pamela, Part 1” have Louie screaming out of windows and smashing pianos with bats because he isn’t getting what he wants.
Here’s the thing about rediscovering your agency: it’s messy. There’s a certain simplistic American narrative about power that suggests all you need is desire and fuel. Find yours and it’ll propel you along your triumphant path to your destiny. It’s a model-train mindset that assumes power proceeds along set tracks. When desire exceeds its margins we’re stunned, even when the greatest obstacle to our being active principles in the world is watching other active principles cause harm. If it’s hard to be a desiring subject languishing in passivity, at least your suffering is contained and limited to you. It’s riskier, ethically speaking, to be a desiring subject who does something about those desires, easier to be self-sacrificing than to sacrifice something to your self. Louie is — despite its dick-joke dressing — a profoundly ethical show. It’s no coincidence that “Pamela, Part 1” starts by wondering about what gets you into Heaven.
This season, Louie has ridden that Late Night momentum and done stuff. Remember back when April (played by Gaby Hoffman) had to break up with herself because he lacked the initiative to even say the words? Now he’s turning down women and adopting a wider, looser, more creative philosophy about use. It’s a little weird: he pesters a doctor for advice on love. He uses a sex toy for his sore back. He brings birthday candles to a hurricane. If he once accepted a neighbor’s help despite his palpable sense of total isolation (remember when the gay couple offers to help when his sister is pregnant?), he’s now become the helpful and slightly interfering neighbor. He goes shopping for a giant gift bag of goodies for Ivanka. He chases down Dr. Bigelow in exactly the ways he used to hate being cornered. But Amia catapults Louie into a hurricane of uncharacteristic agency: he doesn’t just pursue Amia, he tries to take her on the kinds of high-handed magical dates Liz once took him on. It isn’t magical for Amia; it’s pleasant bordering on coercive. But he convinces her to go out with him, makes her try the fish, tries to get her to stay to live with him, insists on sex when she seems deeply reluctant, makes her leave the church when she wants to be left alone, and forces her to talk to Ivanka about it when she doesn’t want to. That’s a lot of coercion for someone who couldn’t explain to his date that her neighbor had flashed him.
A lot of this can be chalked up to miscommunication, but some of it can’t: Louie’s relationship with Amia is about the dangers of projection; it’s every bit the misstep many critics observed it was, and the show knows that. The fact that Louie’s idiot pals praise his relationship precisely because they can’t communicate shows the extent to which the show endorses the opposite view. Yes, it allows him to turn Amia into the perfect (mute) woman. Louie has theories about Amia. He thought she would like the fish. (“Do I have to?” she asks twice before trying it.) On what basis? Why? He knows nothing about her, but it’s the same “romantic” impulse that leads lovers to order for each other in restaurants. Louie, who couldn’t even get the hotel to shush the noisy guests in Elevator Part 4, to Janet’s dismay, is growing. He’s growing like a cancerous cell. He’s taking control. He’s — in Pamela’s parlance — grown balls.
If we’ve somehow forgotten how mute and tongue-tied Louie used to be, the show reminds us by reprising Louie’s zombie-mute stasis during his first contact with Pamela in season 4. We’re expecting that brunette head in the foreground of the supermarket aisle to belong to Amia, and it’s worth noting this is the first time the two women echo each other. Then she kicks him. (Louie’s surprise in that scene is ours too; kicking doesn’t seem like Amia, and from the strength of the contrast between how those two women act — which Louie fails to appreciate — stems the incredible mistake he makes later in the season.) Confronted by Pamela, Louie reverts to his old passivity, and it’s a testament to how much Louis CK has grown as an actor that we can watch his face time-travel back to where he was when he last saw her. His face goes blank and slack. These days he can actually DO things, like go after Amia hard, like throw Ivanka’s dishes on the floor in the middle of an inchoate argument, like cobble together a rescue in a hurricane. But across from Pamela, the person who most callously mocks his manhood, he’s a puddle of indecision and shock.
The seeds of what will eventually happen are all there.
This season has been interested in the limits of nonverbal communication and in the act of interpreting. Jane’s violin duet with Amia is one of the lovelier moments of intense interpersonal connection, and so is Lily’s game of chess. The girls find ways to commune with Amia, but it’s worth noting how bad a listener Louie himself is in his own interactions with her, how readily he imports external scripts. When he asks her out and Ivanka translates Amia’s response, Louie doesn’t let her finish. He decides he’s being rejected, says he understands, even though he doesn’t, and goes home to smash his piano. When she says no he decides — based on Ivanka’s quip about sexual relationships, which he assumes is a translation of Amia’s feelings on the matter — that she means yes. He’s a disastrously bad reader of Amia, and the two women are right to be taken aback when their lovelorn neighbor opens the door to his apartment holding a baseball bat. It takes seeing what Amia was actually saying in her scenes with Louie to understand how overwhelmingly he overread her investment in what they had. She’s warm and understanding throughout, but she’s trying to let him down easy. “You’re very likeable,” she says. At no point is her story his story, the one where two lovelorn people are torn asunder by the demands of their respective lives.
There’s been a lot of speculation as to whether Louis CK, the comedian, is in some way authorizing what Louie the character did — both to Amia and, because the lack of consent was even more apparent, to Pamela. Given the parallels between both scenes and how the latter scene, in particular, was shot, the answer seems clear. Others have pointed out that it’s shot like a horror sequence. Adlon’s muscles are straining as she tries to get away from him. She drags the furniture trying to get away. This is not passive resistance — which Amia’s could be construed as being. It’s active and horrifying. It’s a scene lacking any directorial ambiguity, and it’s therefore my hope (and belief) that Louis CK, by emphasizing the horror, plans to fully explore the ugly truths from which True Detective, for instance, shied away. There’s been way too much buildup, way too much overt philosophizing about the relations between women and men and ugly desire, for Louie to shrug off that horrific sequence with Pamela under the rug the way True Detective shrugs off Marty’s abuse, his misogyny, his beating of two innocent boys and shooting of an unarmed man as just so much character-dressing before an unearned redemption.
In other words, Louie is sketching out the psychology of an abuser by making us recognize abuse in someone we love. Someone thoughtful and shy, raising daughters of his own, doing his best. Someone totally cognizant of the issues that make him susceptible to the misogyny monster. Someone who thinks hard about women and men and still gets it badly wrong.
“Pamela, Part 1” features two important set-pieces. One is Louie’s longer-than-usual stand-up meditation on how women have been mistreated by men and excluded from democracy. The explicit content of this bit is women’s voicelessness — their inability to vote Yes or No. Prior to this season, my theory was that Louis CK the comedian stood outside the show commenting on the events in Louie in the stand-up segments; in other words, the stand-up isn’t “inside” the show but a companion-piece to it. If that remains true in season 4, then Louis CK is winking to us throughout his lecture on the abuse women suffer at the hands of men, showing us he has the right politics and preparing us for what’s coming. Fine, maybe a little predictable. I argued at the beginning of this season, though, that something’s changed; whatever distance existed between Character Louie and Stand-up Louie is gone now. The stand-up seems to live inside the show in a way it didn’t before, and that’s partly a function of Louie getting his groove back. It’s easier to imagine him as a successful comedian now than it was when all he could do was stare sadly. If that change is real — and the fact that the stand-up came in the middle rather than at the beginning, as it used to, seems to support that — then the show’s doing something deeper still: it’s showing that Louie the character can lecture about a woman’s right to say no, go home, and refuse to listen to a woman saying no. That’s a singularly gutsy thing to do to a beloved character who’s benefited for so long from the saintly mantle of Good Fatherhood. It almost feels like Louis CK’s been testing us to see how much we’ll forgive: Louie started the season by accidentally punching a model; he’s progressed to a near rape. Are we still in his corner? Or is he keeping us there?
The second important set-piece in “Pamela, Part 1” is Michael Kostroff’s cameo as the guy on the subway talking animatedly to a hapless woman about his problems. When we first see them, we assume they know each other. She nods slightly at one point. That nod is key; it’s the gesture that fools us into believing we’re witnessing a conversation rather than a lunatic monologue. It’s the kind of gesture of agreement or assent a woman makes when she’s in danger — the kind Pamela makes when she agrees to Louie’s kiss, in fact. When the woman runs out of the subway car and Kostroff turns to Louie and continues his monologue, we realize how badly we misread the situation. We weren’t watching a consensual conversation between coworkers; we were watching a woman corralled against her will by a man who is mentally ill and really, really upset.
That’s what “Elevator” is too, in some sense: a beautiful, touching portrait of two people who almost fell in love. But when we hear her side of it thanks to the translator over at Slate, it’s considerably closer to what the woman on the subway experienced — and Louie, like Kostroff, moves onto the next woman to continue the conversation he thought he was having without missing a single beat.
What Michael Kostroff’s character says to Louie is telling: “They pushed me too far, and too far is too far.”
It’s a sentence as chilling as it is sad — almost as chilling as the other conversation we overhear in this episode, where the two mob goons are planning a midnight murder. “Pamela, Part 1” is full of foreboding and men on the brink.
It’s hard to hear these sentiments and not think of Elliot Rodger, who felt he was owed women. Louie is a far cry from Rodger, but that’s exactly the point: when you’re the woman in the corner, the potential distance between the Louies and the Elliots gets mighty small. And the horrible thing is that people might see and not even realize what’s happening. And even if they do realize it, they might still come away thinking well, Marty Hart is a decent guy. Louie was so careful trying not to touch Amia when he woke her on the couch. It was probably a onetime thing.
Others have noted the parallels between Pamela and Amia: Louie sees both of them asleep on a couch and corners both of them in his apartment. The difference is that one is shot like a romance and the other is shot like horror; that Louie is delighted with the outcome in both cases forces us to think a lot harder about what else they might share.
“That was a big mistake,” Amia says to Louie when they wake up. “We’ve ruined what was good, understand?”
I want to be by myself and I am not even Catholic,