Last week's Louie was season three's first foray into independent, only thematically related story lines. There were laughs, and there was Robin Williams, but the episode left something to be desired. Had Louie funneled all its greatness toward longer stories and lost its keen touch for the dual-vignette episode? Absolutely not, because "Ikea/Piano Lesson" is a flawless, instant classic.
The two segments revolve around personal histories — one we've seen onscreen before and one from Louis C.K.'s actual life. Let's start with the latter, because it's not only phenomenal, it's laden with even deeper real life context than the superlative Dane Cook stand-off last season.
Channel-surfing one night, Louie finds an eighties clip of his more svelte self performing some proto-C.K. stand-up ("New York is the only city I've ever been in where you have to actually say things like, 'Hey, that's mine, don't pee on that'"). Next on is Sarah Silverman, who gets out a full old bit before Louie is tempted to call her up. 2012 Silverman belts out a beautiful laugh at seeing her earnest eighties self. The two start chatting like regular buddies watching TV on opposite ends of the phone, when — dun dun dun — Marc Maron shows up on the tube.
Refresher: Maron and C.K. are both mid-forties comics who came up together in Boston and New York. They were also best friends — not the way you picture showbiz buddies, but like you and your own best friend. Maron was GQ's archetypical "pal who possesses deep insight on the profile subject" in a 2011 feature about C.K., calling Louis "a poet" who applies "his incredible imagination to something that was very relatable to people." But somewhere along the line the buddies had a prolonged falling out during which their lives changed drastically — divorces for both, children for C.K. The two came together on Maron's then-burgeoning "WTF" podcast in October 2010, resulting in a two-part gem that seemed very much like a public hatchet-burying. They talked comedy and clubs and comics, of course, but, like on any shining episode of "WTF," they got deeply personal about both their relationship and their own lives. Louie choked up while recalling the birth of one of his daughters. It's a potent couple of hours I've listened to twice and will one day sift through again. The twist ending is that, after the heartwarming reconciliation, it seems the two haven't done much to keep their rekindled friendship alight since.
So on Louie, Louie is emotional at seeing Maron on TV. He hasn't spoken to Marc in ten years, and Silverman reminds him they were inseparable for ages. Louie has a revelation that the grudge he's been holding was his own fault, and he's off to make amends.
Maron still lives in New York in the Louieverse, having never moved to L.A. to start a podcast in his garage at a house called the Cat Ranch. Marc patiently sits through Louie's whole pious spiel, bodily channeling the "comedian's therapist/comedian's Oprah" he's been likened to again and again for the emotional nakedness his podcast engenders. Being at all aware of Maron's sticky old reputation for tempestuousness makes it riveting to await his reaction; it seems like he'll be touched, like the "WTF" BFF moment is about to be reprised on film. And then, in a new hall of fame punch line to one of Louie's long-winded attempts at straight-shooting (see: his romantic overture to Pamela in season two, or his convoluted asking-out of Parker Posey this season), Maron reminds the oblivious Louie that he made the exact same soul-searching confession five years ago. Boom. Amazing.
Still, Maron accepts Louie's self-centered gesture of righteousness, adding that he'd love to genuinely catch up with Louie over coffee or dinner, like longtime best friends are supposed to do. "Yeah, no, yeah yeah, yeah, we'll do that, yeah" Louie says, his voice scooching up to that register we all use for insincere commitments. "Great. Or we could just do this again in five years," Maron says, at peak acidity. Louie has the audacity to try and feign interest in how Maron's been — as he's walking out the door. It's an astonishing kicker to an honest look at friendship and solipsism, and how hard it is to deal with both simultaneously. So much of this series is Louie planting himself in a situation — often a simple conversation — and working out an ordinary issue that's never clearly delineated into black and white. He parses through these things onscreen in an almost identical fashion to what makes his comedy act one of the only ones you're continually driven to tell your friends about. (When you remember your friends exist.)
Earlier in the episode we have Delores, looking indistinguishable to the last scarring time we saw her — that same beret and the same scrunchy face, at once open, blank, and untrusting. And wouldn't you know it, she has residual feelings about that time she and Louie, through the art of sexual teamwork, resurrected some truly awful memories of abuse or her father or both. (We've had residual feelings, too, Delores; that was absolutely the most cringe-worthy failed romance Louie has ever made us watch, bar none.)
Delores is desperate for closure with Louie — she wants him to come to therapy so she can express those leftover feelings to him in front of another human. And for once, Louie declines what would no doubt be a horrifying scenario! So Delores moves back to the insta-husbanding territory she pioneered last season, just before the whole spanking and crying tragedy, by asking Louie if he'll at least go to Ikea with her. Standing in front of their children's school, Delores offers Louie a blow job if he'll just tag along.
At the Swedish furniture factory J.B. Smoove used as the butt of a joke last week, Louie is glued to what he's dubbed in stand-up as his "personality-annihilating phone" and gets nailed with a marriage fight with Delores. "It really burns me that you need me to tell you how to be helpful. It's harder than doing everything myself, and it's insulting, really." She's talking about choosing a rug for her son's room. She's also talking to her ex-husband through Louie.
Delores has a meltdown at Louie's bafflement and lack of enthusiasm. Louie tucks the basket case of a woman into a child's Ikea bed with a heart-strewn blanket, and it's hard envisioning better closure to this insane relationship.
• Maron's Louie-weary performance was dead-on. And the guy barely ever acts.
• Marc reminds Louie he cried the last time he made the "I'm a bad friend" confession. C.K. actually crying on Maron's "WTF" podcast is an infamous moment, often referenced by guesting comics worrying about getting too emotional, "going all C.K." It was also great to see Maron's hallmark "So we good?" slid in.
• I don't want to poke a stick into the bees’ nest that is Marc Maron's psyche, but ... doesn't it seem like C.K. wrote himself as Maron here a little bit? Marc asks if Louie's apology is prompted by his need for something; in real life, C.K. has intimated that Maron only calls to try to get him back on "WTF." “I tell him I’m happy to sit down anytime for a real conversation, but he just wants me to do the podcast again. It’s a little weird,” C.K. told New York in 2011. Yikes. I hope they actually went out for a coffee or a meal around the taping of this episode. And yes, I'm way too invested.
• Maria Bamford returned for an entirely subsidiary plot about getting crabs. She does get one of the episode's great lines, though: "Uhh … so … fuck you, or sorry. I don't know which one." At least Louie gets to escape his misguided attempt to learn piano as an adult.
• So many stellar guest stars and cameos already this year — Bamford, Maron, Parker Posey, Gaby Hoffmann, Melissa Leo, Allan Havey, Artie Lange, J.B. Smoove, Robin Williams. By season four, will C.K. do away with working actors entirely and stick to comedians, Oscar winners, and other marquee names?
• Speaking of season four! I missed my window of timeliness last time, but screw it: Can we have a collective moment of celebration that Louie is definitely coming back next year? Wahoo!
• Louie's nightmarish reality show, Money House, made a brief reappearance.
• "It's a RUG. It's fine. That's the level of passion that a rug warrants. It's a rug. It doesn't solve all my problems, but it doesn't make me angry. … It doesn't make me come, but it's fine." Reminiscent of C.K.'s riff on semantics and how "we go right for the top shelf with our words" nowadays. "'It was amazing!' Really? You were amazed by a basket of chicken wings? What are you gonna do with the rest of your life now?"
• "So … notify me … when you want me to … suck it."
• Louie's motorcycle and his French motorcycling music are back, briefly. Drink.