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Seitz: On Louie, ‘New Year’s Eve,’ and Respecting the Mystery

I briefly wrote about “New Year’s Eve,” the third season finale of Louie, in my list of 2012’s best comedy episodes. I’m writing about it again here because I’ve thought about it every day since I first watched it back in September; because today is New Year’s Eve (a hook), and because it’s the most audacious installment of a TV show since the final episode of The Sopranos. Those two episodes have little in common on a plot-and-character level. I mention them in tandem because they embrace ambiguity and deny viewers the footholds that series TV usually provides.

As I wrote in an August column about how the show makes stand-up techniques cinematic:

Season three started out with a series of personal, professional, and even sexual humiliations for Louie — some hugely exaggerated, even ridiculous, such as the bit where Louie's car gets gratuitously destroyed, and others wry and ‘realistic,’ such as the episode in which Louie develops a man-crush on a hotel employee in Miami — and then built to a surprisingly intense dramatic peak in episodes four and five, which starred Parker Posey as a dark free spirit who forced Louie to confront his depression and suicidal urges. Soon after that, Louie aired a segment in which the hero had to babysit a horrible brat who only eats raw meat, pushes baby carriages into traffic, hurls rugs from apartment windows, and evacuates his bowels in the bathtub, just because. Neither the boy nor his even more loathsome mother were ‘realistic’; they were the sorts of absurd caricatures who would appear in a stand-up routine by a comic who had just been through a rotten experience and needed to vent. Yet this story — as well as ‘Dad,’ which climaxed with Louie racing through Boston on foot and on a stolen motorcycle and speedboat — all existed within the same fictional framework, one in which anything is possible.

No episode of Louie exemplifies the “anything is possible” aesthetic better than “New Year’s Eve.” It feels loose and spontaneous, but it’s dense and vivid as a dream, packed with signs and symbols and narrative feints and images you can’t be entirely sure how to take.

It begins with Louie in beleaguered dad mode, watching his daughters unwrap presents on Christmas morning. The unwrapping is intercut with hilarious flashbacks to Louie shopping, wrapping, and — in a brilliant, extended slapstick sequence — trying to fix a doll. (“What happened to your eyes?” he asks the doll, a line that viewers may ask themselves when the episode ends in China.) The next segment finds Louie reading a storybook about “a beautiful young duck named Ping” to his daughters. Echoing the show’s ongoing fascinating with ducklings (including season two’s Afghanistan finale) it’s a minimalist sequence comprised mainly of close-ups of the illustrations. It also obliquely predicts where we’ll go in “New Year’s Eve.” The ducks are not real; they’re just drawings on a page, just as the characters in Louie are just words on a page; they become “real” through the act of storytelling. The story is simple and appeals to very basic emotions, and its images connect with elements strewn throughout the episode’s script. (The ducks’ home is a boat with two eyes painted on the prow.)

We never get to hear the end of the duck story. Louie’s reading cuts off when his ex-wife knocks on the door, setting up an uncomfortable yet surprisingly warm conversation about the hero’s failed brush with stardom in the three-episode Letterman arc leading up to the finale. After his kids leave with their mom for a two-week stay, Louie undresses his Christmas tree and chucks it out the window — like that brat did the rug earlier in season three! — and goes to sleep.

We’re eight minutes into a 24-minute episode, and the hero is slumbering. In most shows, a shot of hero going to sleep would signal that everything that follows is “just a dream” and thus not “real.” But on Louie, such markers don’t necessarily mean what you think they do. At the very least, the series makes you question their usefulness. In some sense the entire three-season run of Louie is like that extended sequence in The Sopranos’ “Test Dream.” Reality and fantasy are intertwined to the point where those nouns become useless.

Then Louie “wakes up” — lots of scare quotes in this article, I know, but roll with me — and takes a phone call from his sister Debbie (Amy Poehler). Alarmed by her brother’s obvious depression, she invites him to join her cheerful redneck husband Doug on a holiday trip to Mexico. “Are you all by yourself?” she asks him. “Does it have to be ‘all’? ‘All’ by myself?” he answers. “I don’t want you to be alone for New Year’s,” she says. Cut to Louie still in bed, watching a local news story about an “unusual Christmas gift.” (“Anna Davis didn’t even know that her neighbors were gay men!”)

Then Louie falls asleep again — two minutes and thirty seconds after the last “dream sequence” signifier — and imagines his daughters all grown up and talking about their lives in hilariously vague terms.  (“Wow, we’re like, probably in our twenties!”) The daughters picture their father as a lonely old man. They say the word “alone” over and over. (“Why didn’t he try harder to be less alone?”)

This is the first sequence in the episode that feels like a traditionally coded dream sequence. It’s heralded by Chinese music that connects the sequence to the duck book. I wouldn’t pretend to know precisely what Louis C.K. intended by placing that particular music cue where he did, but to me it feels like the key to the episode. It marks the point where “New Year’s Eve” fully commits to a dreamlike or storybook-like aesthetic. Cute talking ducks make their home in a boat on the Yangtze River; we accept this because that’s the story, and the storyteller sounds as if he means everything he saying. Ditto the second half of “New Year’s Eve.” We’re leaving the “real” world behind now — as if it were ever “real” in the first place. Louie is bedeviled by newscasters, one of whom seems to directly taunt him to kill himself — a reminder of his moment on the rooftop with Liz in “Daddy’s Girlfriend, Part 2,” in which she correctly deduced that he didn’t want to join her on the edge because he was afraid he might jump. Louie wakes himself up by taking a shower with his clothes on. His scream reminds me of Captain Willard’s scream in the shower at the end of the first sequence in Apocalypse Now (a great dream-logic film in which almost nothing is plausible, yet everything feels real).

He goes to the airport and sees Liz on a shuttle, but within seconds of meeting her she collapses, blood streaming from her nose, and a couple of scenes later she’s dead. Did Liz really die, or is this a dream-logic reenactment of Louie’s date with her, a night that he later considered a missed opportunity at great love?

Now we’re in nightmare mode, ascending to a plateau of dread. The moment when Louie walks through the hospital hallways to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne” is so eerily powerful that I get a chill just thinking of it. Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? Is Liz dead? Is Louie dead emotionally, or only sleeping?  

“Auld Lang Syne” keeps playing as Louie lies down on an airport bench and goes to sleep yet again — the episode’s third blatant “dream sequence” signifier. In “New Year’s Eve,” the reality/dream boundaries blur and disappear, as if to certify that they were arbitrary anyway.  The show has experimented with this technique before, sometimes definitively separating “dreams” from “reality” (as in the “Subway” segment of “Subway/Pamela”), other times slipping out of “reality” and into a figurative or metaphorical mode (the wild action scene at the end of “Dad”). But this is the first episode that seems wholly dedicated to rendering the dream/reality distinction useless. It insists that we experience every moment in terms of emotional logic and metaphor, as we might one of our own dreams.

“New Year’s Eve” retroactively makes David Lynch’s appearance in the Letterman arc feel like more than a fan’s tribute. C.K. seems to have as deep an affinity for Lynch’s work as he does for Woody Allen’s, and his creative development on FX seems to be following Lynch’s arc. Since Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lynch moved further away from commercial filmmaking clichés, releasing a series of features (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire) that followed dream logic, or anti-logic, from start to finish, as if to attack the foundations of narrative itself. Louie is built around the thoughts and feelings of its hero, a storyteller who has confidence in his imagination but zero confidence in his life, yet must live in both worlds at once. He is always asleep and awake, always feeling and thinking, always dreaming and being. The show’s form has evolved to reflect this, becoming more daring and alienating. “New Year’s Eve” is to Louis C.K. as Inland Empire is to Lynch. It hurls narrative conventions out the nearest window like Louie did his Christmas tree. This is truly audacious. No commercial TV storyteller has been so insistent that we respect the mystery of what he’s doing, and be okay with the fact that he won’t hold our hand as we follow his journey. Even at their most surreally playful, David Chase and Dennis Potter (The Singing Detective) delineated reality from dreams. They didn’t just leave us unmoored, uncertain what to trust, or how to see. At no point in “New Year’s Eve” does the filmmaker reassure us that something “really” happened or was “just a dream,” much less tell us which bits of the episode, if any, refer to previous events in the hero’s life. The episode is as mournfully opaque as Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, a film in which nothing was real and everything mattered.

Did Louie really go to China to see the Yangtze River, do an impromptu tai chi routine with a man on the street, and end up in a tiny house eating noodles and conversing with locals in a language he doesn’t speak? Is Louie’s trip to China a harbinger of a new frontier that he’ll spontaneously explore in season four? Is his disappointment at finding the “Yangtze” — a piddling little stream in a field — a metaphor for his doomed chase after Letterman’s gig, or his failed relationships, or his failed marriage, or something else? Is the final landscape shot — the sun winking through foliage like a Christmas star, backed by a reprise of “Auld Lang Syne” — an indication that Louie has found inner peace, however briefly, and is ready to move on, and perhaps be less alone? I don’t know the answer to any of those questions. Neither do you, and neither, I’d wager, does the filmmaker-star, an artist with a direct line to his unconscious. Louie reminds me of a line from Donald Antrim’s introduction to Donald Barthleme’s 1975 postmodern novel The Dead Father: "One has the sense that its author enjoys an almost complete artistic freedom … a permission to reshape, misrepresent, or even ignore the world as we find it … Laughing along with its author, we escape anxiety and feel alive."

Photo: FX