deep dives

For All of Louie’s Ambition, That One Ugly Scene Still Lingers: A Conversation About Season 4

Photo: KC Bailey/FX

Vulture’s TV critic, Matt Zoller Seitz, and our Louie recapper, Danielle Henderson, had an IM conversation this morning about the show’s fourth season.

Matt: I don’t know how I feel about this season of Louie. That’s often the case with this show. It often leaves me unsure of how to feel, not just about what happened, but about how it happened. Structurally, it’s an incredibly ambitious season, and I think it holds together as a kind of grand mosaic. You’ve got “Elevator” parts one through six; a two-parter about Louie’s childhood experience with his mother and his pot-smoking interlude; and the three-part Pamela, which wrapped up the season Monday night, and which provided season four of Louie with an argumentative flash-point: the near-rape episode, which we’ve both written about extensively: you in your recap, me in a piece about how the show uses episode breaks and one-week gaps between shows to mess with the audience’s desire to have a definitive, instantaneous, case-closed response to everything.

My own position on that particular episode was that everybody needed to chill out and wait till they saw the second and third parts of Pamela, then judge.

Now we’ve seen them. We can look at the first Pamela episode in context of parts two and three, and in context of the entire season. What do we think? Where did he leave us? Did the show earn the right to traffic in what was, for an ostensible comedy, some pretty squicky material? Does a show, or any work of popular art, have to “earn” the right to do anything? Is Louis C.K. making things as difficult and challenging as possible for himself as well as the audience? Is this an Emperor’s New Sitcom situation?

Danielle: I agree with you in that I rarely end these seasons feeling a sense of closure; I find myself thinking about singular episodes or scenes months later and wondering how, or if, it fits into the season better as part of an ongoing narrative or a standalone entity. This season, so many of the episodes stitched together and spaced apart, made it impossible to formulate an opinion right away, giving it that new sitcom feel, but so much of it was reflective and not funny, which was new, too.

I don’t always need C.K. to be funny, and I think he does some of his better, more absurd work when he’s not aiming for the punch line, but it gave that sense of trolling that you mentioned in your June 4 article about the show. I think he’s earned the right to keep us guessing, to put what are essentially two movies together as a season of television.

I trust him to handle the squicky material; he’s so good at it in his stand-up, and flexible enough to make the hard jokes while still keeping you on his side.

Matt: Here’s the things, though — and I say “things” because there are two, and for me they’re related.

The first thing is this: Louie C.K. has positioned everything he’s doing on this show in terms of subjective personal expression, as something that might make you feel certain emotions but that is not in any way meant to be interpreted as “real” in the way that most shows are supposed to be taken as “real.” I mean like “consistent,” or “possessing a certain internal integrity,” or something along those lines. C.K. isn’t making that kind of show. From week to week, there are always elements of provocation — moments, or incidents, or whole scenes, sometimes whole segments, that stick out because they are, for one reason or another, jarring. Like the end of season three, where he goes to China, or dreams he goes to China, and we never learn if it was “real” or if it even matters if it was or wasn’t real. Or the episode where he goes to see his dad and then chickens out and runs away and it turns into an action movie. Or the David Letterman three-parter last year that I didn’t particularly like, except for the David Lynch scenes, where he’s trying to get the job and he’s training in a bunch of different ways, and the whole thing is treated like he’s trying to invent an artificial heart or rescue children from a war zone or be resurrected after the Crucifixion or whatever. Or the dream sequences that pepper every season, sometimes popping up at random. Or the moments where TV newscasters speak in gobbledygook or describe nonexistent weather conditions or geographical spots. Anyway, there’s, “This show is not real, you can’t judge it in terms of what could happen or should happen, nobody on the show is a role model, they’re all just characters on a page,” and so forth. Duly noted.

But then there’s the actual effect of the show: the emotional effect. You respond to these people as “real” even though we’re pretty clearly looking at a modernist work that’s mixing modes and styles and very deliberately screwing with the viewer’s perceptions. And in that emotional continuum, we’ve had a pretty consistent sense of who Louie is. And we never saw him a potential rapist. A sexually dysfunctional person in some ways, sure, but who isn’t that in some way? What’s normal when it comes to sex?

What’s abnormal, or at least unpleasant and threatening, is the prospect of being forced to do something you don’t want to do. And there’s no getting around the fact that that’s what happened with Louie and Pamela, and the show doesn’t really deal with that. My point — and I do have one, as Ellen DeGeneres once said — is that I couldn’t look at the charming romantic-comedy wrap-up of the Pamela story line, with her becoming kind of the most complicated and infuriating Manic Pixie Dream Girl of all time, and yet somehow more real than any of those characters she reminded me of, without thinking, “Not too long ago, the dude she’s mooning over was trying to kiss her and feel her up against her will.” Yes, I know, it’s a modernist work, nothing is “real,” I get that, and I’m fine with it.

But — do you know what I’m getting at? That scene at the end of “Pamela Part 1” just keeps bobbing up like something nasty that you want to stay at the bottom of the ocean of the show’s subconscious. You want it to stay down there because it complicates what should be a sweet and rather redemptive arc. And I don’t know how I feel about any of that, including the “this is not real, nothing is real, chill out” implication of it all.

Danielle: But sweet and redemptive are not his forte at all, so it make sense that even in a story line where he gets the girl, it’s still messy and complicated, right? It’s not as drastic as a woman jumping into a helicopter during what she perceives to be a bad date, or finally reuniting with the mysterious, fleeting love he tended for a few weeks only to have her die violently, but that heightened reality coupled with this character’s general failings as a human being set him up to always have something uncomfortable to recover from, to always feel like he’s recovering from some inadequacy, right?

Matt: Oh, sure, absolutely. And there were moments where I looked at Pamela and Louie being all lovey-dovey and perfect-matchy, with the guitar music playing as if they were characters in a Sundance indie, and thought, This can’t be trusted. This must be as subjective as everything else on the show. This is as subjective as him jumping in the cigarette boat to get away from his father, or the Letterman three-parter. The show’s a mood ring. It changes shape and form according to what Louie is thinking and feeling. It distorts itself.

So maybe it follows that what we saw between Louie and Pamela in the apartment can’t be trusted, either? That it’s just his interpretation of what happened? The second part of the Pamela arc begins with them in a modern-art gallery — that’s Louis C.K. and Pamela Adlon, who co-wrote the arc and is a producer as well as a co-star, giving you a frame to put around the entire season, indeed, the entire show. Every work of art in that gallery is there to provoke people, make them go, “Are they fucking kidding with this?” But then if you think that, you have to also allow for the possibility that Louis C.K. is using “it’s modern art” as a pretext to do whatever he wants and to be insulated against the social and critical consequences. If nothing is real, then nothing matters at an emotional level. Or does it? What a vortex he’s dragging us all into.

Danielle: Absolutely. I think he’d probably chuckle at this conversation, and that we’re talking about it in such broadly academic strokes. The subjectivity of the show sets up as a foundation the idea that nothing can be trusted, and C.K. trucks heavily in the “it’s just art” realm to communicate ideas that might have a rough landing but keep him at arm’s length from personal criticism.

We know C.K. to be a “good guy,” so when the character Louie isn’t, we can fall back on that as a safety net of sorts. But this time, with the rape-y sequence, I think he lost some of that inherent trust. He’s planted violence there to keep pulling you back to that moment, so the provocative part becomes about trusting him as a creator, which isn’t based in the subjectivity of the show.

I don’t think he did the work of explaining that moment in these last two episodes. They tried to give Pamela some agency by letting her say, “You can’t just make people do things!” But it fell flat, and was then coated in that indie-flick romance that didn’t make sense.

Matt: I think maybe C.K. and Adlon were trying to get at the idea that Amy Schumer teased out so brilliantly in one of her comedy routines: “We’ve all been a little bit raped. Like, not totes consensch. There is a gray area of rape. You’ve been graped, right?” Pamela was graped. That’s something you don’t see happening on comedies, really. I mean, almost never. When it does happen, a show stops being a comedy and becomes a drama, practically a thriller.

Here on Louie, it’s just another moment, and the couple recovers from it. And Louis C.K. is exploring his own entitlement. Maybe he’s not doing it gracefully or coherently at the writing level, but he’s doing it. I’ve seen some pieces expressing outrage at “Pamela Part 1” that seem to deliberately ignore how consciously he’s doing what he’s doing, how transparent he is about it — placing that long stand-up bit right before, as if to say, “Enlightened guy onstage, sexual blunderer with rape-y tendencies offstage.”

Danielle: Pamela was graped! Since he doesn’t truck in sitcom norms, I think he kept the moment contained in the context of the world he’s created. It’s become easier to identify when Louis C.K. is talking through other characters, so it’s dangerous for people to dismiss the scene as some sort of deliberate misstep; considering the real-world application of that thought process to people like Elliot Rodger, he wasn’t far off the mark when it came to examining his own entitlement. Not that Louie would become a mass-murderer, but that he’s thinking about the seeds of his entitlement, the extension of desire for this guy who really struggles to connect.

Even his relationship with Amia had a tinge of that kind of that predatory entitlement we see as the norm in so many other shows; he first saw her when he was standing over her while she slept, and he transformed the clear language barrier from a point of frustration to one of romantic entanglement. I think he’s fucking with the format of what we consider a romantic comedy, most of which feature women in danger that turns to love.

Matt: And that’s what happens in parts two and three. Louie persists and persists and persists and “gets the girl,” quotes intentional. And it feels real. And yet the squickiness from part 1 lingers. I think it’s supposed to. He’s constantly encouraging us to think about this show as a show, as a thing that is written and shot and edited and that is not real and that does not ask suspension of disbelief in the way that almost every other regular series does. You’re supposed to study the seams, the rivets.

And here comes the point where I maybe commit career suicide and say that I think this fixation on whether or not we can still like Louie the character, or whether or not he did something unforgivable in part 1 of Pamela, just seems incredibly reductive to me. It’s turning art into an editorial or a teachable moment or a classroom video about the right way to behave.

The world is full of couples who’ve lasted for whatever length of time even though one or both of them did incredibly shitty or cruel things to the other. Their coupledom doesn’t mean that being shitty or cruel or violent is okay, and it certainly doesn’t mean that abuse of any sort is okay! It means people are very complicated and that maybe we should extend Louie and Pamela — who’s dating a guy who menaced her! — the same courtesy as viewers that we extend to, say, Tony Soprano, who killed God knows how many people, tried to smother his own mom, and who in season three nearly strangled his mistress to death. We still found Tony sympathetic. Or at least fascinating. We learned to deal with him, just as we learned to deal with Medea and Macbeth in school.

But sociopolitical blogs and websites seem to have a lot of trouble doing that when it’s a comedy, even though the hero has been established as a fucked-up guy who often does really stupid, sleazy or offensive things while he’s theoretically trying to know himself. And they shouldn’t have to do that because it’s not their mission and it’s not their job.

Danielle: But isn’t it also worth considering that Pamela is ultra-abusive, too? Not as a way to explain Louie’s behavior, but as a way to examine their relationship? Even the healthiest of relationships have a great deal of tiny compromises woven into the fabric of their daily interactions. There’s not a lot of room for people to be nuanced and make mistakes in this new trigger-warned landscape, which is unfortunate, because it bolsters this idea that people eventually become who they are and get stuck. Pamela is violent! She’s incredibly abusive to Louie throughout their relationship. And people who have self-esteem issues as low as Louie’s often stay in those imbalanced, unhealthy relationships for an extraordinarily long time.

This might be my lizard-brain talking, but is it possible that he’s more reactive than proactive with Pamela?

Matt: I guess that’s possible, he said, stepping aside to make room for Danielle next to him on the plank.

I kid, sort of, but you know what I mean? We’re talking about true things here, but they’re things you sort of can’t really say anymore, not publicly. Not in a critical context. Because somebody might interpret it as, “She thinks Pamela was asking for it,” or “He thinks Louie is still a good guy, that it wasn’t really rape.”

This is a minefield. And this show has given everyone an engraved invitation to go skipping through it. That’s why I said last night, after watching the final two episodes, “Fuck you, Louie, and I mean that as a compliment.” I truly do mean it as a compliment. I don’t think everything worked this year, but I mean it as a compliment.

Danielle: Oh, yeah, people are definitely coming to snatch away my feminist street-cred as we speak. Louis C.K. has always been masterful when it comes to unearthing the uncomfortable truths about relationships (we all know A LOT about his ex-wife’s post-childbirth nipples, for example); I don’t think we should shy away from the fact that Pamela is abusive, or ignore how he routinely fucks with gender dynamics to make a larger point about relationships. I don’t think everything worked this year, but I love WATCHING him work, because I think we get to see some intensely complicated ideas teased out while he’s hopping around that minefield.

Matt: I should admit here that even though this season was the most ambitious structurally, tonally, and creatively — overall — it was somehow unsatisfying to me. I’m not entirely sure why that is. I think it has something to do with my sense that Louis C.K. is so invested now in the idea of Louie as a formal experiment, and himself as an auteur and specifically a director, that he’s maybe getting too theoretical, and we’re losing a bit of that human touch. I almost got the sense this season that he was deliberately pushing the audience away, like he distrusted their affection for him as an artist, and for the character he created, who isn’t him, but expresses parts of him.

I wonder if he sometimes regrets having to be the star of his own series? This year, he did over an hour’s worth of material — the two-part ‘80s flashback with Jeremy Renner as the pot dealer, and the flashback to him and his first wife, was it? The one with the instant orgasm — where the character of Louie was played by another actor. You’re totally right about this season often feeling like two movies. Or maybe a regular-length movie (“Elevator 1-6”), a shorter movie (“Pamela 1-3”), a featurette (the ‘80s flashback), and a bunch of what used to be called two-reelers. The question is, what’s been gained this year, and what’s been lost? Has anything been lost? Should we even be talking about the show in those terms?

Danielle: I’ve had similar thoughts, considering it took so long for him to even commit to a fourth season. This seemed like a reluctant reboot, like he was trying to build his resume in real time.

But like you said, it’s all subjective — he could demolish this season and never revisit any of the themes or issues, and we’d all roll with it. In terms of what’s been gained and lost, I think he asks a lot of his audience, so he’s been putting us through our paces, in a way. This was a real ride-or-die season; I can’t imagine a casual viewer coming back for more.

Conversation About Louie Season 4