The third season of Louie got off to a rather foreboding start: Louie broke up with his girlfriend in hyper-realistic fashion before getting into a motorcycle accident. Although there were laughs throughout the season – a lot of them, some supplied by no less than David Lynch – there was also an undercurrent of darkness, and endless searching. Granted, you could probably say that about the entire series, but previous seedlings of sadness seemed to really bloom this year, as though Louis C.K. were waiting to hit a certain threshold of success before getting existential on us. All of which is to say that last night’s season finale was a grim gut-punch, a meditation on mortality and loneliness.
Although Louie was newly minted this past week with comedy-writing Emmy gold for its second season, anyone watching knows at this point not to expect a chucklefest. Even with that awareness, it was still something of a shock to see Louie reunited with his central love interest of the season, only to watch her shed this mortal coil in horrible fashion. Granted, it may not have actually happened: some of the surreal things we see on the show are merely manifestations of Louie’s psyche. Whether it “really” happened or not, though, Louie did still see Parker Posey ascend the great Yangtze River in the sky, her last words an exit line with a question mark.
Ultimately, his search for company or some form of enlightenment in the season finale lead him to spend New Year’s Day un-alone, surrounded by Chinese strangers who seemed to be expecting him and were entertained every time he opened his mouth. This is just a pet theory, but perhaps those strangers were supposed to be us, the audience that finds Louie fascinating. As long as he has us, he’s never alone.
Anyway, here are the most uncomfortable moments from last night’s episode.
1. We open on a tight shot of Louie looking distraught on the couch, alone. Only when we pan out do we see that Louie is with his daughters and it’s Christmas morning. Unlike many a standup routine would suggest, Louie’s daughters actually appreciate the gifts he got them (including the book The Story of Ping, which sets up the Yangtze River as an inevitable destination and confirms that ducks are, in fact, the spirit animal of this show.) What the girls don’t know is how much effort their dad expended on getting the presents right. We see in flashback all the discomfort Louie endures repairing a damaged doll, including incidents involving superglued upholstery, fried crayons and the phrase “Shit on my father’s balls.”
2. Although Louie’s relationship with his ex-wife is on solid footing this season, that doesn’t mean Louie has to get along with her new man. As Janet confirms that the David Letterman opportunity of previous episodes fell through (continuity!) when she stops by to pick up her daughters, the new dude rummages through Louie’s Christmas offerings and makes a face at the restored doll. When he attempts small talk, it results in this awkward exchange: “How’s it goin’?” “It’s goin’ . . .”
I just want to draw attention to the quiet detail that Louie’s response is not the standard, somewhat smart-alecky comeback to that question, “It’s goin’,” but rather Louie seems to have been trying to genuinely answer before giving up mid-sentence.
3. Louie has several sisters. It’s hard to keep track of them all, and we’re probably not even supposed to, but the latest is played by Amy Poehler, acting up a storm. Seeing the always delightful Poehler provokes a Pavlovian response in the viewer (“Oh, this should be rich!), which Louis C.K. cannot subvert fast enough, giving the inordinately talented comedian a solitary tender scene as younger sibling Debbie.
“Are you all by yourself?” Debbie asks. “Does it have to be ‘all?'” Louie says, giving the sad scene some levity. His sister is inviting him along with her and her family, to visit their mother in Mexico. He is initially reluctant, which prompts Debbie’s loutish husband Doug to get on the phone and make it weird. Like Poehler, Doug leaves a big impression in his 30 seconds of screen time, addressing Louie as “Funnyman,” not taking no for an answer and mentioning that Louie’s first-class ticket to Mexico flies out of “that left-wing Kennedy airport.” (This after we see Louie’s old “Clinton/Gore” sign in his living room for what I believe is the first time.)
4. Louie decides to take his sister up on her offer after a fever dream about his daughters in their twenties, lamenting the lessons their dad inadvertently taught them (“Why didn’t he try harder to be less alone?”). On the way to the airport, he magically sees Parker Posey’s Liz. She seems excited to see him, just before she starts bleeding profusely from her nose. Louie accompanies her to the hospital as an urgent horror-show recurrence of her cancer flares up. Liz dies at exactly 11:59, followed by everyone in the hospital rushing to ring in the new year, with Louie bearing witness to it all. Whether this is all part of a dream sequence or not – and the casual way Louie seems to shrug off the experience and go to the airport suggests it is – moments don’t get more uncomfortable than this.
5. Back to the airport, Louie’s all set to go meet his sister in Mexico, but makes a last-minute decision to go to Beijing instead to see what it was that Ping was quacking about. Once there, he can’t find anyone to show him the Yangtze River. One man’s efforts seem to involve teaching him the martial arts technique known as “Ba Gua.” Our hero is lost and more alone than ever.
After all the searching and inner torment of this episode, and this season, however, we finally close on a moment of uplift. After Louie finally does find someone who seems to know where the Yangtze River is, he takes him there (with a truckload of ducks!). The river itself is a major disappointment, but then a family of strangers takes Louie in and teaches him some Chinese over the course of a meal. Louie is finally smiling as “Auld Lang Syne” plays us out. Even though we all die alone, the show seems to suggest, we don’t have to live that way.
Last week’s recap: ‘The Seinfeld Curse’