A couple of weeks ago, some critics I’m friends with on Facebook were grousing about this season of Louie, talking about how the filmmaking was clumsy and the show had lost sight of its comedic vision in favor of making a strained point. Needless to say, I disagreed with this point-of-view, but I could see where they were coming from if I really tried. If, for some reason, you were watching Louie as a program that would hopefully make you laugh uproariously, then this season would be unlikely to do that. (Most of the big laughs have been confined to sidebars.) So much of what Louie is doing this season is about exploring the thin membrane between reality and the interiors of our own heads, and while that’s fertile ground for comedy, it’s not fertile ground for gutbusting laughs so much as clever musings. At a lull in the discussion, another critic stepped in to say that, hey, the show had just started what would amount to a feature film told in six episodes, so maybe it would be good to wait and see how that played out.
With five of those six episodes having aired now, I would suggest that, barring any major flop in next week’s “Elevator, Part 6,” the story has been an unqualified success. And what’s been so great about it is the way that, yes, this would probably be in contention for my favorite film of the year if it were released to theaters, but its true strength comes from how it works as television, how the pace of the season really does let Louie and Amia’s relationship feel like it’s lasting a month and how the show pulls in elements from outside of the story to inform what’s happening. “Elevator” has been the story of Louie and Amia’s relationship, sure, but it’s also been a sidelong look at what tore apart Louie and Janet’s marriage, an exploration of what it means to parent children while divorced, and a tale of life in a New York City apartment building where one’s cantankerous neighbors can seem like a kind of family—until one pushes that boundary too far. As a film, “Elevator” would be terrific. As television, it’s grand.
Nowhere is that more keenly expressed than in “Elevator, Part 4,” the first of tonight’s two episodes and a quick dive into the dissolution of Louie and Janet’s marriage. Rather, that’s what it seems to be pushing toward. Instead, in the scenes between Young Louie and Young Janet (which take up the bulk of the episode’s back half), we learn that this is a point just two years into their marriage, when there was still a chance for both of them to escape from what was clearly a failing enterprise with their egos intact. But “Elevator, Part 4” smartly plays off our knowledge of who these people will be in the future, the people that sit in a therapist’s office and display all of the cracks and fissures that have led to Jane’s current acting out, which the therapist suggests could be a delayed reaction to Louie and Janet’s divorce. As the younger selves of Louie and Janet have a rational, even-headed discussion of divorce in a hotel room they’re staying in so Louie needn’t wake up in Janet’s high school bed with her father hating him, we know that Lily and Jane aren’t around. And we know that whatever happens, these two are going to be together at least another five years, no matter how bad an idea that may seem. The night depicted in “Elevator, Part 4” simply begins a process that will take several more years and two daughters to finally complete.
The central theme of “Elevator” is Louie’s relationships with the women in his life, be they his troubled youngest daughter, his ex-wife, the woman he loved back in season two, or the new woman he’s trying to build a relationship with now. Yeah, it’s not all about that—tonight, we get a lengthy interlude in which Todd Barry extols the virtues of being a single dude without kids—but for the most part, this is a voyage through the many reasons for Louie’s loneliness. In the sequence featuring the younger versions of Louie and Janet, there’s an explicitly dreamlike quality that’s also not dreamlike, as the two characters seemingly live in Louie’s apartment, except they’re at a hotel, until Louie’s apartment seems less and less familiar to us. It’s like the familiar geography has been changed, like the characters have been displaced not just in time but in space. Louie knows the rough contours of his connections to these women, but he doesn’t know how to navigate, not really.
My favorite shot in this sequence is one that seems to show the two of them sitting next to each other, Young Louie smoking a cigarette thoughtfully, only for Janet to start talking and Louie to not be able to hear her. At first, it seems like it’s an extension of the season’s dreamy quality, but then Louie opens the window that separates them (hidden cleverly by Louis C.K.’s framing), and they have the difficult conversation they need to have about ending their marriage—one that will begin here and end much later. It’s a shot that summarizes so many things about these episodes—how Louie can see these women but not really hear them (summed up in his inability to speak Hungarian seemingly even a little bit), how Louie is avoiding these conversations he needs to have, how Louie is too sealed off in his own world. Ultimately, Louie is lonely because he can’t listen, because he can’t really connect when the time comes. He can take responsibility for this, but he has yet to fix it, and it results in a devastating ending, when he and Amia finally get serious (insert gif of Ellen Burstyn miming sex with her fingers here), only for Amia to leave in the morning, clearly done with it all.
Though I’ve rattled on about “Elevator, Part 4” the most here, there’s more than enough going on in “Part 5” to recommend it as well. I suspect the long vignette with Barry talking about his day will prove at least somewhat controversial (at least it did in my house), but I like the way that it ends with rapturous applause over the idea of Barry victoriously getting the manager of a club in Poughkeepsie to spell his name correctly on a dressing room sign. The audience for his little story has been slowly building, and Barry is such a gifted storyteller that we don’t really notice just how sad and isolated the whole story is. It’s about a guy choosing to exercise his power in totally pointless fashion. He’s being a dick just because he can, because it will make him feel better. Barry’s victory may be easier to achieve, but any victories Louie has come with lots of work and pain and struggle. They only come because he tries to understand somebody else in his life, not because he forces them to do something he wants.
All of this brings me back around to how “Elevator” is one story—like a movie—but also not one story. If this really were edited into a film and released to theaters, critics would rightly point out that it’s “episodic,” because the underlying structure of the story may have a building arc (in the Louie and Amia relationship, played off of Louie’s concerns for his daughter), but contained within that arc are many smaller ones, stretching from Barry’s story to the flashback to Louie’s past to the return of Pamela in last week’s second episode. More than ever, these episodes are examining the psychology of Louie, all of the reasons that he’s the person he is, able to make brilliant observations on the stage but kind of a lummox when it comes to relationships and matters of the heart. It’s clear that what draws women to Louie is the way that he’s a bit of an open wound, a bleeding heart that needs someone to patch it up. But that gets exhausting after a while when the person in possession of said heart isn’t doing enough of the patching. Louie’s comedian friends point out to him that his relationship with Amia could be a great thing. He gets to skip the part where the relationship gets stale and just jump straight to the part where he misses it. But without the part where the relationship gets stale, there’s no reason to ever grow and change as a person. He might as well be counting as his victory getting a guy to spell his name right on a dressing room sign in an ultimate display of pettiness.
Louie is the guy we want to follow because for all his sadsack qualities, he really is after happiness. He really would like to find something better. But he keeps shutting himself off from those things, and it’s in that quality that “Elevator” finally reveals that it works best, most properly, as television. Here, Dr. Bigelow can re-enter the story just in time to save Ivanka’s life (after she’s trapped in that elevator—which is a box of death), or he can be present in prior episodes to not really give Louie the advice he hopes to receive. And because we saw the season premiere, we know who this guy is and how he fits into this life. Similarly, we realize that the events of “Elevator” aren’t just one slice of time that we’ll get to see, but part of Louie’s continued growth toward whatever version of himself he will become—and an apparently important part of that growth. Next week, we find out what happens when the storm finally hits, but in some ways, the storm has demolished Louie’s life over and over again already. He’s just waiting for the evening news to confirm the details.
- If we really wanted to, we could have a field day with the coding in the idea that Young Janet is played by a white actress, while Janet herself is played by a black woman. But I think what Louis C.K. is getting at here is something elemental: Young Louie and Louie are part of the same continuum. Young Janet grew up into literally a different person because of what happened. She has changed and evolved. Louie hasn’t. And that’s all the difference.
- Hurricane Jasmine Forsythe has sunk 90 percent of the Florida peninsula, but of most importance is that it killed LeBron James and everybody else on the Miami Heat. (Also, a small bird.)
- The sequence where Amia plays chess with Lily and helps Jane with her violin technique is really lovely and perfectly sets up the situation that’s too good to last. Janet is right: Louie can’t bring this woman into his daughters’ lives and then just pull her out again. They need stability. (I also liked Janet’s incredulity at the thought that Louie wasn’t fucking Amia.)
- More dreaminess: Louie gets up in the middle of the meeting with the therapist and goes to the window to offer a primal scream to the city at large.
- If a certain waitress is working at the diner, Todd Barry gets a free donut. Imagine that.