“Elevator (Part 6)”
Erik Adams: The complete “Elevator” arc is more ambitious than anything Louie has tried before—six standalone chapters that come together to tell a feature-length story about parenthood, communication, impermanence, and our responsibility to others. It’s a lot like what Arrested Development tried to do with its Netflix season, only Louis C.K.’s eyes-to-stomach ratio is more even than Mitch Hurwitz’s. Befitting the house style, “Elevator (Part 6)” makes grand gestures, but it’s the finer points that really sink in: The way Louie frantically cobbles together his hurricane utility belt; the waiter at the Hungarian restaurant, sitting calmly for a few beats before weeping at the words in Amia’s farewell letter. Louis C.K. essentially restaged Hurricane Sandy for this episode (the cost of which, I have to wonder, may have something to do with the prominent placement of Hertz and Chevrolet logos in the episode. UPDATE: From FX publicity: “Those were not product placements through the network. We haven’t done any official product placement on the show.”), but Jasmine Forsythe’s strongest winds are no match for the power of that final scene between Louie and Amia.
The hurricane sequences of “Elevator (Part 6)” are difficult to watch, and not just because we’re seeing the show’s protagonist undertake a suicide mission. To my eyes, they’re intentionally difficult to watch, Louie’s budgetary restrictions overcome by a visual jumble that mirrors these episodes’ language barrier. The character comprehends the severity of Hurricane Jasmine Forsythe no better than he comprehends Hungarian, but he treks through the storm with the same conviction he’s devoted to his final month with Amia. Frightening strangers roam the streets during the storm, more hidden than shown in order to keep the bargain-basement tempest convincing. These are the types of terrors the “subway rules” guard against, but they can’t guard against a hurricane that’s already claimed the life of LeBron James (and the life of everyone else in Miami—including Ramon? Oh, poor Ramon). Being a parent means taking responsibility for other, smaller people’s lives, which is why Louie fights his way downtown and why Amia has to give up what could’ve been a true love connection.
In the first few parts of “Elevator,” it’s easy to roll your eyes at Louie for romantically pursuing a woman who doesn’t speak English. In the last few weeks, I’ve read a few variations of “Oh, Louie rejects the fat girl but he’s gaga for the lady who can’t speak for herself,” which I’d argue is a criticism the show made before anyone else: Contrasted with the bombshells that never stopped exploding in his relationship with Janice, what Louie has going on with Amia is a blissful change of pace, one the show looks askance at from the start. Without being able to effectively and efficiently communicate, there would always be a connection that Louie was unable to make, no matter how well he got along with Amia or how much the girls warmed to her. This is Louis C.K. telling the story, not the fictionalized Nick DiPaolo who acts as this episode’s “previously on” proxy, so the show is well aware of how unhealthy this inherent separation is.
It takes five episodes, but Louie finally wises up to that fact tonight. Thrown by the sudden disconnect that occurs after the non-couple sleeps together, he makes the honest attempt at communication, but these are not his answers to find. They are Amia’s answers to give. As viewers, we feel this tension to, because we don’t know the words and feelings Amia is trying to convey either. Louie is so deeply plugged into its title character on this count that none of the Hungarian dialogue in the “Elevator” arc is subtitled. (Given the fast-and-loose way this show plays with language, she and Evanka might not even be speaking Hungarian.) She’s only ready to divulge this information during their final moments together, rendering it so beautifully in the letter translated by the reluctant waiter. But even in this instance, there’s a barrier to understanding her precise meaning: Some of the Hungarian words in the goodbye note have no literal English counterparts, requiring less-elegant translations like “a peaceful happiness.” I got the same feeling from that scene in the restaurant that I get whenever I read a literary work translated from its original language, the ache of knowing that however touching or poignant the words might be, only Amia and the waiter are getting the full picture. Due to circumstances like these—language, age, family—Louie and Amia could never receive the full picture of one another, either. There’s a small tragedy there, and Louie recognizes it.
The primary conflict of “Elevator (Part 6)” is one of an epic sweep vs. an emotional finale. The episode contains some of the most technically challenging camera work of this or any other season of Louie (constantly losing and finding light in order to convey New York mid-storm and mid-blackout), but it takes nothing more than a stationary shot to capture all of the joy, anguish, love, frustration, beauty, honesty, and gratitude that exists between Louie and Amia. (The use of color is really great in that shot, too—the still above is all passion with its scarlets and all mourning with its blacks.) In a callback to season four’s other extended, defense-thwarting address to Louie—which also comes at the end of an episode—the character acknowledges that he’s finally listening with a simple physical gesture. He reaches out, holds the hand of the waiter for a seconds, then moves to take Amia’s hand. It’s such a little thing, and yet so profound—and it’s what “Elevator” is all about. It’s a loose narrative, dotted with all of these instances of people reaching out to one another. (On that level, “So Did The Fat Lady” is all the more an appropriate prelude to “Elevator (Part 1).”) Across differences of heart, mind, and tongue, reaching out for that connection—be it through an elevator door, the sliding-glass entry to a hotel balcony, or the rising water dividing Manhattan—makes a difference. Life is full of divorces, hurricanes, and choking hazards disguised as chewy Dutch candies. The connections are harder to come by, and “Elevator” urges us to make them, even when we know they aren’t built to last.
- More crack reporting from the news team over at WLMK: “10 people died in the Bronx last night due to a fire that killed 10 people in the Bronx last night, during a fire.”
- The news anchors are pretty much all you get in terms of comic relief from “Elevator (Part 6),” but I got a big laugh out of the few found items Louie was able to cobble together for the purposes of storm survival: a flashlight, two birthday candles, a lightbulb, and a banana. I love the way C.K.’s hands twist to show that, yes, he is seriously considering taking a lightbulb with him into the electricity-free streets.
Todd VanDerWerff: At one of the lowest points in my marriage, my wife and I got into a massive, horrific argument in the very early hours of the morning. It was the kind of argument that breaks marriages, that wakes neighbors, that reveals things that should have been left unsaid, and at one point, I remember her cowering in our bathroom over some revelation or another meant to hurt me, and I remember planting my arms in the bathroom door so I blocked it like a giant oak tree, branches not permitting her exit. She stood up, begged me to move. I said no. She shoved me, trying to jar me, so she could leave the apartment and the argument far behind. It was no use. I don’t remember what it was that she said to so set me off, nor do I remember most of the beats of the argument. But I remember standing in that doorway and feeling gigantic, like she was no match for me, a mouse against an elephant. I remember what it was to feel that terrifying power surge through me. And I remember how much I wanted to hit her but did not. It took a long while of her crying herself hoarse, but I stepped away, and she left. We both did and said things we regret that night, but I have regretted none so much as meeting a person inside of me wild and uncontrolled enough to do something like that to the woman he loved.
The centerpiece of “Pamela (Part 1),” the most undisciplined, messiest episode of this incredibly careful and planned (in a good way) season of Louie, is a lengthy stand-up set in which Louie talks at length about how hard women continue to have it in modern society. For God’s sake, he points out, women have had the right to vote for less than a century, and we still casually refer to an article of clothing as “a wife beater,” as if that weren’t horrific on some level. It’s the kind of caustic truth that makes for great comedy—and there are choice jokes sprinkled throughout this set—but it also seems carefully positioned to prove both Louie and Louis C.K.’s feminist bona fides before the scenes that close out the episode, where Louie chases then drags Pamela around his apartment trying to get a kiss. He finally does—and she sort of even agrees to it, if you can argue that someone who’s shrinking herself into a ball to avoid letting anyone come near her lips is “agreeing” to anything (which I would find tough). She finally leaves. No crimes are committed, and Louie and Pamela might even be able to salvage their friendship or proceed with a romantic relationship. But the whole thing is deeply, unsettlingly terrifying, in the way that it turns Louie—our protagonist, our schlubby guy hero—into the man who stands between a woman and her safety and freedom. All he wants is a kiss, but to get that kiss, he exerts a terrible price.
I mentioned that this episode is undisciplined and messy above, but I think it is so with deliberate purpose. More and more, this season of Louie seems to be interrogating not just relationships between men and women—fathers and daughters, boyfriends and girlfriends, male and female friends, ex-husbands and ex-wives—but the way those relationships can become unmoored and dangerous in a split-second. When Louie punched Blake in the face back in “Model,” it was presented as a humorous accident, but it presaged what seems to be a major recurring motif of the season. “So Did The Fat Lady” offered the gender-flipped version of this, as Louie’s latest love interest forced herself into his physical space. Yet this was presented not as threatening but as what she has to do to get him to notice her. (She couldn’t pose a serious threat to him if she tried.) In “Elevator (Part 5)” Louie and Amia finally have sex, but it comes after a lengthy persuasion process that read to some as Louie essentially forcing his will on his girlfriend—she let him go ahead, but it wasn’t what she wanted to do. (I think “Elevator (Part 6)” suggests this was more about Amia’s reluctance to push things too far when she was returning to Hungary so soon than about genuinely not wanting to have sex with Louie, but it’s certainly ambiguous.) And now we have Louie pursuing Pamela around her apartment in scenes shot and edited to make him look like the serial killer in a slasher movie, not like the lovable doof we know him to be.
The fact of the matter is that Louie’s emotions at this point in the season are messy and undisciplined. He’s been pushed to a breaking point, even if he wouldn’t admit it to himself, and when he enters Ivanka’s empty apartment and finds the red couch he first spotted Amia sleeping on, it’s with a palpable sense of sorrow. Dr. Bigelow advises him to live in this moment, to embrace the fact that missing Amia this much means that Louie was really, completely in love and understand that the heartbreak is a vital part of being alive. But because this is Louie, he sublimates all of that, swallowing it down into his vast reservoir of unexpressed emotions and turning his sights on Pamela before he’s really ready to pursue her as an actual girlfriend and not as an extension of his loss made manifest.
Notice how Pamela is positioned when Louie re-enters his apartment after that long stand-up set. She’s sprawled out on the couch in a manner similar to Amia, but it’s also looser, more open, befitting the more amiable personality she’s always represented in Louie’s life. (It’s a delight, I have to say, to have Louis C.K. and Pamela Adlon bouncing off of each other in scenes again.) When she wakes and he tries to pay her, it’s as if the whole thing becomes untethered from what it’s supposed to be—Pamela stepping in to babysit his daughters while he has a couple of shows to do—and becomes a romantic fantasy in his mind. Until it’s just… not that. The pursuit of her is vaguely reminiscent of his pursuit of Amia from last week (the blocking even roughly mirrors what happens with Amia, with Pamela working her way out of the apartment), but it’s just a dull echo of what he really wants, a quick fix balm for a heartbreak that won’t be so easily soothed.
I suspect some will read the final moment of this sequence—with Louie grinning in happiness over what happened—as some sort of triumph. And it’s possible the show will back them up on this, with Pamela returning in future episodes, Louie still under her skin and their love floating up into the sky. But the more I look at this moment, at this seeming victory, the more it seems that Louis C.K., the director and writer and actor, is carrying the season’s motif of men committing violence against women—even unknowingly—to its logical conclusion through the character of Louis. Louie thinks he’s made a great triumph, but he doesn’t know how badly he’s botched things. Look at how he looms in the frame when he’s trying to kiss her, then look at how he seems much smaller when he celebrates. And look at that final scene on the bus, where he asks his girls to lie for him and gets into a pointless fight about spitting on the bus. He’s trying to be the big man, the guy who stands up to the wrongs of the world, no matter how petty, when he probably just needs to shut up. And what does he get for it? A reprimand from the bus driver.
I’m giving “Pamela (Part 1)” a relatively low grade, because it didn’t seem nearly as cohesive to me as the show is at its best, but I think it’s a fascinating half-hour all the same and a piece of television that proves a Rosetta stone to understanding much of the rest of the season and what Louis C.K. is up to with his much more integrated universe this year. The thing it does more bracingly than any episode of TV I’ve seen is place us in the point-of-view of a man who would force himself—no matter how mildly—on a woman and have us see how easily that could slip over into being any man if the circumstances were right, if his feelings were hurt just so or if she lashed out at him while crying on their bathroom floor. To be a man is to remember constantly, daily, that you are, on average, bigger than the average-sized member of half the population, that your mere presence can be scary or threatening to them, especially in the wrong circumstances, and that it is up to you to be on guard against that happening, no matter how unfair that might seem.
In the wake of recent events, I’ve heard so many guys from all walks of life saying, in effect, “Well, what about my feelings? What about how much it hurts when I’m rejected?” “Pamela (Part 1)” might not be my favorite episode of Louie, but I think it might be one of the most necessary, because it invites us to feel just how sad and distraught Louie feels, to realize how lost he is in the face of Amia’s departure, then also invites us to realize how terrifying that is when it spills out of him and onto Pamela. To be a man, often, is to have to guard against that, to understand that your feelings matter, yes, but they do not take precedence over anybody else’s. Louie is not a bad or an evil man, but he is a man. And in the final moments of this episode, that makes all the difference.
- Interestingly, Louie leads into the talk about how hard it is to be a woman with a lot of discussion of God and Heaven, two things that hearken back to the church he took refuge in with Amia in the preceding episode. I’m not sure where it fits in the grand scheme of things, but I’d be intrigued to hear what you think.
- Dr. Bigelow is not particularly certain of what Louie’s name is, but he definitely knows all sorts of other things about him.
- Just two weeks left in this fantastic season of television (which has been helped, I think, by the “two episodes per week” airing model). I’m looking forward to seeing what happens when Louie goes “In The Woods” next week.