Louie opens with a tight close-up of Louie in a sour funk, a security blanket draped over his shoulders as he holds onto a mug like an adult pacifier. The defiant bravado that characterized the end of the last episode has given way to understandable sadness.
Louie, you see, is in mourning the death of a dream and with it the possibility of a whole new life. For Louie has failed. He failed honorably. He failed with integrity. He failed on his own terms, but he still failed. That’s one of the unfortunate truths about American life all too often ignored by films and television shows: You can believe in yourself, chase your dream, give your all, turn in a spectacular performance, and still end up getting crushed by people and institutions much larger and more powerful than you. You can struggle against impossible odds and compete with the legends of your field and still end up on a couch Christmas morning feeling like a sack of freeze dried horse shit, wondering what in the fuck the future holds beyond aging, loneliness, and even more failure and humiliation.
This, friends, is a very Louie Christmas: sadness, inertia, and that vague, sinking feeling that the world is passing you by. We then segue from a close-up of Louie lost in sadness to reveal that Louie is seated at a couch while his adorable daughters open Christmas presents. We see the looks of child-like glee and delight as they open their presents, then flash back to the nightmarish ordeal involved in securing these gifts, especially a fancy doll Louie brings home only to discover that its eyes have mysteriously gone missing, rendering it even creepier and more disturbing than fancy dolls usually are.
A freaked-out Louie then sets about fixing the doll using every ounce of ingenuity and creativity he possesses. This segment illustrates what sets Louie apart from a conventional sitcom. If it were any other sitcom, the aggravations involved in transforming a creepy eyeless monster of a doll into an adorable present for a child would be handled quickly and easily via a brisk montage sequence: We’d go from Louie being unnerved by the doll’s missing eyes to him fixing the problem in 20 seconds or so, but Louie doesn’t let us off that easily. No, Louie lingers over every step of the process as Louie creates all manner of new problems while trying to solve the old ones. He succeeds, eventually but his victory is at once hard-won and short-lived. Because Louie takes its time, the sequence becomes more than just a joke. It becomes real. We empathize with Louie, with his desperation and hope and eagerness to give his children what they want, despite knowing that the doll he fought so hard to procure and fix could easily end up being tossed haphazardly in a corner. To put it in Hallmark terms, it’s all worth it for that look of joy in a child’s eyes Christmas morning, even if that joy is inherently short-lived and fleeting.
That’s what single parenthood is like in Louie: small moments of triumph and connection in between all the work, hassle, and aggravation. Louie has a sweet moment reading a children’s book about a duck in China to one of his daughters but then must concede to his ex-wife that he’s not going to take over for Letterman despite his best efforts. Louie puts on a brave face but his heart clearly breaks as he watches his family—with his ex-wife’s beau conveniently filling the role he once played—get in an elevator and leave him alone. On Christmas. Following the most brutal disappointment of his professional career.
It’s enough to make a man want to hibernate for the winter, which is just what Louie seems intent on doing until his sister (Amy Poehler, the last of the season's many big name guest stars) calls to insist that he fly to Mexico to spend New Year’s Eve with her family. It’s a testament to Louie’s gift for creating strong, indelible characters out of a few telling details that we feel like we know Poehler’s good old boy husband Doug despite a minimum of screen time. Everything he says conveys something indelible about his character: his southern accent, the way he calls Louie “funnyman” and promises wings and a heated pool, yet seems like a good egg all the same.
In his funk Louie dreams of a future where his now-grown daughters meet in a restaurant to discuss how sad it is that their father is all alone in his old age and infirmity and how incredibly scarring for them it must be to have to grow up with such a sad and solitary dad. The fantasy is hilariously vague: Louie doesn’t dream the specific details of his daughter's future theoretical lives, so they talk fuzzily about being maybe in their 20s and pursuing art or something but they are certain that their father is hopelessly, unmistakably, terminally alone.
Louie doesn’t want to traumatize his daughters or be one of the sad souls who commit suicide on New Year’s Eve so he heads to the airport and spots his would-be dream girl Liz. Oh happy day! Oh, joyous reunion! But joy quickly morphs into tragedy when Liz begins bleeding from her nose, collapses, is rushed to the hospital, then dies, but not before leaving Louie with a confused, “Goodbye?” The cheers of celebration as the rest of the hospital ushers in a new year only intensify Louie’s crushing sadness.
He’s lost and alone, so Louie travels to China on a vision quest to see the Yangtze River he read about earlier in the children’s book. Like much of the rest of the episode, the sequence in China has an abstract, ethereal, dream-like quantity.
As I’ve written many times before, Louie is on some level about its protagonist’s attempts to understand and make sense of a world that defies understanding. Having Louie end the season in a country he does not know and communicating to people in a language he does not understand is a lovely, abstract and perfect elaboration of that theme. “New Year’s Eve” begins with Louie in a funk and ends with him in a strange sense of jubilation and cycles through just about every emotion en route to a strangely satisfying and just plain strange resolution that doesn’t really resolve anything, just plunges us deeper into the mystery of life.
It’s a gloriously cinematic, enigmatic close to an another spectacular season of Louie that tackled love and loss, ambition and determination with honesty, humor and an exquisite sense of pathos that somehow never devolved into sentimentality. By this point we as an audience trust Louis C.K. completely and will follow him anywhere his muse leads, even if it’s the mountains of Beijing.
- Liz dies a very Manic Pixie Dream Girl death: dramatically, unexpectedly and very young.
- Amy Poehler has now played Louis C.K.'s girlfriend and his sister. That's kind of weird.
- Do yourselves a favor and check out Todd VanDerWerff’s For Our Consideration about Louie. It’s great.
- This is a particularly well-directed episode. There’s such loving attention to detail and care in every shot.
- It makes me profoundly happy to know we have at least one more season of Louie to look forward to. Though, I understand that in a strange, ironic turn of events, FX has fired Louis C.K. as show-runner and replaced him with Dan Harmon