Pamela Adlon’s character occupies a unique position on Louie. She’s both antagonist and ally, love interest and romantic repellent. A recurring presence in the first two seasons of the show, she disappeared from Louie’s life with no advance warning—and this year returned just as abruptly. She’s as ineffable as any other aspect of this crazy show, but aside from the girls and the other comics, she’s the strongest human connection the protagonist has. The show could’ve positioned Pamela as a riddle to be solved, but it’s always treated her like a fully realized human being—even when she’s not willing to afford the same courtesy to Louie.
And in a season when Louie has been so clearly projected through the eyes of Louis C.K.’s onscreen alter ego, the show finally offers an explanation of the magnetic pull Pamela has on Louie: She’s the voice in his head come to life. She’s his ultimate foil because she represents so much of the fear and doubt and self-loathing that drives the character. This might limit the character’s ability to be her own person, but I think the last two parts of season four’s “Pamela” trilogy get the character over that hump. She could’ve literally been a voice in Louie’s head during the phone call that opens “Pamela (Part 2),” but the editing gives her side of the conversation equal weight. And that’s a big deal near the end of 14 episodes in which everyone’s talking, but not everyone’s listening.
Listening is key to hitting the happy, contented final notes of season four, played in an hour-long coda that separates itself from any of the really hefty material of the past few weeks. There are no implausibly named hurricanes tonight; no feature-length coming-of-age Dazed And Confused flashbacks, either. This is simply a relationship story—one with a complicated background and an unfortunate incident not too far in the recent past, but it’s still primarily the story of two slightly broken adults groping in the dark, trying to strike some sort of spark.
“Pamela (Part 2)” doesn’t back down from the uncomfortable conclusion of its predecessor, going so far as to re-stage the claustrophobic doorway confrontation from that episode’s conclusion. It’s as unnervingly aggressive as the first one—Louie’s such a typically inert character that seeing him exert that kind of energy would be unsettling even if it didn’t lead to something as hostile as keeping a door shut. But Pamela gets to play the encounter on her terms this time, terms that are conducted over the telephone in a series of increasingly intimate photos, the volley of iPhone whooshes and other digital twinkling hilariously standing in for sounds of physical intimacy. These are both people who are known to keep others at a distance, so it’s only natural that they’d come together with the aid of megapixels.
It’s that distance that provides “Pamela (Part 3)” with its most fascinating sequence: After Pamela sees Louie’s act for the first time at the Comedy Cellar, their post-show meal is interrupted by Marc Maron, who’s elated about selling a new television project. For me, the show’s conception of this love connection snaps into place in this scene, as Louie fumbles with his feelings about the news and Maron digs into the dissolution of the men’s friendship. There’s a certain honesty about Louie, but Marc Maron is 100 percent honesty all the time, an infinitely venting spleen that stands in stark contrast to the ballbusting that occurs between Louie and Todd, Louie and Nick, or Pamela and Louie. (I need to catch up with Maron’s eponymous TV show, so I can’t say one way or another how these traits factor into his other fictionalized, basic-cable self.) There’s no façade with this guy, and to the credit of Maron’s balled-fist intensity, it stands out from other characters’ refusal to take anything seriously. Does Pamela feel as strongly about her burgeoning relationship with Louie as Marc feels about this friendship that fell apart? Does she feel that strongly about anything, or is the whole world just one big contemporary-art show for her to scoff at? (With regard to that scene: I’ve loved the ambitious, potentially indulgent things Louie tried this year, but cracking wise about pretentious installation art is the show complaining about the pile of sawdust on the gallery floor while there’s a plank lodged in the camera lens.)
The thing is, she does care—she’s just not as ready to declare that caring to the world like Marc or demonstrate it physically like Louie. In a rare instance of Louie delving into character background through dialogue, the respective stories of Louie and Pamela’s first kisses paints the perfect portrait for these like-not-love birds: Louie’s was part of someone else’s dare; Pamela’s “kiss” was actually a fight. These people have good reason for not putting a lot of themselves out there, or reading a situation incorrectly and giving too much of themselves: They’ve been hurt. They’ve administered some hurt. They’re middle-aged parents who’ve lived long enough to know there’s no sure thing—so you better plan for the meteor shower when you get the chance. They’re still wary enough to get their “no”s and their “yes”s jumbled up, but Louie’s at least listening close enough to accept that bath he was offered nearly three years ago. All this time gone by, and now he knows that the worst thing that might happen is that the tub might overflow. He probably has Amia to thank for the ability to take that plunge.
Considering everything else that happened in Louie’s fourth season, the second and third parts of “Pamela” were always going to feel small by comparison. The grand flourish of “In The Woods” was properly scheduled as the climax of the season; the final hour of the season is the appropriately human-sized denouement, with no big speeches to make and no filmmaking flashier than the long takes in the art gallery. After all of the drama and the reminiscing, the catastrophic flooding and the crippling legal debt, Louie pulls back to make a perfectly lovely romantic comedy, one that suggests some of the psychic scars and emotional wounds that informed these episodes have successfully been purged from the system. Sure, we’ll never be as close to our friends as we were when we were younger; yes, romantic love comes and goes, moves back to Hungary and makes fun of the way you look with your shirt off. But there’s no need to hang onto that ugly couch because it’s a reminder of an easier time in your life or a time when you were ostensibly happier. These are the most important ideas Pamela ever implanted in Louie’s head—and by extension our heads as well: Ditch the ugly couch. Fuck on the empty floor. Just be okay with being in the tub with someone you like, because eventually you’re going to have to get out.
- These episodes go light on the dream imagery, but they do offer a little tease in the way Louie goes from looking at a projection (next to the projection’s subject) to having his own face projected on the gallery wall. (On the topic of the show’s reality: For me, “Pamela (Part 3)” sets its ceiling at a B+ as soon as Pamela asks Louie why Janet is black and Jane and Lilly are white. We can’t just accept this as a casting choice?)
- To some degree—and this isn’t my favorite way of looking at the show—what is Louie if not a series of buttons that Louie pushes without thinking about the consequences?
- Pamela Adlon’s probably best known for her vocal performances, but she does such great work with her body language in “Pamela (Part 2).” Walking through the galleries and standing in the hallways of Louie’s apartment, she’s all apprehensive gestures and sharp, confrontational stances.
- When all of the furniture was being wheeled out of the building, I was really hoping we’d get one last opportunity for Dr. Bigelow to tell Louie that he doesn’t know what Louie’s name is.
- Words to live by in any profession: “None of you guys are special or magical. Some of you are luckier and some of you work harder than others. You’re just guys.” (Of course, when Louis C.K. was “lucky” in close proximity to Pamela Adlon, the outcome wasn’t completely positive.)
- And that’s it for another season of Louie here at The A.V. Club. I can’t even begin to guess at when we’ll be back with these reviews, or what sort of form the show will take when we return. (Maybe there’ll be a musical! Maybe it’ll be 13 episodes of an outer space adventure captained by Jane!) On behalf of Todd and myself, I’d like to say thanks to everyone who’s been turning up here every week. See you… sometime?