There are only a handful of moments in “In The Woods” that don’t focus on Louie—either the child or adult version of the character—but they’re almost invariably focused on Louie’s mom, played by the great Amy Landecker. One of them involves the woman, convinced her son is up to no good, sitting on his bed for a moment before tearing his room apart in search of the proof she needs to confront him. (He’s started smoking pot at the age of 13, but she won’t find evidence yet.) There’s a quick moment when Landecker lets a look flit across her eyes, one that seems to be bitterly amused at the fact that she has to do this. Louie’s mother seems to be recognizing the fact that she’s become this, that somewhere in her own past she had a mother or father who had to do this to make sure she didn’t stray too far from the path or screw up her own life, so that she could wind up here, sitting on her son’s bed, having become her own parent. And now, Louie is doing the same with Lily, except it’s different. He has the proof. He saw her smoking pot. He’s not sure what to do.
In an already hazy season, “In The Woods” comes on as one of the haziest episodes yet, shrouded in a fog of memory and melancholy. It’s at once a kind of celebration of kids being kids and experimenting with drugs because they’re not sure what else to do and one of the stranger anti-drug tales you’ll ever see. (It comes complete with a dedication to Philip Seymour Hoffman, no less.) It’s a nervy, complex piece of work that digs into everything from notions of masculinity (and how terrifying it can be to be a boy whose hormones start flooding the body) to the responsibilities adults bear toward children and vice versa. It even works in some material about that one kid who was a little scary but also kind of fun to hang out with, until you realized that his or her home life was so terrible, and that explained so much about why they were so angry. It often seems like the greatest Freaks And Geeks episode made by another show and sharing none of the same cast. Also, it has Jeremy Renner kissing a cat.
At the center of “In The Woods” are Louie’s memories of the year he spent in junior high mostly smoking pot and fucking around, and how that turned into more than he was capable of handling at the age of 13. His reverie is prompted by seeing Lily taking a quick puff of a joint at some sort of music festival both she and her dad are at coincidentally, and when he starts chewing her out, the center of his argument is that she isn’t ready to handle it. Seeing how things got out of control for him as a teenager underlines why he feels this way—to go along with the fact that Lily’s brain chemistry hasn’t even begun to firm up at the age of 12—but if there’s one thing that “In The Woods” seems intent on expressing, it’s the idea that so much of being a teenager is being confronted with how little in this life you’ll be able to handle. (Hell, maybe the moment you “grow up” and become an adult is the moment when you accept that this is true.)
Yes, young Louie stole a bunch of scales from a science lab and disappointed a potential father figure, and he wasn’t sure how to put the pieces of that back together. But he was also too young to deal with losing his friend Brad or his mother’s temper or asking a girl to the dance or dealing with the girl who obviously nursed a crush on him or his deadbeat father or his other friend Danny’s awful home life or his parents’ divorce. His pot usage is treated as a thing he shouldn’t do because he’s too young, but unexpressed in this is that the adults in his life don’t want him doing it because it’s the one variable in the equation they can control, the one thing they can tell him to stop doing and hope it will make them responsible teachers or parents. But it’s just a single element that—as the social worker Louie meets with at the end of the episode says—is mostly used to dull the pain that arises from everything else. It’s the “everything else” that said adults might feel responsible for, though they have no control over it.
The link between young Louie and Lily is pretty obvious here: They’re both young adolescents unable to be articulate about their emotional distress over their parents’ divorce (as the therapist reminded us way back in the middle of the “Elevator” saga), and they both experiment with drugs, though it’s never clear if this is Lily’s first time trying marijuana. (It seems unlikely, but, hey, stranger things.) Lily’s a surprisingly underdeveloped character within the Louie universe, but that’s sort of the point, isn’t it? By spending more time building out younger, more obviously troubled sister Jane, Louis C.K. allows Lily to become, in the audience’s mind, exactly what she might be in the minds of her parents: the strong, steady one they don’t have to worry about. We’ve even seen this reflected in the season, particularly when Jane stepped off the subway train and Lily ended up having to keep her dad calm, instead of the reverse. That’s a lot to place on the shoulders of a 12-year-old, and it’s why Louie ultimately decides not to punish his oldest daughter, instead reminding her that he loves her and he’s there for her.
I was going to write a long thing about how this shows something of the slow evolution in parenting improvements: Louie’s mom yells at him and all but kicks him out of the house, while Louie ultimately finds common ground with Lily. But I’m also not sure that’s strictly true. For as badly as Louie’s mom screws up in trying to reach her son, she also realizes her mistake and goes out to find him, then bring him to counseling, where he might be able to start articulating his emotional pain. Grown Louie doesn’t really do that for Lily. He, too, realizes his mistake in coming up to the brink of shutting his daughter out, but ultimately pulls back. But that also means that what happens between the two is portrayed almost as an ending, instead of a new beginning for Lily, who could probably use someone to talk to as much as her sister could. The connection between Louie and his mom—right down to the way Landecker states and phrases her lines in her big monologue—grows more and more the more one thinks about this episode.
If season four of Louie has been mostly about Louie’s relationships with the women in his life, then adding his mother to the mix makes complete sense. And what’s notable here is the way that Louie’s mom is the one person who’s there for him, even when she’s treating him poorly. By contrast, his father (played by F. Murray Abraham, who’s been part of the Louie company in the past) shows up and tries to play at being a dad, before disappearing from the story after his son spits a hearty “Fuck you!” at him. Louie’s relationship with his mom might not be on the best of terms, but at least she’s trying. She’s not absent, as so many of the episode’s fathers—or father figures, as we see with Danny’s older brother—are.
There’s one father figure, of course, who’s very much present not just in the life of his own daughter but in the life of the young Louie, and that’s Mr. Hoffman, the science teacher who so despairs at his students’ utter indifference to chemistry that he decides to just start answering their most pressing questions, the first being whether farts can be lit on fire. As played by Skipp Sudduth, Mr. Hoffman seems at first a riff on the old reliable “teacher who changed everything” trope, but though he plays in the same basic field, he’s not really that, because he doesn’t change much of anything. He can see that Louie needs somebody in his life to guide him through a tumultuous time for any human being. What he doesn’t bank on is that Louie’s fallen sway to a completely different father figure in Jeremy Renner’s Jeff Davis, a pot dealer who thinks nothing of selling to a 13-year-old kid, then getting him to steal a bunch of scales from the science lab, taking advantage of a man who liked Louie enough to encourage him to ask his daughter, Danielle, to the school dance. (Louie doesn’t, which just about predicts the whole episode right there.) Plenty of other shows would end this story with Mr. Hoffman racing off to tell Louie he’s forgiven after Louie admits to the theft that Mr. Hoffman insisted Louie couldn’t have done to the principal. But not this episode. It just ends on the quiet disappointment of a man who expected something great from a kid and ultimately found nothing of the sort.
The corollary of this season being about Louie’s relationships with the women in his life is that it’s also about what it means to be a man, and it’s no mistake that “In The Woods” is both set in a world of absent male authority figures and at a time of life when it can be horrifically confusing to be male. (Yes, it’s also horrifically confusing to be a female at this point in time, but Lily’s point to her father is that he can kind of know what she’s going through, but he never can exactly, and that’s mostly right.) Young Louie can fit in a little bit with Jeff and Allison when he goes over to their house, and he can struggle through the motions of asking Laurie to the dance, but he’s still a kid, still ruled by a fundamental lack of confidence and a halting inability to articulate whatever turmoil exists inside of him (or even admit that he has these emotions, so tied up in our idea of masculinity—still!—is the idea of tamping this stuff down).
Manhood is presented here by so many of the characters as a kind of burden, a terrible thing that is laid atop the heads of everyone with an XY chromosome pair, one made up entirely of hard choices and difficult tasks. But to look at Mr. Hoffman is to see that it’s possible to be a man, a father, a friend, a teacher, and still possess deep reservoirs of feeling, understanding, and grace. Jeff slams Louie against the wall when the boy asks for the scales back, and he asks him if he realizes he’s wandered into a man’s problem, where he once was a boy. But that’s a hard dividing line, and hard dividing lines aren’t things Louie often traffics in. What sets Louie on the course to manhood, ultimately, is that he (with an assist from his mother) does the right thing. In that, we see the influence not of his father or of Jeff but of Mr. Hoffman, a man who puts everything on the line for a boy who’s already disappointed him, even if he doesn’t know it yet.
My favorite shot in “In The Woods” comes early on, when Louie’s gone to the dance and sees Laurie making out with some other boy. He spots Danielle across the room and begins making his way to her, before Brad grabs him and pulls him outside to sample a joint. In a lot of stories—and even in this one, technically—this would be presented as almost a Sliding Doors moment. In one reality, Louie and a girl who has a crush on him have some wholesome fun, and maybe there’s even a stolen kiss or something. But the actual reality is one where Louie and his friends smoke more and more pot and slip more and more into a lost haze. It’s tempting—especially with the dedication—to read this as a standard anti-drug narrative, even if Louie’s life isn’t ruined by smoking pot like Brad and Danny’s are. He still learns a lesson and all of that.
But I don’t read “In The Woods” that way. I read it as an anti-disconnection narrative, a story about what it means to shut down all of the bad parts of your life and try to make anything an emotional novocaine, be it drugs or food or (as we saw last week) a rebound relationship you force on somebody else. Maybe there’s a Louie who goes up to Danielle that night and falls in love with her. Maybe they get married and have two daughters and are ridiculously happy. But that’s also a Louie who never gets to meet Lily and stand in that kitchen and remind her that, above all else, she is loved. To write the bad things that happen to us out of our life stories—to try to forget about pain and heartbreak and loss—is to pretend that we are only half ourselves, and to hope that our children have perfect lives and never make mistakes, as all parents inevitably will, is to hope that our children never become human. When Louie spent a year smoking pot, he fucked up, yeah, but he also started down the long path to finally becoming the man who can stand in his kitchen and realize that sometimes, the best punishment is unexpected mercy.
- I talked a bit above about Sudduth, but Jesus Christ, this episode is well cast on every level. Obviously, Renner, Abraham, and Landecker are going to give good stuff, but every single one of the other parts is beautifully cast, too, and Devin Druid is marvelous as young Louie.
- This episode would be worth it almost entirely for Renner offering up the first version of the show’s old theme song all season. It is mostly tuneless, but I’m pretty sure it’s there.
- Okay, and it would also be worth it for Renner kissing the cat.
- I’ve seen some thoughts floating around that this episode was originally meant to star Philip Seymour Hoffman in the Mr. Hoffman part, but I couldn’t get confirmation from anyone. If that was the case, it paints the dedication in a new light (and makes me really sad we never got to see Hoffman on this show, even as Sudduth gave one of my favorite performances the series has ever seen).
- I feel like we’re supposed to intuitively understand where Louie is at the episode’s beginning, but I didn’t quite get it. Was it some sort of music festival? A concert? A flash mob? Why was Lily there? So many questions!
- Continuing the season’s obsession with dreamlike qualities: One of Mr. Hoffman’s weeklong lecture series is on the nature of dreams, and the sequence where Louie sees Lily also has some anxiety-ridden dreamlike qualities.
- I did not recognize the egg explosion experiment, even though it looked really cool. Let’s all get together next week after the finale (which will conclude last week’s “Pamela” story) and try it out for ourselves.