Louie, Season 3, Episode 13: “New Year’s Eve”
Written by Louis C.K.
Directed by Louis C.K.
Airs Thursdays at 10:30pm ET on FX
The last time Louie ended a season, we said goodbye to Pamela, the one who quite literally got away. This time around, it’s Liz (Parker Posey), who finally reunites with Louie thanks to a chance encounter, only to collapse and die literally moments later. It’s a rather literal, and shocking, manifestation of Louie‘s ultimate theme, particularly this season: shit happens, and you have to learn to roll with the punches when it does. “New Year’s Eve” throws its cruelest punch yet in Louie’s direction, so he responds with an appropriately wild move: he hightails it to Beijing.
The only thing stopping “New Year’s Eve” from being the quintessential Louie episode is that it turns out to be one of the few that seriously benefits from having seen the show’s entire run to date. Louis C.K. has stated that his approach to continuity is that he exploits it and discards it whenever he sees fit; in the case of Season 3, it seems he’s deemed it necessary not only to increase the amount of in-season continuity by quite a lot, but also to occasionally fold in references to past seasons as well. That’s not to say he’s playing it totally straight; the appearance of Amy Poehler as Louie’s sister Deb doesn’t necessarily contradict what we’ve seen of Louie’s siblings in the past, but it’s a bit of a stretch when compared to the sisters we’ve met or heard of so far. (That said, here’s hoping she comes back in this capacity; her one scene proves she can dial it back very effectively indeed.) But we do get another appearance from his ex-wife, and she asks him about “the Letterman thing,” which is probably the first time Louie has dropped a reference to its previous episode (while not in the midst of a multiple-parter). And then there’s the Liz appearance. And then there’s The Story About Ping.
Of all the callbacks in “New Year’s Eve,” the “Duckling” reference is the most unexpected. An obvious late-season highlight last year, “Duckling” saw Louie embark on a USO tour of the Middle East, concluding with a scene where a duckling smuggled in by his daughters defuses a tense situation, likely saving his life. A little over one full season later, and we’re now dealing with full-grown specimens, both in The Story About Ping, which Louie reads to his daughters at Christmas, and in Bejing, where a local farmer’s ducks play an important role in his search for the Yangtze River.
Part of what makes “New Year’s Eve” so special is that every single one of its acts – Louie on Christmas day with the kids, Louie saying goodbye to Liz, Louie in China – works as a handy synecdoche for Louie as a whole. The doll-assembly sequence in the first section is one of the best bits of silent comedy C.K. has contrived yet, and the way it moves from hilarious, to grotesque (the third eye!), to sad, and back to hilarious again is a thing to behold, besides the fact that Louie’s wild experiments and minute tinkerings with the doll feel awfully analogous to the making of the show itself. The Liz sequence cements the show’s long-running skepticism towards romantic idealism. The Beijing sequence – and by the way, what other show would take us to China for about ten minutes of screentime? – reminds us of Louie‘s recurring travelogue theme.
With Season 3 over, it’s now clear that C.K. had a very different show in mind than he did in previous years. Louie got much more ambitious, much more sprawling, and much more cohesive – but did it get better? Possibly not. For my money, the incredible Season 2 stretch from “Subway/Pamela” to “Eddie” is still the show’s apex, where its comic and dramatic intent is most satisfyingly clear. In retrospect, Season 3 might well end up as a transitional season for Louie, wherein C.K. learned gradually to embrace continuity and do away with some of the show’s staples – did you notice there was no stand-up segments in the last three episodes? – while telling bigger stories. It’s also difficult to deny that the show’s camera work, use of music, and editing (courtesy of Susan Morse) got a noticeable upgrade. What’s most encouraging is that every time C.K. swings for the fences – the two- and three-parters and this finale come to mind – he pretty much nails it. With Liz and Pamela both gone, no Late Show gig, and no easy redemption in sight, Louie may be staring at just as miserable a future as ever, but Louie still feels like it can do, and be, pretty much anything. And that’s why it’s still the best thing on television.