Louie, Season 5, Episode 2: “A La Carte”
Written by Louis C.K. (story by Pamela Adlon and Louis C.K.)
Directed by Louis C.K.
Airs Thursdays at 10:30pm ET on FX
The whole point of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype is that she can’t exist without a vapid man to mythologize her first; she can’t be pictured in an empty room. She materializes, either as a concept or a flesh-and-blood person, when the man in question requires definition, meaning, purpose, to fill the void of his otherwise meaningless existence. Her quirkiness and idiosyncrasies make her a “challenge” to be conquered; his successful pursuit of the MPDG acts as an imagined trial-by-fire, with him as the admirably wounded victor. Like most archetypal stories, the MPDG quest/relationship reveals a lot about some elements of straight male society. The need to gamify and narrativize the act of falling in love, and to construct an image of women as being puzzles to be solved, is a primitive expression of a very real source of pain, fear, and anxiety. These narratives provide comfort to men because they reframe the increasingly even playing field between men and women as just another staging ground for very old ideas of female characterization. Rather than try to earnestly shift of expand their understanding of the ways in which they’re complicit in their own limited functionality as potential lovers or friends or even just worthwhile humans, the MPDG archetype allows them to appear more earnestly interested in the inner lives of women while, in fact, sprinting in the opposite direction.
Louie has always been an odd duck in its use and abuse of these clichés. On one hand, it absolutely embraces the notion that romantic pain and struggle create meaning for men; recall the climactic conversation between Louie and Charles Grodin last season, in which Grodin asserts that Louie should be savoring every last drop of his misery. There’s rarely hope of growth or new understanding on Louie, just the possibility that Louie’s high threshold for embarrassment and emotional abuse will allow for some future reward. At the end of last season, that reward seemed to finally arrive: Louie and Pamela, the love of his life (according to Louie) hooked up, with Pamela finally letting her emotional guard down somewhat and allowing herself to enjoy his unrestrained admiration for her.
But this is Louie and nothing can ever be simple or good for long, and the decline is announced at the top of “A La Carte” when Louie shits himself.
C.K.’s standup has long featured bits about his gradually failing health and especially his unreliable bodily functions, so there’s nothing odd about Louie staging a long, tense sequence in which the sole objective is to preserve some semblance of dignity in front of his daughters. (Wonderful, by the way, to have Hadley Delany and Ursula Parker back, as they’re easily two of the very best young actors around.) The genius of the sequence lies not in the many roadblocks that lead to the sad evacuation of his bowels, but in his daughters’ reaction to his crisis: it’s funny at first, but by the time they’re trying to get help from strangers, they treat the situation with the weight of Shakespearean tragedy.
That’s really just a prelude, though. The other main bit of business that’s not Pamela-related involves Louie attempting to mentor a young comic, Bart (Nate Ferndal) whose idols are “Buster Keaton and Lucille Ball.” His material revolves around tales of parental abuse – with no punchlines. It’s sort of an unreconstructed version of a Louie act – Bart has located truth, but doesn’t know how to locate laughs. In the end, Louie is utterly baffled by the young man, and can only offer one lame piece of half-assed advice (“a funny voice?”) after letting him know that comedy is not going to pan out for him. Louie loves nothing more than to prove Louie wrong, though, which is really the constant that sets it apart from so many of its contemporaries, and “A La Carte” ends with him watching a live TV audience die of laughter at Bart’s schtick, complete with the addition of a wacky voice.
To get back to Pamela, though, “A La Carte” gets its name from Pamela’s philosophy on sex and dating: if she or Louie wants something from someone else (eg, the large breasts of a random woman Pamela points out in the restaurant, leading to a singularly Louieian image of parmesan cheese being grated onto said woman’s chest with gusto), they should be able to have it, period. She also balks when Louie brings up moving in together, and (hilariously) interrupts what was sure to be a long-winded story about his adolescence (complete with an abruptly ended glimpse of Young Louie). In other words, she destabilizes what Louie was hoping would be a process of gradual domestication. She has seen the future of Louie and Pamela as it exists on the current timestream, and she doesn’t like it one bit.
If Pamela is a difficult woman, she comes by it honestly. She’s already had a failed marriage, she has seemingly lost the battle for the affection of her son, who prefers the company of his father, and she’s known too many men to idealize anyone. There’s an element of combativeness and reactionary spite to her sabotaging of Louie’s hopes for a more conventionally “settled” future for them, which is very much in keeping with her extreme levels of emotional guardedness, but there’s also truth to the notion that they may very well be repeating old mistakes and aren’t flexible enough as people to avoid a repeat trainwreck. What separates Pamela from the MPDG narrative is, among other things, that she refuses to play into the idea that she could or should act as anyone else’s savior or self-actuator. She cars about Louie, but she doesn’t let his ideas of her frame her actions in any way. C.K. and Pamela Adlon tend to share story credits on episodes where Pamela features heavily, and there’s an even-handedness to their scenes together that supports the feeling of collaboration, and shuts down any potential MPDG vibes. No matter what happens to Louie and Pamela as a couple (or as a result of the Adlon series that C.K. is producing), let’s hope their story remains a running thread on Louie for a long time to come. It’s been an absolute gift for the series, and has no true corollary in popular culture.
There is indeed more Louie/Pamela stuff to come this season. Oh, is there ever.
Jane soliciting the help of a nearby police officer in her quest to help her dad not shit himself in public probably got the biggest laugh of the night from me.
The “No Dumping” sign was a little on-the-nose, but I’ll allow it.