As a general rule, a trilogy’s second installment is the darkest, the most challenging for the protagonist. He or she goes through the worst possible trials to emerge a worthy hero, capable of taking the third installment to task with the full force of his or her newfound abilities (you know, the ones that were there all along, waiting to be discovered?).
If we’re to take this general rule as gospel, ‘Late Show, Pt. 2’ does everything to show us that Louie is no hero—at least not the Late Show-hosting sort—not to himself, not to his family, and not to the syndicated audience he has recently begun to loosely fantasize about wooing.
The episode makes this all embarrassingly clear by pursuing two clear lines of humiliation. The first is Louie’s attempts to find motivation through second opinions, first by announcing his opportunity to his ex-wife (hoping she’ll let him pass it up guilt-free because it would mean taking custody of his children far less), then by seeking guidance from fellow comics Jay Leno and Chris Rock. Not only do these tête-à-têtes—by virtue of even happening at all—expose Louie’s lack of self confidence, but they reveal his utter guilelessness, his impotence as a politician: Janet immediately grasps, without explanation, that her ex-husband is being optioned against Seinfeld for reasons of frugality; Leno, in a piece of uncomfortably honest humor, tells Louie, “If you get the job, it’ll be the last time we talk as friends”; Chris Rock uses Louie’s intel to backstab and outmaneuver him for the job. Psychologically, Louie fails every heroic challenge without realizing any had been put before him.
Classically, heroic cycles often contain the trope of a guide (Merlin, Yoda, et al.); Louie’s is the raving lunatic Jack Dahl (masterfully played by David Lynch). Their interactions comprise the second line of soul-battering preparing us for Louie’s downfall, a set of tasks that elucidate his physical lack of fortitude.
‘Late Show, Pt. 2’ is bookended by two nods to, ostensibly Rocky if not boxing movies in general: Louie stretches half-heartedly in ratty blue sweatpants, becoming winded shortly after beginning to jog; following Dahl’s cryptic instructions, he ends up in a gym, having the shit beat out of him by a muscular boxer. He makes three or four weak attempts at a punch, landing none, ending up KO’d after 17 seconds.
Although Dahl treats Louie like a rank amateur, constrantly undermining his abilities as a comic and a person, where Dahl and CK’s misunderstanding truly come to a boil has to do not with Louie’s fitness, but his physical presence and appearance. Dahl contends that every late night host ever has worn a suit. For the first time in the episode, Louie stands up for something (something as trivial as his sartorial rights) and fires back, “I’ve been this guy for 25 years, I’m not gonna become a different person.”
Although the “25 years” jab would likely be the pull-quote of this episode, the narrative bent is contained within the vignette involving Louie, his daughters, and an old crone who’s pilfering salami from the grocery store. Jane begins to shout, “she’s stealing!” while Louie tries to quiet her down. Metaphorically, the old woman represents the hype-and-media machine attempting to seduce Louie, an institution everyone accepts as being underhanded at best, while Jane—uninhibited by “how the world works”—has the moral compass to loudly point out this injustice. Why should she be allowed to get a free lunch, just because she’s been around a long time (see: “Jack Parr, Steve Allen, Carson, Letterman—not a t-shirt in the bunch!”)? At the same time, what purpose will Jane’s complaints serve? The security guard who approaches this woman will likely remove the salamis and ask her to leave without contacting the police, and this woman will continue to steal. Louie hovers in between, without the power to manipulate the system or the gall to fix it; a tourist in both realms making his permanent home on the fence dividing them.
Over the course of ‘Late Show, Pt. 2’ Louie reaps the bitter harvest of inaction, and realizes (concurrently as the audience realizes) his staggering ineptitude at a skillset he never thought he would need, while new possibilities and the encouragement of well-wishers blinds him from seeing the skill he already has. If the boon of ‘Late Show, Pt. 1’ was his hasty induction to a dog eat dog world, Chris Rock’s betrayal puts Louie in his place as a toothless pup. The second installment of a trilogy is an unspoken promise for hardship and spiritual growth, but Louie tends to be a slow learner whose meaningful Eureka moments derive from consideration-after-debasement.
It was never terribly important for us to see Louie succeed, but with two episodes left in this season, we’re waiting with bated breath to see how he will cope.
Guest post by Bryan Menegus, who blogs here.