As if to assuage any unfounded fears that Louie would attempt anything so close to traditional storytelling as a three-part arc again, the season finale “New Years Eve” plays out as the messiest, most fragmented episode of the series so far. Taking place over approximately six days, one (possibly two) dream sequence(s), a flashback, and five distinct locations, the episode achieves whatever could be called “tying loose ends” within the plausibility of the show’s universe. Bear with me, this is gonna run a little long.
We open cold to Louie, swathed in blankets, sipping distractedly on coffee, and looking troubled. We’re not sure exactly what is happening (or has happened), but he’s wearing the sort of depression that a Northeast winter buries you in by inches, until leaving or staying in bed both feel insurmountable. His children, Jane and Lilly, are opening their Christmas presents. As the gifts are hastily ripped open, we jump backward in time to CK’s frustrating preparations for this day: fighting for a stuffed animal in a mobbed toy store, falling asleep covered in seasonal wrapping paper, and a 3-minute montage of Louie attempting to repair a doll thats eyes have fallen into its own head.
The last gift—which Louie points out is from him and not from Santa—is an illustrated book for Jane about a duck named Ping who lives with his mother and father and multiple siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins on the Yangtze River. “It looks like it’s so nice to live on that river,” Jane notes, entranced with beauty of the illustration. “Yeah, it does, doesn’t it,” Louie echoes, the way a parent kindly dismisses a child. The familial aspect of Ping takes on new meaning as Janet and Patrick come to pick up Lilly and Jane shortly thereafter for a two-week trip somewhere abroad. Louie stares at the four of them as the elevator doors close—husband next to wife, children in front, composed like a perfect Christmas card he’s been cropped out of. The kids are gone. He goes back to his apartment, pushes the Christmas tree out of the window, closes the shades, and lets himself be enveloped by darkness and bed-ness.
He’s awakened by a phonecall from his younger sister Debbie (Amy Poehler) who invites Louie to join her, her husband, and her children in spending New Years in Mexico with their grandmother. Despite her genuine worry over his spending New Years “all alone” Louie declines and goes back to bed, where he dreams of his daughters—grown up and beautiful—meeting for coffee. They too obsess over Louie’s fundamental all alone-ness: “all he does is sit in that big old chair and eat pinwheel cookies.” The words, “we’re probably kind up fucked up from having that kind of a dad,” rouse CK from his sleep, and the TV news informs us that it’s New Years Eve. Presumably, Louie stayed in bed for the better part of a week.
Some spark has been lit. Whether it’s the revelation that his dream could be reality in twenty years, or that the news anchor dares him to put a gun in his mouth, Louie rises from bed and, fully clothed, takes a cold shower. As the water cascades down the top of his head he lets out a yell—the physical pain of the freezing water allowing him to vocalize a more primal sorrow—and cut to Louie packing a single suitcase with abandon.
On the bus, Louie has his eyes closed. His hands rest on top of the telescoping handle to his rolling suitcase that is framed to look like a cane. The old man from his dream sequence—the dried husk he might become—seems not so far away. He’s secretly waiting for the energy of someone more helpless or broken to buoy him against the current of depression, and lo and behold his erstwhile beau, Liz (Parker Posey), enters the bus. They’re mutually excited by the chance encounter. As old man Louie rises to greet her, she begins bleeding profusely from the nose. An ambulance takes them both to a nearby hospital where Liz very abruptly flatlines and dies after delivering the heart-wrenching, “…bye?” As Louie exits the room, doctors, patients, residents and other hospital folk count down the new year, cheering and laughing as he mulls over the death of someone who’s both a near stranger and an important part of his life. Just as season two ended with Pamela leaving the show, season three sees Liz leaving the world. He’s free of romantic entanglements.
Louie awakens in the airport terminal. He checks the board for a flight to Mexico but his eyes wander to ‘Beijing, China’ which is scheduled to leave at the same time.
And suddenly, he’s in China, in a dreamlike state. With Ping in mind, Louie asks people on the street to direct him to the Yangtze, which he believes they don’t understand because of his poor pronunciation (when, in fact, the Yangtze does not flow through Beijing). When a man offers to drive him there and they arrive at something more closely resembling a bog, Louie simply continues walking, ending up at a small house in the most rural of rural-looking places. An old woman beckons him inside and the family within seems overjoyed by his presence. They immediately hand him a bowl and begin filling it with food. They speak to him slowly in Mandarin and he repeats the syllables without understanding them, which causes them all to laugh (probably a classic case of the locals fucking with a stranger).
Whether or not the Beijing sequence is a dream is unimportant. Why is it happening? Because Louie is seeking a sense of family and belonging. The episode up to that point serves to sever his ties to New York. The children and his ex-wife are away, his love interest is dead, and his career (both Letterman, and stand-up in general, as evidenced by the absence of the Comedy Cellar as a location) is on hiatus. Not even his usual bouts of depression seem to suffice anymore. So he runs. He runs as far as he can from what he knows, because his life and his family are, temporarily, beyond his repair. Flying out to his daughters or arranging a date would be, in light of the circumstances, utterly inappropriate.
If he’s seeking belonging, why does the episode not end with Louie, in Mexico, with his sister and grandmother, rather than with this surrogate family of strangers who he can’t even interact with? Because his sister is trying to dote over him, to nurse his depression. At the core, Louie knows it’s time for him to stand on his own two legs, even if that means doing something kind of stupid. Stupid is always preferable to self-destructive.
Does the episode do a good job of conveying this idea? Not really. It’s tries to portray the reckless, possible-mid-life-crisis move of rushing to Beijing with one miserably packed suitcase as a pyrrhic victory over spending the entire winter eating junk food in bed. But Louie is such a tourist in his own life throughout the episode that the third act feels like a geographic rather than emotional move. Likewise, the departure of Liz is not handled as tactfully as Pamela, nor do we really care about Liz. I’ve seen Louie’s “I was brought into existence to know you, and that’s enough,” speech to Pamela reblogged more than Doctor Who gifs (which is probably a reflection of who I follow); conversely, I had to look up the name of Parker Posey’s character at least three times while writing this (which is a reflection of how little an impact she’s made on this season’s plot). There’s something ugly about a fat white dude mooching food off of poor rural Chinese people, especially when it’s framed as some sort of path to self-discovery. Regardless, we know that Louie’s failings and obligations will be waiting for him when he returns to New York, growing bigger and worse the longer he tries to ignore them.
Guest post by Bryan Menegus, who blogs here.