At this point, the best way for Louis C.K. to surprise us would be to write a happy ending. And that’s precisely what the auteur comedian did in the fourth-season finale of his undefinable FX series.
As Darren Franich wrote earlier this month, Louie can’t really be categorized. It’s a comedy, until it isn’t; it obeys the laws of continuity, until it doesn’t; it’s grounded by recurring scenes of C.K. doing standup, until those scenes fall by the wayside. The only predictable thing about the show’s ambitious fourth year has been its unpredictability. (Well, that and Louie’s bum luck with women, which is a whole separate issue.) Which is why season four’s two-part finale was so refreshing: The hourlong closer set aside flights of absurd fancy (like Hurricane Jasmine Forsythe) and time jumps (the extended flashback in “Elevator Part 4;” most of “In the Woods”) and meandering 10-minute monologues about the pleasures of being a single, straight, white comedian with no responsibilities (Todd Barry’s segment in “Elevator Part 5”) in favor of a simple, slow-building story about Louie’s complicated relationship with Pamela, the woman who broke his heart back in season two.
The pair begin the first part of the episode at a pretentious New York City gallery. They snicker at sculptures of dog poop, neon nooses, giant dirty Q-tips, and a black canvas on a white wall that’s just titled “Jews”—you know, the kind of high-minded rubbish passed off as art by the creatively bankrupt. The joke, of course, is that C.K.’s own critics (assuming they exist, somewhere) could lob similar accusations against Louie‘s fourth season, which largely rejected comedy in favor of high-concept storytelling. Maybe if he had gone to the gallery alone, Louie would have seen the merits of these pieces; with pragmatic Pamela by his side, though, they just look masturbatory and dumb.
That’s the purpose Pamela serves in Louie: She’s a grounding influence, if not exactly always a pleasant one. (The character’s gotten a lot more caustic since she returned from that ill-fated trip to Paris.) She asks Louis how his ex-wife, mixed-race Janet, could possibly be “the mother of those almost translucent white girls of yours”—a question many Louie viewers themselves voiced the first time Janet showed up onscreen. (The real answer: It doesn’t matter.) When Louie wallows in self-pity after learning that his old friend Marc Maron snagged his own TV show, Pamela responds with sage words about what it really takes to make it in the comedy business: “None of you guys are special or magical. Some of you are luckier and some of you work harder than others. You’re just guys.” She’s the yin to his yang, a gravelly-voiced straight-shooter with a powerful gravitational pull; Louie itself feels more balanced when she’s around, which may or may not be a good thing depending on how you feel about the cult of C.K.
The “Pamela” storyline has its share of issues; its troubling beginning (Louie nearly forces himself on her; Pamela fights back by shouting, “This would be rape if you weren’t so stupid. You can’t even rape well!”) and middle (Louie has to wheedle to get Pamela to do anything physical, though he doesn’t attack her again; she protests that what he’s doing is “dumb and weird,” but eventually relents) perpetuate tired, destructive tropes about “nice guys” who can’t and won’t take no for an answer. And Pamela’s consistent, often cruel rejection of Louie can grate on viewers as much as it grates on him.
On a structural level, though, the “Pamela” arc works—as a standalone plot, sure, but mostly relative to what’s come before it. Like the season’s best-received episode, “So Did the Fat Lady,” it’s an unadorned, human story, and while C.K.’s love of experimentation indicates an admirable refusal to rest on his laurels, it can also curdle into indulgence if left unchecked. (For example: Did “Elevator” need to be six parts?) While watching season four’s earlier installments, I sometimes wished that Pamela—the wise-talking embodiment of Louie’s own insecurities, all wrapped up in one petite, harshly pretty package—had been around to demand that Louis stop jerking around and just make an entertaining TV show. You know, like Marc Maron’s. (Maybe the comparison isn’t perfect.)
Of course, Louie wouldn’t be Louie if it didn’t take risks; try to put C.K. in a prescribed sitcom box, and you get that horrible cliche-fest from “Oh, Louie/Tickets.” (And nobody wants that.) There’s room for conceptual weirdness and modest authenticity both in the series that C.K. has created, which is what makes it so exciting as a project. That being said, choosing to end a wildly surprising year with what boils down to a romantic comedy—a biting, twisted romantic comedy in which the leads can only initially connect via dirty iPhone photos, but a romantic comedy all the same—is a pleasant surprise in and of itself. And if nothing else, it’s nice to know that three years later, Louie finally got that long-awaited bath.