It sucks when any story you love destroys one of the things that makes it special. Unfortunately, Louie did precisely that last night, during the two-part season finale, "Pamela Part 2 and 3."
One of the most exciting decisions Louis C.K.'s made in the course of the show's life has been to cast Susan Kelechi Watson as Janet, Louie's ex-wife. Casting on TV and in the movies is almost always realistic, that is to say it aims for mimesis—a replication of the real world. And so children are cast to play children. Teens—unless you're Bianca Lawson or Brittany Snow—are cast to play teens. Men play men; women play women. And if you have an actress playing, for instance, the mother of two white children, she'll be white, or there will be some explaining done in the story. (TV and movies are not like theater in this regard, where casting is often used as a artistic device that doesn't feel obligated to any definition of "realism.") But not Louie.
In the early days of the show, Louie's ex-wife was a white woman; there's a shot of her hands in season one. Watson made her first appearance in season three, and the show never felt the need to explain this change. C.K., who stars, writes, directs, and edits, made the decision to cast against continuity and so-called realism. Watson's performance got what he wanted from the character, end of discussion.
But last night, after nearly two complete seasons without any (unnecessary) explanation, he explained Janet. Prodded by Pamela, Louie explained that Janet is biracial, that her mother is white. And for what? So that Pamela could use the phrase "juicy black pussy"? It was a deeply disappointing moment from a show I expect better of.
This season of Louie has left audiences and critics divided. I saw a number of viewers state on Twitter that they were done with the show after "Pamela Part 1," the episode where Louie becomes a misogyny monster, to use the language of Dear Television's Lili Loofbourow. Loofbourow's discussion of that episode is the best piece of writing about Louie I've ever read, and sets up the second disappointment of the season four finale: C.K. didn't finish what he'd started.
There’s been way too much buildup, way too much overt philosophizing about the relations between women and men and ugly desire, for Louie to shrug off that horrific sequence with Pamela under the rug the way True Detective shrugs off Marty’s abuse, his misogyny, his beating of two innocent boys and shooting of an unarmed man as just so much character-dressing before an unearned redemption.
In other words, Louie is sketching out the psychology of an abuser by making us recognize abuse in someone we love. Someone thoughtful and shy, raising daughters of his own, doing his best. Someone totally cognizant of the issues that make him susceptible to the misogyny monster. Someone who thinks hard about women and men and still gets it badly wrong.
Despite the buildup that Loofbourow reads so well, there was no final grapple. I'm afraid that Louie got his unearned redemption in a bathtub with Pamela after the mild embarrassment of taking off his shirt. (The gag where he causes the bath to overflow is funny and provides a nice visual metaphor for lingering shame: even after he's taken the plunge and exposed himself, the water continues to pour over the sides of the bathtub, prolonging the moment and making his body a loud, disruptive presence in the room even after he's covered himself, so to speak, with opaque water.)
What's worse is, in the bathtub, he cracks about how he'd take a blowjob even if the person performing oral sex on him didn't want to do it. Isn't this—consent, pressure, the violence of something unwanted—what so much of this season has been about? To have him absolved in warm candle-lit water, to have the burden placed on Pamela to speak, doesn't fit with the uncompromising image of Louis C.K. that so many want to believe in.
I feel lousy that it played out like this.
Ross Scarano is a deputy editor at Complex. He tweets here.