Last summer, midway through Louie’s fourth season, Matt Zoller Seitz posited the theory over at Vulture that creator/writer/director/star Louis C.K. “is aware of how Twitter and Facebook and recap culture have changed the way we watch TV, particularly by putting social pressure on viewers to have a loud and definite opinion on an episode right now,” and was thus using his show to troll the Internet. Co-star Pamela Adlon all but confirmed it in a subsequent interview; Vanity Fair’s Joanna Robinson convincingly posited, at the season’s end, that it was about “the cycle of Internet outrage,” and “our tendency as pop-culture consumers toward volatile, knee-jerk reactions.” All of which is a long way of getting around to saying that there are episodes where it feels like Louie’s just plain fucking with us, and last night’s “Bobby’s House” is one of them.
Much of it plays like a fairly typical Louie episode—which is to say, odd and off-balanced and funnier in its silences and peculiarities than in traditional set-ups and punch lines. Louie’s brother Bobby (Robert Kelly, back from season four) interrupts Louie’s pantsless nap (nice touch: he puts on his pants before continuing the call) to break the news that their Uncle Jack has died and the wake is in two hours. They hurry over; it’s the wrong Jack, a wake for someone they don’t even know. Louie, being who he is, shrugs “Well, should we…” and sets about comforting a bunch of total strangers.
The crux of the episode is the scene that follows, as Louie, unsuccessful in his attempt to squirm out of hanging out with his brother (much as he was unable to mumble his way out of hanging out with his almost-brother-in-law last week), finds himself trapped in a dispute about happiness, satisfaction, and who’s the older brother. Bobby clearly sees Louie as a success story, but “Me, I got nothin’! No money, no skills, no Twitter! My sperm don’t work…” Louie’s doing some of his very best reactive acting in this scene, from the way his face screws up at the beginning of the conversation on down; he can’t help his brother “get good things” in his life, because it’s a nonsense request. And luckily he can tiptoe out of the conversation thanks to the perfectly timed shutoff of Bobby’s sleep-timer light switch.
Pretty standard stuff! And then we get to a scene where Louie interrupts a confrontation at the bus stop between a man and a woman (“You don’t even know what’s going on here,” she tells him, not incorrectly!”), who proceeds to beat the shit out of him—but not before he gets a couple of hits in. (He seems to be taunting the Salon headliners: “What a Problematic Louie Tells Us About Domestic Violence.”) It is on, its face, a weird scene, until you get to the one that follows, where Louie plays the pronoun game to avoid admitting to his daughter that he got be up by “a woman—a very strong woman.” He presses on, assuring the two girls “You should know that women are strong,” using the scene to dramatize how gender roles and cultural assumptions die hard. And they laugh at him.
But they don’t laugh nearly as heartily as Pamela; the cut to her roaring laughter is the biggest laugh in the episode, so big that it almost seems like the whole episode might’ve been set up for it. And the rest of the scenario follows a logical progression: he’s worried about going onstage bearing the marks of the encounter, so he asks her to help him put on some disguising make-up. She does, and then realizes that she wants him to “let me make up you up like a lady,” promising “have the best sex of your entire life.” He relents. (Her “YES!” is the second-biggest laugh of the episode.) And she makes him up and the soft music plays; she puts on a baseball cap, and they do a little bit of gender play. It takes him a moment, but he plays along, slips an odd little Southern lilt into his voice. (“What Louie Gets Wrong About Trans Identity.”) The floorboards creak as they slow dance—an elegant touch—and the sex is as intense as promised, with an unexpected flip and a new, intimate act put into the mix, bang boom.
“Doesn’t that put us in a category…” he begins, in the afterglow, again trying to steer them towards the more serous relationship that she’s eschewed at every turn, and she not only resists, but realizes it’s time to pull the plug. Few things this show has ever done ring as true as the way he immediately tries to backtrack; in this scene, and in their other conversations on this topic, C.K.’s dialogue and playing uncannily convey the way it feels when you’re in a casual relationship, and pretending like you don’t want more. It’s a heartbreaking little scene—with a running mascara payoff that you can see coming a mile away. Maybe Louie is trolling us. Or maybe the lady-violence and drag-sex stuff was just the only path he could think up to the mascara gag. What’s great about Louie is that either theory is equally credible.