Usually, when Louis C.K. does a multi-part episode on Louie—like the two-part “Daddy’s Girlfriend,” the three-part “Late Show” and “Pamela,” and the six-part “Eleveator”—it’s to tell a sprawling narrative, to do something structured less like episodic television than like cinema. But the two parts of “The Road,” which close Louie’s fifth season, seem to exist less for purposes of narrative than volume; there’s just too much terrible shit to get into one half-hour, because the road is a miserable, miserable place. And yet…
It probably goes without saying that even a show as experimental and occasionally fatalistic as Louie has to have some sort of an epiphany at the conclusion of this story; it’s not out of the realm of possibility that C.K. would subject his alter ego to an hour of road-comic depression with no glimmer of light or insight at the end, but it’s not very likely (at least when it’s ending the season as well). And yet, how much does it say about his fear of such Full House-esque “But I learned something today” moralizing that the character who leads him to that cathartic moment must pay for it with his life? That, friends, is a dark way to go out.
But we’ll return to that. If last week’s first half catalogued the road irritations of air travel, airport interactions, shitty motels, and hangers-on, this week’s conclusion adds to that checklist hack openers, clueless club owners, terrible audiences, and the “comedy condo.” (Worth mentioning: the episode’s story is co-credited to consulting producer Steven Wright, who’s been working the road even longer than C.K.) Said condo is shared by Kenny (Jim Florentine), a loathsome, sexist dick who does the worst kind of lazy, garbage material that, of course, the Oklahoma City audience eats up with a spoon. Louie’s quieter, more introspective act tanks, so badly that by the second night, the club owner decides to move Louie to the middle and bring Kenny back on as the closer, “so we have more energy at the end. Okay?”
And as if that isn’t bad enough, Kenny closes that night with a cutting, nasty “impression” of Louie; the camera holds on the target’s face as he watches this C-level Rickles take him apart, and he just turns and walks away. The gun is loaded for the kind of conversational/confrontational scene that Louie has always done particularly well, clear back to “Nick” and “Bully” in season one, where our hero finds himself in conflict with another person, and the more they talk, the more they connect. The argument with Kenny starts out brutal, cutting, all name-calling, with Kenny charging, “I don’t even know what they call it, where you’re from? But around the rest of the world, you’re an asshole,” and Louie giving as good as he gets, calling Kenny a “hack,” a “moron,” and “barely a comedian.”
But then it turns into a discussion of high-mindedness in comedy—of stand-up theory, if you will, with Kenny challenging Louie to “look me in the eye and tell me farts aren’t funny.” Louie can’t. And then he breaks, the misery of the situation and his station bringing on tears and an apology and the most open and honest statement of these episodes: “I love comedy, I always loved it. You gotta give so much. It’s so hard.” It’s about his love for the form, and the interaction with Kenny is a reminder that underneath all the misery of this life, there’s something great worth digging out.
In fact, he’s always excelled at dramatizing how moments of beauty manage to happen in spite of, and sometimes right alongside, the worst kind of crippling ugliness. This juxtaposition was visualized most explicitly in the second season “Subway/Pamela” episode, in which Louie watches as a concert violist plays his heart out on a subway platform as, right next to him, a homeless man washes himself. And that notion is brought to life again in the best single sequence of “The Road, Part 2,” and perhaps of the season. Louie goes out for a morning walk, mostly to escape the loneliness and desperation of the comedy condo, and wanders into a rainy flea market. The melancholy hangs thick in the air; he watches a fiddler play languidly. And then he walks into a tent that promises the opportunity to “go back in time.”
It’s one of those old-timey photo operations, where people dress up in vintage clothes to be photographed in carefully calibrated sepia tones. Two women, a mother and daughter, want to do a pose but need a man to fill a general’s uniform, and they ask Louie for his help. “It’ll be really fuuuuuun,” one promises. Outside the tent, the violist plays on, providing the score for the Ken Burns movie Louie’s now dressing up for. As the music continues, the trio play-acts their favorite Southern melodrama clichés, and they dance together, in pairs, all of them, and the photographer too. It’s a strange and perfect little scene, a reservoir of tenderness in the midst of Louie’s desert of shit.
He keeps the picture, and puts it on his fridge in the final scene. Jane asks who it is, and he makes up the story of his great-great-great-grandfather, the soldier who fired the last shot of the Civil War and was killed by snakes. Louie goes on an on, spinning this surreal tale full of nonsense names, entertaining his daughter extemporaneously, in much the same way as he does this television audience, week after week. It’s a simple image, but a potent one, and appropriate conclusion to this brief, lovely season.