After he returns home alone from a stressful therapy session with his ex-wife, Louie puts on thick, black eyeframes, pulls out his iPad, and lays back in bed, looking like a portly, tech-using Woody Allen. He glances up at the ceiling. The neighbors are making noise.
“Goddamnit, those people are loud,” says a female voice offscreen.
The camera turns and there’s a woman who viewers of Louie don’t recognize, a young brunette in a red dress, played by the actress Brooke Bloom. The camera pans back to the bed, and Louis C.K. has been replaced by the actor Conner O’Malley—a younger, skinnier, still-bespectacled version of the title character.
Thus begins the extraordinary little flashback we saw Monday night on Louie, a scene that’s worth a close read for how it illuminates what C.K. has been up to with his FX dramedy's six-episode "Elevator" arc. (Installments four and five aired Monday; the flashback was during four.)
O’Malley’s performance alone makes the scene worth watching for any C.K. fan. He embodies Louie’s mannerisms with the glee of a caricaturist. There’s the grunty, grizzled voice. The big, gulping laughs. The uncaring way he tells the front-desk receptionist that the people upstairs are being “crazy loud” followed by one of C.K.’s tics, a sullen, faux-uncomprehending “What?” When he faces conflict with the woman we quickly realize is his wife, he makes like Louie often does, falling silent and planting his chin into his chest.
But it’s Bloom who drives the scene. We can tell Louie’s passivity and coldness has made her desperate. She pleads with him to do something about the noise; when he gives in, it's by using as few words as possible. Later, there’s mention of the two of them previously having an explosive argument during which she had demanded a divorce, but what’s on screen is a woman trying to channel volcanic feelings into a difficult but constructive conversation. She’s in the hotel room; Louie’s on the deck, smoking; she's mouthing words that we can't hear. A surreal twist? No, there's a glass door separating them. He opens it.
As she talks about their earlier argument, she twirls her hair nervously, and then lets out a high, sad “oooh” before getting to the tough stuff: “So what if right now, when it’s calm and, y’know, we’re not fighting, what if we say that now?”
Him: “What if we say…”
Together: “Want a divorce.”
From there, we see the tension between them start to wane—she's less upset, he's less standoffish. Passing a cigarette back and forth, they reason that because they’ve only been married for two years, and because they have no kids, a divorce would save them a lot of heartache. It’d be done not “out of anger,” Louie says. She finishes the thought: “Out of kindness.”
Next they’re on the bed, smiling, play-fighting, joking about who they'll date when they're single. In a surprising display of affection, he's grasping her hand with both of his. You can see, finally, why they were together in the first place. He wants to have sex one last time—“Making love?” she asks. No, something quicker, more transactional, “just for the record.” She says ok. They leave their clothes on, and, laughing, orgasm almost immediately. In the next sequence, she shouts from the shower that that was the best sex they’d ever had.
The communication barrier between them has crumbled. She confides that she never liked his comedy, and then immediately apologizes: “Oh my god, I cannot believe I said that.” He’s absolutely delighted: “What a relief. Finally, you say it!” Then, one last joke. What if he’d just gotten her pregnant? Those big, gulping laughs emerge, and then we’re in the present day.
When I first watched the scene, I’d assumed it depicted the end of Louie's previously unmentioned first marriage. I was wrong, but the scene resonated anyways. The “Elevator” episodes have largely centered around Louie’s budding relationship with Amia, the neighbor’s daughter who speaks no English and is soon heading back to Hungary. Their time together is idyllic and piano-accompanied, contrasting starkly with the fractious scenes Louie shares with his ex-wife, Janet, and for a few moments, with his ex-girlfriend Pamela. But in this flashback, we get a hint of what’s actually going on—Louie can only warmly connect with women when there’s nothing to lose. He prefers his females unheard, as through a glass pane, or leaving, as with an impending divorce. And so Amia is the twistedly perfect girlfriend, mute and ephemeral.
But when the credits on “Elevator Part Four” roll, we learn that Bloom is actually playing a younger version of Janet. The same defiant color-blindness that led to C.K. to cast Susan Kelechi Watson, who's black, as the mother of Louie’s towheaded daughters has apparently led him to cast Bloom, who's white, to play the same character. Suddenly, we understand that the ongoing Janet/Louie drama was nearly averted two years into their relationship, but that Louie's pregnancy joke turned out to be not a joke at all. Now we understand that they stayed together for the kids, until, three years into the younger daughter’s life, they finally cut things off. We also clearly see the emotional dynamic that continues to the present day: Janet hectoring a clammed-up, self-centered Louie.
This dynamic has, in fact, appeared up on Louie over and over. Critics of the show have noted the uncomfortable fact that it habitually portrays somewhat-unhinged women yelling at Louie as he pathetically takes it all in. We’ve never been meant to think of Louie as a totally awesome, heroic guy, but (this season at least) he almost always has an escape route to audience sympathy. Think about the controversial closing scene in "So Did the Fat Lady," when Louie listens to a seven-minute lecture on malekind's shallowness and then sweetly grabs his angry date's hand. Or think about all the uncomfortable, bleak episodes bookended by hilarious, endearingly filthy stand-up bits. It might seem like on stage is where he's the most unfiltered, but the truth more likely is that that's where he's the most calculated. Performance is, after all, performance.
The real Louie is the one who panics at the prospect of genuine, lasting, challenging, significant give-and-take with another person. In one "Elevator" scene, he asks Janet to come out of her apartment and discuss what they’re going to do about their daughter's bad behavior. Janet starts talking about sending Jane to private school, and Louie gets so angry that he cuts short the conversation he'd insisted upon. It’s a preview of when, later, he and Janet will have a cigarette-sharing heart-to-heart that's different the one in the flashback, this time commiserating over a pointless therapy session. Their momentary peace will shatter when Janet learns of the details of Louie's relationship with Amia. When she asks, “Can’t you just figure out how to live a life already?," he essentially runs away.
What does he want to run away to? We get a hint in the fifth "Elevator" episode. Louie takes Amia to a comedy club, where he and his buddies banter vulgarly as Amia sits, smiling and uncomprehending. The conversation turns to how marriage and kids are a drag, about how nice it might be to be alone all the time. The comedian Todd Barry, 49 and single, delivers an epic monologue about a day in his life. He's so free of commitments or meaning that he must trump up banal moments as momentous victories—a free donut at the coffee shop, a dressing-room sign that spells his name correctly. The story is both amazing and sad; Louie and friends are both turned off and weirdly admiring. You can't help but think back to the flashback when Louie marvels at the liberating potential of a breakup: "Are we crazy, or are we geniuses? We can do whatever we want now."
The lure of whatever-we-want seems to underlie his women problems. With Janet, in flashback and in present-day, we see how Louie can only be truly present with the stakes are nil. Pamela shows up offering a stable relationship, and he flees. He's enamored with the quietly comforting Amia, but after he gets her to sleep with him, she is neither quiet nor comforting, speaking in Hungarian but communicating that something is amiss. She leaves his apartment. Soon she plans on leaving his life. And that, it’s becoming clearer, is exactly what he wants.