When Louie Stopped Being Funny

In the penultimate episode of this season of Louie, we're given a 90-minute flashback into Louie becoming a stoner in middle school. There's a scene in which his science teacher demonstrates to the class that if you fall asleep through loud noise, its absence can work the same way as an alarm clock to wake you up. This—waking up thanks to a sudden silence—was how I felt watching the fourth season of the show, which ended last night.

Like most progressive white late 20somethings, I've been a fan of Louis CK's comedy before even his show's already-legendary on FX. Even when he's working hard against the grain—his n-word bit, the "feminist" rape joke—I think he's coming from a place where he's really trying to point out just how awful people—mainly white—can be, forcing self-examination and, ideally, change. That's what stand-up comedy should be. Most comedians don't get a pass the same way that Louis CK does; then again, most people are not as funny. But this season of Louie has done damage to my perception that CK is using brutality to make us think. There are instances of sexual and sex-related violence where Louie either faces no recourse or benefits from them and this runs counter to how I've seen him thus far.

There are the cute comedy club waitresses who pay him no mind until he comes home from a Hamptons benefit, having had the shit beat out of him after he accidentally breaks his one-night stand's eye socket. That sex was consensual; the elbow incident felt shocking but truly unintentional. It was the smarmy smirk when he realized the waitress who had previously denied his advances was going to hang out with him, touch his face, feel pity, that made me think: This is not the same Louie anymore.

We saw plotlines guided by typical Louie fare: perfecting his masturbation techniques, dealing with his ex-wife's constant disappointment in his behavior. But he had a lot more sexual tenacity this season after his random Hamptons encounter. A six-episode arc where Louie has a dopey romance with his Hungarian neighbor's non-English-speaking niece Amia is consummated via coercion. Louie's clumsiness has always been part of his charm and the twitterpated beginnings of his relationship with Amia should have remained just that. When, the morning after, she delivers a speech that only people who speak Hungarian (and probably some dark corner of Reddit) know the meat of. The only English she says to him: "No good." In the context of Louie's world, I am sure many viewers took this as a tragically funny comment on Louie's sexual prowess. I took her to be expressing her discomfort by how the situation shook out.

I hoped that the next week they'd confront the scene. Instead, Amia wrote him a letter about how much she loved their time together, but that she had to return to her home country. Louie's neighbor, Dr. Bigelow (played with gruff brilliance by Charles Grodin), instructs him to embrace the pain. Heartbreak is a benefit of loving someone, Bigelow tells him: "You're so lucky. You're like a walking poem." This is the part that fucks me: As a viewer, and as a person who has recently been dumped and moved by Grodin's missives, I sympathize. I think, Oh, maybe he didn't know what he was doing. But I'm also a person who has written before about rape on this show. In season three, Louie is sodomized by a blind date (played by Melissa Leo). If you can recall, after performing oral sex on Louie in her car, she expects reciprocity. When he says he doesn't want to, she cold-cocks him in the face hard enough to shatter the glass of her passenger side window and then climbs on top of his face. I loved CK for writing this into the show. I thought that he could elicit empathy from men over sexual pressure by seeing it happen to someone like them. But I didn't share that experience this season in the same Grodin-featuring episode when Louie chased Pamela Adlon's eponymous character around his apartment, grabbing her and trying to force her into his bedroom. It's too real.

That's this season's biggest problem. The show is always littered with the maudlin or the unfortunate, but it's usually counteracted with the outrageous. We like him because he's a family man, he struggles with his career, he believes in the right thing. When we see him in an episode like season three's "Dad" where he finally gets the gumption to visit his father, with whom he has a rocky past, but ultimately becomes so frightened that he runs away only to steal a motorcycle to drive across town to then steal a motor boat, so he can find sanctuary in the middle of the water. No one is ever going to do that, but that kind of desire exists in everyone: Doing the fantastical to get away from the upsetting. With Amia and Pamela, Louie hasn't divined himself a Don Juan; he's reached into the shitty annals of power to get what he wants. We rely on Louie to retrieve himself from darkness using the absurd. But in season four, Louie dispenses darkness onto others.

When Louie Stopped Being Funny

So, with her back pressed to the wall, Adlon's fear becomes palpable. It's a disturbing scene because probably every woman you know has been in a similar situation—when the power dynamic shifts so that physicality reigns and the smaller person has to fight with insurmountable strength or submit without will. Pamela's best defense is screaming at him, "This would be rape if you weren't so stupid." It doesn't stop Louie, however, from backing her into a corner to steal a painful kiss before allowing her to leave. It is awful. On Morning After, Jacob Clifton wrote, "It's quite possible there is a dance happening here that I'm not equipped to notice, because I never had to learn the steps." For anyone who has never been in this situation before, the steps to that dance go like this: Do everything you can to get the fuck out of there before this moment ruins your life.

For two weeks, I waited for the Pamela plotline to continue. The thing about Louie is that almost everything that happens on that show exists in a vacuum: He suffers no PTSD from seeing a homeless person have his head knocked off by a truck; he still has a pretty fine relationship with his brother, even though he's sexually propositioned him; we're supposed to be shocked when his daughter Lily wears blackface for her Frederick Douglass Halloween costume only to find out two seasons later, despite being white-looking, she is half-black. The one thing that has been constant? Pamela. And he's pretty much been nagging her to ameliorate his unrequited love since they met at a PTA meeting. His mom comes out of the closet, a date abandons him by hopping on a helicopter—we're supposed to forget about all of these things, but we're never supposed to forget about Pamela.

And how could I? Adlon's characters tend to be brash. She's a firecracker as Marcy Runkle on the increasingly unfortunate Californication and maintained a perfect sarcastic malaise when she played CK's wife on his short-lived HBO sitcom Lucky Louie. But Louie's Pamela? The toughest. During last night's finale, when Louie asks her what she's doing, she tells him, "Searching for elephants in your mother's vagina." Her coldness, her potty-humor, her penchant for berating him: I get it. She's perfect for him. Except for one major thing, she repeatedly, repeatedly tells him that she is not attracted to him. And, yet, by the end of the two-part episode, they are sharing a bath, a nod to the one time in a past season where she considered acquiescing to his interest.

In "Pamela Pt. 1," before the attempted rape scene, Louie does a lengthy stand-up bit about how he believes that women should be the dominant sex (because mothers are the first people who take care of you) and theorizes that at some point ("when we walked around naked") they were. But to him, women spent too much time making fun of and "flicking" penises, so that when men took over, their fear of women turned them into monsters. "We're so scared of [women]," he says. "We punch a woman and she is like, 'Wahhh' and [we react], 'We can hit them!' We're so afraid of women." But in parts 2 and 3, Pamela only acknowledges the awkward kiss when Louie asks her on a proper date, as if the rest of the incident was not totally terrifying—and especially for the viewer, for people like myself who have been in that kind of situation before. There is no learning moment. There is no example to be made. What we learn in this season of Louie is that if you press a woman hard enough, she will eventually be romantic with you in the capacity that you want.

Claire Lobenfeld is a music and culture writing living in New York. A former staff member at Stereogum and Complex, her recent work has appeared in SPIN, Billboard, Rolling Stone and InStyle.

[Illustration by Jim Cooke]