The line between objective and subjective reality on Louie has always been thin at best, and it may not exist at all. Louis C.K. announced the permeability of this membrane in the pilot episode's first sequence, in which the woman Louie is out with (Chelsea Peretti) eventually flees to a waiting helicopter to make her escape. From Louie's perspective, the date was so bad she didn't just leave, she was evacuated.
However autobiographical the show sometimes appears, Louie is not about how life is, it's about how life feels. The purest example of this might be the brief scene in the Season Four opener, "Back," in which Louie is awakened by the racket of garbage collectors outside his bedroom window: as Louie tries to sleep, the men get progressively more rowdy and destructive, until they ultimately bust through his windows, smash their trashcan lids together noisily, and jump up and down on his bed, dumping garbage everywhere. (The one-line network synopses for episodes—undoubtedly written by C.K. himself—are themselves works of understated art. "Louie has a typical day," reads the synopsis for "Back." Do we believe a typical day in New York City literally begins like that for Louie? No, probably not. Can we believe a typical day feels like it begins that way? You betcha.)
So what we see on-screen in the average episode of Louie, I would argue, isn't so much objective reality as it is subjective experience. This is one of the reasons that the show plays so loose with continuity. (Last week I mentioned the fact that Louie has a brother as an adult, but seems to be an only child in all of the flashbacks to his youth like "God" and "Into the Woods." But Louie sees childhood—or Louie's childhood, at least—as a lonely, isolated place, in which the only important relationship was with his mother. The flashbacks reflect the perception, the memory, the emotional truth of that time.)
I think some viewers find Louie's frequent surreality and lack of continuity to be confusing, but I don't believe these choices are ever meant to obfuscate: in fact, they're meant to clarify. It's just a different kind of honesty than we've seen almost anywhere else on television. Our experience of reality is fluid, filtered through our perceptions and our emotional states, so Louie—more often than not—feels true in ways that more objectively "realistic" shows could never achieve.
So, in a way, a dream-sequence on Louie feels almost superfluous. Dream sequences on television are usually used to reveal hidden, sub- and semi-conscious emotional states, but this show always wears its protagonist's inner life on its sleeve. And Louie C.K. is clearly aware of this redundancy, because "Untitled" doesn't really try to tell us anything about Louie we don't already know. Instead, it takes a step back to frame some of his anxieties in slightly different ways, while playing with the imperceptible line between its dream world and its reality.
Neither we nor Louie are ever quite sure which "reality" we're in, and ultimately it barely matters. Louie's constant false awakenings—in which he thinks he's out of one nightmare, only to find himself in another—reflects the overall experience of the show. What is real? It's almost a meaningless question on Louie, and even when this episode arrives at answers the lines are only tentatively drawn. We know at the end of the episode, for example, that everything before Louie falls asleep in the cab is presumably "real," but the difference is sometimes negligible at best. Some minor things that happen in the "real" segments—like Lilly's casual reporting that she and her friend watched A Clockwork Orange—are the passing stuff of a parent's nightmares. Other things, like Louie's recurring encounters with comedian "Crazy Glasy" (Jon Glaser) feel like they could be real, or they could be dreams. (The way Crazy Glasy casually steals Louie's joke—and his coat—feel like minor-league dream content, but in fact I think the episode ultimately frames these as "real.")
Jane's extraordinary monologue in Dr. Bigelow's office, for a more substantial example, is both dreamlike in its own right and an expression of the fluid relationship Jane—and often the show—has to reality:
"Well, I have this weird thing in my head...Like, I get this weird feeling that I'm sweating, but on the inside of my face. And then I get this weird thing where my eyes are all weird, and I can see electricity. Like, I can see green lines going from, like, a light bulb, to all around. And then, I can see that everything is just electrons, colliding, and floating, and playing. And then, I feel like if I just take one deep breath, and then just wish hard enough, I could just vanish, into nothing, like I was before I was born."
A bright, imaginative child, Jane is open to endless possibilities, in ways that sometimes frighten Louie. "This is all part of my dream," she said in last season's "Elevator, Part 1," after she terrified Louie by stepping off the subway right before the doors closed. "No, this is not a dream, Jane!" Louie said, shouting at and shaking his daughter. "It's not a dream! This is real! People get hurt, it's a dangerous world! Kids get stolen, and they disappear forever, Jane! This is real! Bad things happen!"
It's this tension—between Louie's own subjective view of the world and his objective awareness of the dangers posed by other people—that I think "Untitled" is ultimately exploring. It's not really about seeing Louie's fears, for we see those all the time. (Episodes like "Halloween" and "Elevator, Part 1" are truer expressions of Louie's deepest fears than anything we see the dream sequences here.) Instead, I think "Untitled" is exploring the fundamental anxieties of what last week I argued was the central theme of this season, and perhaps of Louie in general: the question of empathy.
Certainly the demands and limits of empathy have been recurring themes this season as Louie has been reluctantly drawn into one emotional Charybdis after another. When it happened in "Pot Luck," Louie responded kindly, going out of his way to comfort Julianne and tell her just what she needed to hear. When it happened in "A La Carte," "Cop Story," and "Bobby's House"—with hopeless comedian Bart, obnoxious police officer Lenny, and Louie's brother Bobby, respectively—Louie's responses were more measured: he tried to help, but far more reluctantly, and there were definitely limits to how far he was willing to be drawn into another person's misery. (If he could have avoided any of those conversations, he would have.)
Now, "Untitled" ultimately locates the source of Louie's nightmares in a failure of empathy. The recently separated mother of one of Lily's friends, Barbara (Rachel Bay Jones), asks him to help her move a (clearly emotionally-loaded) fish-tank out of her bedroom, and Louie refuses. It's a justifiable refusal—it is, as he points out, a much bigger job than she imagines—but his response to her resulting emotional breakdown is a conscious decision to just not get involved. “I’m really sorry you’re going through that," he stammers. "But, um, you know, I don’t really know you, so I feel like this is a private thing, like I shouldn't stay…” Louie just can't be bothered, and his one kind gesture—putting a blanket over her shoulders—turns into a cold expression of his emotional removal: he just covers her up completely. Just like the moment at the bar in "Cop Story" where he shut down Lenny's confession of misery, it's a cold refusal to look too closely at another person's pain. I know you're hurting, he's saying. But I really don't want to have to look at it.
So, on a very simplistic level, this indifference is the triggering event for Louie's nightmares. "Some think it's a kind of moral correction, a way of punishing yourself," Dr. Bigelow (Charles Grodin) says, and, if we want to interpret Louie's dreams, this would seem to be their meaning. We can assume that the ghastly naked man—listed as "the Awful Being" (Val Rich) in the credits—represents Louie's lack of empathy, his fear of all these emotionally needy people—from strangers to friends to his own brother—who want something from him, who want to suck on him, who want to consume him. (There's a recurring image of mouths throughout the dreams: the Awful Being keeps trying to bite or suck on Louie; Louie puts his fingers over Bobby's mouth to try to stop his constant intoning of "Bro"; a sad old woman sitting beside Louie keeps leaning towards him with her mouth open, until he just can't resist giving her his hand to bite on.)
Empathy means opening yourself up to others—stepping outside of your own limited subjective reality and acknowledging the experiences and feelings of others—and that's a very scary, threatening thing.
It's notable that the Awful Being first appears by intruding upon the safety and sanctity of Louie's home life with the girls. "Oh no," Louie says, when he hears a knock on the door. Lily and Jane are Louie's emotional inner circle, the people in his life he must always empathize with, and the ones he must always try to keep safe against the world. Everyone else he lets into that world is a demanding and potentially dangerous outsider. (Notice the shot, above, in which Louie stands between the Awful Being and a manikin of a child.) Empathy can open you and your loved ones up to problems, to hassles, to physical and emotional dangers. (There may even be some subtext here of Louie's failed relationships, which have recently brought women—Amia and Pamela—into his daughters lives, only to have them leave.) Empathy got Louie beaten up last week. Empathy brought him into the physically and emotionally dangerous orbit of Lenny. Feeling empathy has gotten Louie into all manner of problems and complications, and sometimes it seems smarter, easier, safer, to just not, and to stay locked in his own subjective reality. ("Self, self, self..." Louie says on stage, in one of his dreams, right before he's attacked by the Awful Being.)
Even the seemingly unconnected stand-up bit in the beginning of the episode touches on this theme. "I haven’t had a pet since I’ve been a grownup,” Louie says: relating to animals, as Jane will point out in the grocery store, is a sign of empathy. And what's the problem with keeping bees? "Too many bees." Too many bees, too many people, swarming around, clamoring for attention. (Even one bee—alone, old, depressed—can be too much to relate to. “Why you gotta bee like that?” Louie says, and the dumb pun is the verbal equivalent of throwing a blanket over the poor, lonely bee.)
But of course, not feeling empathy is what makes Louie's world—and the world in general—a nightmare. There are several nice, seemingly throwaway moments that echo this belief. Jane, for example, casually mentions the hell she's going through at school, where her former friend has circulated a "Who Hates Jane?" petition that all the kids in the class have signed. Later, Jane objects to the live lobsters on sale in the supermarket. "It's inhumane to put them in this little tank," Jane says. "Imagine if you were in there." But Louie—who only moments before has failed catastrophically to relate to Barbara as a person—suffers another failure of the sympathetic imagination. "But that's not somebody," Louie tells his daughter. "That's just food. Those people are food." (This echoes forward to the mouth-theme in the dreams, and the Awful Being who seems to think Louie is food.)
Jane's observation, of course, is also couched within Lilly's description of A Clockwork Orange, one of literature and cinema's great texts on the dangers of lacking empathy: she describes how this "cool" movie is about a guy who goes around beating people up for no reason. "But then he gets caught, and they try to make him a better person by, like, prying his eyes open..." The Awful Being—who barely has eyes at all—can be seen to represent this absence of sympathy within Louie, and all of the nightmares are prying Louie's eyes open, trying to make him a better, more sympathetic person.
“Nightmares are the worst, because that’s coming from the inside," Louie's friend Nick (Nick DiPaolo) tells him. "You can’t defend against that shit.” (It's a nice touch that it's Nick Louie turns to: the two men came to blows over their superficial differences in Season One's "Nick," but ultimately reached a deeper, more empathetic understanding of each other.) It is Nick who directs Louie to look within, helping him locate his bad dreams in the moment when he turned away from Barbara. Returning to Barbara's apartment to help her out, Louie achieves what Dr. Bigelow called a "moral correction."
The song that plays over the final shots sounds like some jazzy old standard. However—listening to how the lyrics irreverently invoke all the nightmarish dread of dreams, of empathy, of parenting, of being needed—it could only have been written by Louis C.K.
I dream of little monsters, crawling on my legs,
I fear they’ll come again, if I go to bed,
I wish that something else would be in my dreams,
Here come those little monsters, crawling on my legs.
I dream of dying babies, and why do they smile?
I hate those dying babies, why don’t they just die?
Their smiling faces give me diarrhea,
Please die you dying babies, in my diarrhea.
My dreams, my dreams, my dreams…
The world is full of monsters and dying children, all clamoring for attention, all climbing up your legs, giving you nightmares. Sometimes you just want them to die, already. (Why do they gotta bee like that?) But, at the end of the episode, Louie—having committed an act of kindness for another human being—is sleeping like a baby.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- Other examples of empathy (or lack thereof) are scattered throughout the episode, from the incessant cruelty of Louie's "friend" Todd (Todd Barry)—"Everyone hates you"—to the woman in the doctor's office who refuses to even acknowledge Louie and Jane. ("She's not very friendly," Jane says. "Well, you're not," Louie confirms.) Dr. Bigelow, on the other hand—though he appears rather disconnected and uncaring—shows remarkable empathy. The way he deals with Jane is absolutely perfect, listening to her seriously, not overreacting to her imagination, and talking to her like she's a real person. ("Don't you want to look at her?" Louie says, concerned. "I am looking at her," Dr. Bigelow says, echoing the theme of being able—and willing—to really see another human being.)
- Speaking of Jane, I should mention that Ursula Parker is just ridiculously, fantastically awesome. If I ever have a daughter, I want her to be more or less exactly like Jane.
- My one gentle criticism of this episode is that Louie is overplaying the easy trope of the lonely, depressed, emotionally needy woman who is desperate for sex. It's a very brief moment in a montage of other kind acts Louie performs for Barbara, but—especially coming so soon after the scene with Julianne in "Pot Luck"—it's a bit of a misstep.
- As this season progresses, Louis C.K.'s earlier assurances that this year would be less experimental and more "laugh-centric" is, itself, seeming like a hilarious joke. And I fucking love it.