Here’s a theory based entirely on basic “no shit, Sherlock” logic: “Subway,” the first part of the latest episode of Louie, works best if you ride the subway. I rode the MBTA to work for seven years. I, and any of my fellow passengers, probably could’ve written that five minute vignette. Almost none of us (self included) could’ve written it half as well as Louis C.K.
C.K.’s public transit adventure in “Subway” is surreal, but then the very concept of the subway is pretty fucked up. Still, this was the most blatantly absurd Louie has gotten. C.K. goes to catch a train after doing a show. On the platform, a tuxedoed musician passionately plays the violin, seeming less like a busker than an orchestra first chair scrounging up some extra change. The classy mood is ruined when a bum staggers down the stairs, with a tarp for a cape and multiple trash bags in tow. Initially framed in the same shot as the violinist, the bum strips down and takes a quick shower on the platform with a bottle of water. The camera eventually closes in and lingers on the bum’s backside as he rubs water into his barely exposed crack. When the violinist and bum are on screen at the same time it’s the full spectrum of New York City in a single shot, where you’re just as capable on any given day of seeing both the finest culture the world has to offer and a homeless guy masturbating on the sidewalk.
Once on the train, Louie scopes out his fellow passengers, jotting down words in a notebook and presumably working on material. He sees a seat filled with a murky brown liquid, hopefully just soda, sloshing back and forth as the train jostles, threatening to seep onto the neighboring seats. C.K. and other passengers stare at it worryingly.
Suddenly the screen changes to black and white, with a different film stock and the sounds of the train replaced with an ambient string score. We’ve entered blatant fantasy sequence territory. C.K. removes his sweater and soaks the soda up off the seat. The other passengers are ecstatic. A black woman tenderly strokes C.K.’s cheek. A dumpy white guy gazes at him in awe and offers a fist-bump. A sexy blonde kneels down for a victory blow job as dozens of people watch on and nod approvingly.
I didn’t mind the dramatic black and white stylistic shift. My wife hated it, though. Louie has consistently deployed fantasy scenes and dream sequences without belaboring the point with tricks like these. This scene is slightly jarring and unusual in that regard, but it’s such an extreme fantasy, and in an environment that’s already inherently surreal to an extent, that I can see why the clear demarcation between real and unreal would seem necessary to C.K. I can also see why my wife or other viewers would find it distracting and clumsily “artistic” in the vein of a bad student film.
And this is just the first five minutes of the episode.
The rest is devoted to Louie’s friendship with Pamela, the single mother he met in the first season. It’s the closest thing this show has to a recurring storyline. He obviously digs her, and she apparently likes his company even though she’s cynical and straight-forward to the point of open hostility.
They have a day-long conversation / non-date that starts over lunch at a fancy French restaurant and continues at a flea market. Louie tries to put his arm around Pamela, but she shrugs it off and begs him not to ruin their friendship by mooning over her. In return he describes exactly how he feels about her. He lays it all out, how he thinks of her face all the time, how he dreams about holding her hand on a train, feels like he’ll die without her and was maybe created solely to be with her. And although she’s deeply touched by his speech she reaffirms that nothing will ever happen between them. Still, he goes to the grocery store with her and helps carry the bags back to her place, where she casually asks if he wants to take a bath with her in the middle of conversation. Somehow Louie totally misses that invitation and says he has to go, his sadness obvious as he awkwardly shakes her hand good night. As soon as he’s out the front door he realizes what just happened and calls Pamela to confirm that he just made a huge mistake. She basically says it was a one-time offer, never to be repeated, and after hanging up she hears Louie’s cry of anguish from outside her building.
This episode was slightly disjointed, with no clear thematic similarities between the two vignettes. The C.K./Adlon relationship is very naturalistic and believable, even when he’s pouring his heart out to her, and hopefully this doesn’t serve as a conclusion for her character. Louie’s embarrassing but endearing speech and Adlon’s low key proposition kept this episode grounded in something resembling reality, unlike most romantic comedies, even if his primal scream at the end felt off and too much like a sitcom. “Pamela” was an important episode for both characters, but it was a little light on comedy. It lacked the weight Louie has become known for. It’s a fine, understated stand-alone, and it’s not like all episodes can be classics.