Parts four and five of “Elevator” devote nearly half their running times to extended digressions. This is hardly an unprecedented occurrence for this shaggy-dog series, but the increasing cohesion of the “Elevator” storyline makes the disruption more noticeable than usual. Specifically, both sequences call attention to Louie’s (Louis C.K.) extreme passivity in life, offering insights into the ongoing issues he faces with his unruly daughter, Jane (Ursula Parker), and his increasingly serious relationship with Amia (Eszter Balint).
The first is a flashback of a young Louie (Conner O’Malley) and Janet (the white, inexplicably cast Brooke Bloom) discussing the prospect of divorce barely two years into their marriage, culminating in brief but mutually orgasmic breakup sex and Louie ironically wondering what would happen if she got pregnant from it. The second cedes time for Todd Barry to detail his day as a single, childless middle-aged man, laying out a banal utopia in which freedom from responsibility to another human being allows him to do what he loves most: nothing. The dramatic highlight of his day is pestering the owner of a rinky-dink comedy club to print out a new sheet of paper for his dressing room to correct a misspelling of his surname, a victory that prompts the entire bar where he tells this story to burst into applause.
Seemingly unrelated, the two sequences conceptually and aesthetically reinforce Louie’s constant motion toward comfort and the incompatibility of his romantic desires with his unwillingness to change. The flashback comes on the heels of yet another row and reconciliation over the prospect of putting the kids in private school, which gives the black-comic glimpse of Louie and Janet eagerly accepting the idea of an early divorce added bite for Louie’s wistful reminiscence of a time when divorce would have meant full separation. Louie’s most tender moments occur with his children, but the airless, static direction of the flashback speaks to the frosty, cordial rapport into which the couple had settled early on into their marriage, and how they continue to endure it even in divorce to handle the children.
Compare the frigid reminiscence of his marriage and its eventual saddling of responsibility to the warm, dreamy tone of Barry’s story, with flowing transitions propelled by Barry’s droll speech. The comic’s naturally flat, smug delivery only compounds the superiority in his description of getting a free donut at a diner for being a regular, or finding the cheapest way to get to his gig to maximize his profit. The crowd’s wild applause for his tale of a worry-free day is Louie’s own, a metaphorical display of his envy for a life without the stress of kids and relationships. That Louie makes Amia sit with him listening to this longwinded story she doesn’t understand, to say nothing of the vulgarities that Barry and other comics lob at the uncomprehending woman to amuse themselves, speaks volumes about how unbending his routine is.
If Louie pines for a life that simple, however, he still can’t get Amia out of his mind. A recurring bit in both episodes are weather broadcasts tracking an immense, land-obliterating hurricane (one of which, hilariously, leads with LeBron James’s death before mentioning the “rest of the Miami Heat, and 12 million other people” who perished in the total submersion of Florida). These hyperbolic forecasts fail to grab Louie’s attention, as in the first broadcast that plays as the camera pans away from the television to Amia playing chess with Lily (Hadley Delany) and listening to Jane practice the violin as Louie walks into frame and places a caring hand on her shoulder.
As usual, the world around Louie begins to sync with his self-centered thoughts, and soon all anyone can talk to him about is his relationship. Janet warmly hugs her ex with happiness at hearing of his girlfriend and how much the kids like her, only to become exasperated to learn the full story of her language barrier, limited time in the States, and the fact that she and Louie haven’t had sex. Even Evanka (Ellen Burstyn), whom Louie finds unconscious in an elevator and revives with the help of Charles Grodin’s cranky doctor, recovers enough to ask if he and her niece have gotten down to it yet. The questions and criticism Louie fields about Amia remind him of how badly he would like to sleep with her, and they also puncture his high-minded celibacy by pointing out that his deluded attempt to soften the blow of her eventual departure is only drawing him, her, and Louie’s kids into greater inevitable heartbreak.
So when Amia comes the night before she’s set to leave to say goodbye, Louie responds to her cheek-kiss with one of his own before the two escalate into something never before seen on the show: an unambiguously sweet, mutually supportive, and unself-conscious act of lovemaking. Yet the juxtaposition of that scene with the previous episode’s flashback of Louie and Janet’s own goodbye sex colors Louie and Amia’s tender moment. The subtext of “Elevator,” from Louie’s newfound confidence with a returned Pamela to his argumentative but still respectful interaction with Janet to his bashful courtship of Amia, is that Louie cannot ever be honest with a woman unless she’s out of his life, romantically speaking, or makes open plans to leave.
The penultimate part of this arc ends with Louie waking up to the harsh reality of his inability to actually communicate with Amia, causing him to take stock of the situation in reflective solitude. Louie, like the comic who makes it, can occasionally reveal blind spots in the protagonist’s self-criticism that expose how he wields it as defense, not honest evaluation. The deeper the show gets into “Elevator,” the more it emerges as the least pedantic yet most probing assessment of Louie’s hang-ups and failures as a human being, untethered to the self-deprecation that he relies on for absolution. If the series primarily delves into Louie’s headspace, “Elevator” steps outside of it, and for a show so rigidly focused on the artistic input and on-screen presence of one man, it’s here that all eyes are at last fully on Louie.
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