Right off the bat, let me say that I unabashedly loved “In the Woods,” a thoughtful and achingly real installment of Louie that represents some of the best work the series’ has ever done. The story – told mostly through flashbacks to thirteen year-old Louie’s brief transformation from good kid to delinquent pothead – unfolds in a similar fashion to one of those corny, “very special episodes” of 70s and 80s sitcoms that tackled a Very Important Issue (one could say that the somber, closing dedication to Phillip Seymour Hoffman, who was allegedly slated to guest star in this episode, is Louie’s version of the post-episode coda in which an actor steps out of character to provide a self-help number in case you or any of you friends are dealing with drug addiction, incest, a gambling problem, etc). While “In the Woods” follows the typical after-school special trajectory of decent kid led astray, faces consequences, and ultimately learns a life lesson, this is no cheesy, cautionary tale, but one of the most honest, real portrayals of growing up – from the perspective of both child and the parent – that I’ve ever seen.
After he catches twelve year-old Lilly hitting a joint with some friends at the park, an extremely panicked Louie grapples with how to handle the situation. Experimentation with alcohol or drugs is just one of the unavoidable nightmare scenarios of parenting – one that we convince ourselves that we won’t have to face because our kids are going to be somehow smarter than that, different from all the other kids and even ourselves at that age. Louie’s fear and bewilderment at how to proceed are met with an absolute refusal to discuss any of it on Lilly’s part and after she storms off to her bedroom, Louie finds himself thinking back to his own early teenage years.
The extended flashback that follows is a loosely autobiographical account of young Louie’s discovery of marijuana and the resulting poor decisions that lead to some fairly serious consequences (CK’s discussed some of the events featured here in his act. In fact, I recognized the stolen scale anecdote from a performance I saw back in 2011 in Newport, RI). After Louie’s dorky friend, Brad, steals some pot from his older brother, he and Louie ditch the school dance to get high in the woods, where, in need of a light, they form an unlikely alliance with bully-type, Danny. Flash forward a few weeks and the unlikely trio is now inseparable, held together by the glue of a shared love of getting high and fucking around. When Louie strikes up a relationship with a much older pot dealer, he’s offered an opportunity to score free pot by stealing the scales from the school’s science department. Promised a payoff of two ounces per scale, Louie takes advantage of his science teacher, Mr. Hoffman’s trust and gradually swipes fourteen of the expensive pieces of equipment. As the boys get more and more into the slacker stoner lifestyle, Louie’s haziness, sullenness, and apathy become more and more apparent, causing rifts in his relationship with his mother and the mentor-like Mr. Hoffman. When Brad’s mother eventually finds his stash, he narcs out his friends and suddenly Louie’s druggy, juvenile dalliances have the potential to cause him some very adult problems, namely a larceny charge.
Throughout the episode, watching adolescent Louie sit obviously and obnoxiously stoned in class, storming away from his mother, and boldly shouting “Fuck you” at his father made me cringe in recognition of my own teenage self, much like Lilly’s petulant behavior triggers the same kind of self-recognition for him. When he tries to warn Lilly that she’s not capable of handling what she’s getting into, she snaps, “What do you know about it?,” voicing the assumption that all kids make – that their parents are so far removed from their own youth, that they have no idea what it’s like to be young anymore. What Lilly doesn’t yet realize is that it’s precisely because Louie remembers so vividly that transitional age that he’s nearly driven to a full-on panic attack by Lilly’s experimentation, because he knows what could possibly lie ahead for her and also recognizes that, like his parents before him, he’s ultimately powerless to do anything about it.
What elevates “In the Woods” above a typical cautionary tale is how CK gets all the details absolutely right. I can’t remember seeing anything that so authentically captures that first, stumbling step out of childhood, that so accurately depicts the hazy bliss of minor rebellion and the fall-out from the inevitable poor choices on both the kid making them and on the adults who care about that kid. Everything here feels so relatable and real, from the highs of the giddy joy and sense of big-boy accomplishment that comes from scoring drugs on your own for the first time and the camaraderie getting high together can inspire amongst people who’d otherwise have very little in common to the lows of the typically deteriorating parent-teenage child relationship and Louie’s childlike fear when he finally realizes he’s in over his head.
Even the unfairly disparate consequences the boys face when shit hits the fan felt true to life. Written off as a bad kid, Danny, with little parental guidance and no one to lovingly go to bat for him, winds up arrested for assault and vandalism. Brad’s wealthy parents immediately pull him away from the bad influences in his life, using their connections to place him in a prestigious private school he’d otherwise never get into. Thanks to the support of both his mother and the wonderful Mr. Hoffman, who faithfully insists that he’s a decent kid, Louie essentially gets by with a slap on the wrist and some counseling sessions. The boys are at the precipice between childhood and adulthood, a time marked by playing at manhood, of wanting to make your own decisions without having yet developed a sense of responsibility for the choices you demand to be free to make. “I don’t have to listen to you,” Louie confidently sneers at his father. Yet how quickly he’s ready to crawl back to claims of childhood innocence, of being not guilty of anything truly serious by virtue of being just a kid, when confronted with legal charges from the theft of the scales. Luckily for Louie and Brad, the ultimate consequences were relatively harmless, perhaps even beneficial in the long run. It’s hard to imagine Danny feeling the same way regarding his new criminal record, however, and the boys’ different punishments shows how, if you’re not fortunate to have a supportive home life, the ramifications of typical adolescent mistakes have the potential to reach far beyond your teenage years.
CK usually gets great performance s from his guest stars, but “In the Woods” was truly exceptional in this regard. Amy Landecker returns as Louie’s mom (she played the same role in season one’s stellar “God.”) and perfectly captures a parent’s confusion, fear, and sadness when a previously warm, sweet kid morphs into a surly, secretive delinquent overnight. I loved the scene in Louie’s bedroom where she seems to wrestle with a desire to respect her son’s privacy and a need to know what he’s been hiding before giving in and searching his room. As Mr. Hoffman, Skipp Sudduth was so lovely and warm that it hurt to see him so adamantly defend the guilty Louie to the school’s principal and his disappointment, shame, and embarrassment at Louie’s eventual confession was heartbreaking. Jeremy Renner was also strong as Louie’s dealer and after he engages in some vicious scare tactics to ensure Louie takes responsibility for his own “man shit mess” and keeps his mouth shut, the shaken look on his face as he goes to tend to his cat, Pepper, reveals how much threatening the terrified kid upset him. As the teenage Louie, Devin Druid delivers an amazingly real performance, always showing glimpses of the sensitive kid still lurking beneath the bleary-eyed asshole. CK himself also does fine work here, as his pensive expressions in between flashback scenes reveal how adult perspective on one’s youthful misdeeds can still rouse shame and regret so many years later and his eventual misty-eyed declaration to Lilly that, “I love you and I’m here. That’s all I got,” was genuinely stirring.
That final moment may have been the most emotionally affecting one of the episode, but “In the Woods” really connected with me throughout. I cringed to see my own adolescent douchebaggery brought to life in the form of thirteen year-old Louie’s shitty attitude and felt sorry for the impact that my similarly stupid choices back then had on my parents. As I sat in bed with my seventeen month-old sleeping beside me, I looked at his sweet little face and dreaded the inevitable moment he tells me to go fuck myself and began calculating ways to prevent his becoming a bratty asshole like I was. I could read some parenting books! I could enroll him in sports, music lessons, art classes, and all other kinds of wholesome, educational activities! We could have family game night! But no matter how many pages I pull from the Ned Flanders parental guidebook, the fact remains that fucking up is an inevitable and essential part of growing up and as much as we’d like to prevent our kids from making mistakes and getting in to trouble, ultimately all we can really do is be there to help them through it.
Kimberlee Rossi-Fuchs is a Senior Writer for Pop-Break, regularly covering Game of Thrones, Louie, Futurama, and Boardwalk Empire, as well as other delectable nuggets of TV, film, and music throughout the year. Since graduating with Highest Honors from Rutgers University with a degree in English, Kimberlee currently finds herself in a financially comfortable, yet stifling corporate environment where her witty and insightful literary and pop culture references are largely met with confused silence and requests to, “Get away from me, weirdo.” Still, she’s often thought of as a modern-day Oscar Wilde (by herself) and one day hopes her wit, charm, and intellect (again, self-perceived) will make her a very wealthy, very drunk woman. She’s also the mother of a darling little boy, Charlie Miles (aka Young Chizzy) who she hopes will grow up to not be too embarrassed of all of the baby pics she relentlessly shares of him on various social media sites.