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As far as season finales go, “New Year’s Eve” was nearly perfect in capturing the tone of this season of Louie as a whole, alternately dark and uplifting, but consistently sharp and witty. The episode maintains a pitch-perfect blend of the tragic and comic throughout, beginning by creating a portrait of loneliness and alienation, two of season three’s most frequently recurring themes, yet closing with a sense of hope and connection.
After wrapping up the “Late Show” trilogy on a high note last week with a rare personal victory for Louie, it appears his sad, status quo has returned, as “New Year’s Eve” opens with Louie looking even more than customarily miserable. The camera focuses on his tired and worn-looking face, then pans out to reveal his daughters gleefully unwrapping gifts and reveling in the joy of Christmas morning. It’s a great sight gag – one that perfectly sets the stage for the opening sequence and, by casting Louie’s obvious misery in stark contrast to the happy holiday scene playing out around him, also creates a perfect visual representation of his pervasive, stubborn melancholy. Through a series of flashbacks, we soon see the real reason for Louie’s grim appearance, as he spent the previous night wrangling gift wrap, hunting down a last-minute toy, and, most hilariously, performing home surgery on a porcelain doll with two dislodged eyeballs. (The doll sequence was one of the outright funniest moments of the season, revealing that by the time Lilly unwraps her new toy, it’s been drilled into, glued to a couch, pissed on, and sewn back together by a frustrated-to-tears Louie). By the time the kids wake up and run to the tree, Louie’s exhausted, emotionally drained, and likely a little annoyed that he receives no credit for his grueling efforts, with all thanks going to Santa instead. Sick of hearing Santa’s praises, when Jane opens her next gift (an apparently carefully chosen book about Ping the duck and his adventures with his extended family on China’s Yangtze River), Louie pipes up and takes credit for the present, spending the remainder of their morning together reading to her from the book.
Christmas morning gets progressively worse for Louie when Janet and her boyfriend, Patrick, arrive to pick up the girls for a three-week vacation overseas. His ex’s visit serves to highlight Louie’s shortcomings, as she forces him to discuss the Late Show hosting job he didn’t get while the put-together Patrick suspiciously eyes Lilly’s new doll. Louie watches as the elevator doors close on Janet, Patrick, Lilly, and Jane, the shot framed to create a snapshot of their perfect-looking family, then goes back to his empty apartment and immediately dismantles Christmas, roughly shaking the ornaments from the tree into a box then shoving the tree out the window. Having eradicated all signs of the morning’s festivity, he retreats to his dark lair and crawls back into bed.
Back in season one, Louie confessed the ideation that he might kill himself once his daughters are grown and no longer need him in the role of daddy. Here, we get a glimpse of why he feels that way, as once his daughters are gone, he’s got nothing to do but settle into his depression, hibernating in bed with an arsenal of snack cakes and no plans of emerging from his self-imposed exile. When his sister Debbie (a cameo from Amy Poehler) calls to wish him a merry Christmas and ask about his plans for New Year’s, she’s audibly upset to hear that he intends to spend the next few weeks all by himself (Louie: Do you have to say “all?” Can’t I just be by myself?). Debbie and her husband offer to pay for Louie to join their family on a New Year’s trip to Mexico to visit their grandmother, but Louie resists. Even when Debbie becomes choked up and tells him she loves him, he doesn’t reciprocate and it’s as though he’s purposely shunning affection and human contact in favor of his own indulgent melancholy.
It takes a visit from the Ghost of Christmas Future, in the form of a disturbing, all-too-plausibly prophetic dream, to finally rouse Louie from his bed. Louie dreams of his grown daughters, both “probably in our twenties,” meeting for lunch and lamenting the sad, lonely life of the father they rarely see. Future Lilly and Jane go on and on about how sad and lonely their father is. “All he does is sit in that chair and eat pinwheel cookies,” says Lilly ruefully, as the camera cuts to a gray and realistically, yet still comically, aged Louie doing just that. The girls wonder why he chose to be so alone and Jane ventures, “We’re probably kinda fucked up from having that kind of a dad.” With that, Louie wakes with a start, takes a cold shower, and packs a bag for the airport.
On his way, Louie’s visited by a ghost from the not-so-recent past when he runs into Liz on the bus. Liz calls out to him, her smile warm and eyes lit up, but before she can make her way over to him, she collapses, blood oozing from both nostrils. Louie accompanies her to the hospital, where he’s able to notify the staff of her teenage cancer history, but can provide no other useful information since Liz is essentially a stranger to him. Although completely awake and alert, Liz quickly deteriorates and her death is so sudden that it’s almost as though she’s speaking for the audience when she asks, “Am I dying? This is crazy!” Liz dies at 11:59 pm and seconds later, the hospital staff joyously rings in the New Year, while a dazed Louie stumbles out.
This juxtaposition of the tragic and comic isn’t new ground for Louie, but this scene felt particularly weird and jarring because Liz’s death was so abrupt. In her few appearances this season, Parker Posey’s Liz has served as somewhat of a cipher, a blank canvas on to which Louie has projected a shifting, idealized vision of a soul mate. By reappearing only to so suddenly die, Liz’s final message to Louie seems to be that any profound connection will ultimately be taken away from him and his loneliness is chronic and unshakable.
Shaken but undeterred, Louie continues to the airport, but instead of boarding a flight to Mexico City, he flashes back to the beautifully drawn images of Ping’s idyllic life on the Yangtze River and hops on a plane to Beijing instead. Once in the city, Louie’s quest to find the Yangtze is initially prohibited by the language barrier and he wanders around the streets, pantomiming and gesturing to no avail. Eventually, he comes across a truck driver who seems to understand him and offers to take him to the river. When they finally reach their destination after a lengthy drive, the man leads Louie into a field and to a tiny stream, merely a trickle compared to Ping’s vast playground. Rather than serve as a disappointing end to his random journey, however, the stream leads to his ultimate destination, as Louie continues walking through the field and eventually comes to a crowded home, where he’s invited in for dinner by a welcoming, boisterous family. They can’t understand each other, but Louie gets a kick out of their enthusiasm and they find his attempts at speaking Chinese hilarious. For the first time all episode, he seems to be genuinely enjoying himself and the episode, and the season, close on this scene of unexpected camaraderie.
In a lot of ways, “New Year’s Eve” felt like the spiritual sequel to last season’s “Duckling,” as both episodes find Louie in a foreign country, bridging the language barrier and cultural gap via laughter. Whereas laughter may have actually saved his life during a tense stand-off in Afghanistan, here laughter and the company of others seems to save him spiritually, as we finally see Louie smiling and having fun. Similarly, his daughters are at the root of both journeys, packing the stowaway duckling last season and here inspiring his trip to China with the wistful remark that the Yangtze looks like a nice place to live. While the show makes frequent note of the positive, life-affirming influence of his daughters, ducks also seems to serve a meaningful symbolic purpose on Louie. While watching this episode, I was reminded of a similar tactic on The Sopranos, where eggs were famously employed as omens of impending death. Louie’s ducks, on the other hand, bear good tidings, and serve as symbols of family and human connection. (It’s no coincidence that Louie is eventually delivered to his newfound friends by a man driving a truckload of ducks, who may as well be Ping’s forty-two cousins.) Louie’s often-brilliant third season thus ends on an uplifting note, with Louie moving beyond his often self-imposed loneliness and engaging with others in the way he’s best at – by making them laugh.
All Photos Credit: FX Network