Louie is almost exclusively multipart episodes this season. But it’s actually felt a lot like one big episode with characters and concerns, all the way from the season premiere, brought back and revisited throughout the season’s run. The only truly standalone episodes appear to have been the second and third, “Model” and “So Did the Fat Lady,” though even those presented the beginning of a thematic through line as they’re both about Louie’s interactions with women.
“In the Woods” adds on one more self-contained episode. It’s cut into two parts but, unlike the recently concluded six-part “Elevator,” it very much functions as one, double-length episode. It’s still got the “Louie’s trouble with women” theme in there (in this case the woman is his mom), but as far as the plot goes, “In the Woods” exists on its own to the point that someone who’s never even seen any of this series before could stick this one on and get a complete, satisfying experience out of it.
It works in this way because it’s a flashback episode taking place almost entirely in the ‘70s, telling the story of how an adolescent Louie first started smoking weed, which colors the rest of a year of his young life littered with loads of other bad decisions. It’s a “life lessons learned the hard way” story (though with less of a lesson than you’d expect) and, considering it’s focused on the subject of teens getting into drugs, it’s risky territory to tread upon as it has the potential to trip and fall face first into a big pile of after school special.
There are several aspects that nudge the episode uncomfortably close to such a pile, like the adults who are clearly set up for Louie to inevitably disappoint. There’s Louie’s preternaturally cool public school teacher, Mr. Hoffman, who has high hopes for Louie, thinking so fondly of him, in fact, that he wants Louie to date his daughter. Then there’s Louie’s mom with whom Louie has one of those effortless parent-child relationships of legend that resembles a friendship. Furthermore, there’s the simple issue of the catalyst of all Louie’s troubles being marijuana. Any media espousing the evils of grass can very easily come off a bit silly, preachy, and out of touch because, I mean, c’mon, it’s just freakin’ pot.
But even though this episode is all about Louie getting up to no good with the Mary Jane, it’s really more about weed as a gateway (see what I did?) to further bad choices. I can’t say that I entirely relate because I didn’t try herbal medication until college, but I can completely understand the way Louie and his friends respond to it. When you try pot and decide you enjoy it, getting more of it, smoking lots of it, and being high as often as possible kind of seems like the best course of action at all times. You do (or at least I did) kind of shut out other activities because, you know, it feels good and, as a pastime, requires nothing of you. In other words, you turn into a lazy, boring piece of shit.
Louie and his friends get into weed in their last year of junior high, probably even earlier than most kids typically do (a phenomenon the episode references a few times), and if I made a lot of dumbass decisions in order to stay rich in weed in my freshman year of college, it seems logical that Louie and his friends, with the ignorance that comes with being only thirteen or so, might take it to another level of stupid.
This is why Louie ends up getting in over his head by stealing scales from Mr. Hoffman’s classroom in exchange for oodles of grass from an actual, adult drug dealer (as opposed to just getting a bit here and there from his friend’s brother or from kids at school). Again, there’s the potential pitfall here of relaxing into cliché and presenting the drug dealer as a frightening villain, as the character is supposed to be a credible threat to Louie’s well being. But Louis C.K. smartly presents the dealer as just another dude, as most dealers realistically tend to be.
He’s a dude who’s a bit unsavory, but he’s also got a cat he loves very much and has to administer eye drops to. Yes, eventually he gets a bit scary and has to rough Louie up a little bit, but it’s a brilliant scene as we start out watching the guy cooing to his cat and kissing it (on the mouth!) and, moments later, he’s grabbing young Louie by the throat and throwing him against a wall.
It also helps that drug dealer Jeff Davis is played by Jeremy Renner, who’s a fantastic actor and an insanely charismatic sonofabitch. His scenes require him to manipulate young Louie by fluctuating between being encouraging and threatening, complimentary and aggressive, casual but businesslike. He’s a fun and interesting character, and all the moments with him spice “In the Woods” up nicely.
Louie’s mom ends up being a hugely endearing character as well. Again, I’ve never met a mom as cool as her, but I couldn’t help but appreciate the concept of one and to feel badly for her when Louie starts being a total screw-up. Further, though she has to deliver an angry, disappointed parent monologue and though it may have the trappings of and even lines not too far off from a cheesy “I don’t know who you are anymore!” kind of speech, she also fires off more simplistic statements like “you’re boring” and “you know what, Louie? I don’t like you.” These are things so basic that they communicate a genuine sad anger that feels so much more cutting as a result.
Finally, casting again helps here because Amy Landecker does an awesome acting job and, well, frankly, she’s a total fox, too. She played Louie’s mom some time back in the “God” episode (and, weirdly, his date in another). I don’t know why it took me until now to notice, but, er, now I’m kind of in love with Louie’s mom.
Casting didn’t do wonders for the kid characters, unfortunately. Young Louie (Devin Druid) does okay at times, but some of his more dramatic scenes, like when he curses out his dad, don’t come off so hot. The actors playing his two friends are, well, just not very good and the stilted delivery of some lines (“What did you tell, you pussy? What did you tell?!”) had me cringing.
The kids are, however, well-written. C.K. demonstrates that he hasn’t forgotten (as people often seem to with age) what foul-mouthed little shits kids are, his one friend claiming he saw another kid’s mom’s tits or the boy in science class who’s every question is centered on farts. It’s also a nice touch that one of Louie’s friends starts out as a bully, demonstrating how quick and easy it can be at a young age to forge friendships and rivalries (and to completely reverse either) based on minor occurrences.
All told, there’s some awkward acting (the guy playing the school principal is seriously terrible for some reason) and some not-great scenes. For example, a scene of Louie stealing scales is intercut with his mom tearing apart his room, trying to find his stash; the attempt at a parallel is evident, but doesn’t really work (probably because we haven’t gotten inside his mom’s head enough by the time we reach this point). Further, “In the Woods” is another of those latter-period Louieepisodes that has next to no interest in making you laugh. A bit more light-heartedness probably wouldn’t hurt, as we’re occasionally straddling the line of good drama and cheesy, condescending drama. But luckily, the bad bits are balanced with some great acting and a clear understanding that it isn’t marijuana, but Louie being a stupid teenager that ultimately (temporarily) fucks up his life. Pot just primed the failure pump.
Yeah, it’s all pretty dramatic, but characters like Jeff Davis the drug dealer and Louie’s mom feel like authentic people, which centers and grounds everything. There’s also no great moment of catharsis; Louie eventually admits to his kind, trusting science teacher that he did steal the scales and he did trade them for drugs. But he receives no forgiveness, just stunned disappointment. Near the end of the episode, Louie talks to a counselor who puts everything in perspective, highlighting the mundaneness of it all. He’s a teen, his parents got divorced not too long ago, he should probably try to stay off the pot; it’s all fairly clear cut.
The episode is framed by Louie finding out that his daughter Lilly is trying weed at the ripe old age of twelve. We get very little of the two of them, but somehow the conclusion of Louie hugging her and saying, “I love you and I’m here. That’s all I got,” is hugely affecting. Much like the ending of “Elevator,” whatever my qualms were with “In the Woods,” they’re largely swept away by the episode unfairly forcing emotions upon me.
There are no easy answers or straightforward conclusions here. Bad shit happens, good shit happens. Life kind of sucks. All parents can do is be around and ask you to try not to screw up so much. And somehow this almost lack of a message is really bittersweet and beautiful.