While Louis C.K. doesn’t exactly troll his audience, he is a provocateur who likes to test them and push limits. This week, that came in the form of completely ignoring the ending to “Pamela Part 1,” in which Louis the character attempted to rape Pamela, and instead completely switched gears. That doesn’t mean that we won’t return to it—just the opposite, in fact—but rather that he wants us to take a breath before diving back into that dark storyline. The tendency on television is for one episode of a serial show to pick up right after another if there’s a cliffhanger, and this choice to linger on it is a smart way of giving it emphasis.
Instead, most of the nearly feature-length “In the Woods” focuses on a long flashback following 13-year-old Louis and how he got involved with marijuana. Fortunately, despite its old-fashioned “drugs are bad, even pot” message, it does a better job staying away from sermonizing than the rest of the season, though its didacticism is still there beneath the surface. It’s the way a story’s told that’s most important of all, and whereas the rest of Louie’s fourth season would just tell us how to feel about drugs, instead we get dramatization.
Devin Druids, who plays young Louis, is stunning in the role and, to be honest, a better actor than the show’s creator himself. He picks up on C.K.’s mannerisms perfectly, but makes them into something deeper, and weirdly it feels like young Louis is more of a complete person than the older comedian he’d grow into. (I suspect much of this is because, like several of his idols, C.K. is actually a better director of actors than he is an actor himself.) What’s more, there’s a certain pathos to his life and goals that’s often missing from the show’s usual stories and characters. He’s less of an everyman and more of a specific person in this time and place, which makes his character much easier to empathize with. Even though everything is still theoretically being told through Louis’ point of view, there’s an objectivity here that requires more of a performance, and Druids pulled this off.
In its broad outline, the story of how Louis begins smoking pot, befriends and then betrays his science teacher, and ultimately finds himself hating drugs as a whole is simple. It’s an expanded version of something that could’ve been a Very Special Episode of any television show starring teenagers from the late ‘80s. Louis, his best friend and their bully and occasional compatriot are all fuller, more real creations than almost anyone else on the show before them and while the story itself is perhaps too simple, too much a matter of cause and effect, there’s a certain elegance to it all. With beats so visible, it makes young Louis’ choices all the more devastating while they’re happening, giving the show a type of suspense that it’s almost never tried before.
Despite this, I do have a couple of quibbles with this episode. In a world in which marijuana legalization has actually been moving forward, Louie seems to believe that it’s a crippling endeavor. The idea of a functional drug user is foreign to this episode, and that’s a problem. That I can see my fifth grade D.A.R.E. advisor showing us “In the Woods” makes me a bit unhappy. The specificity of the story cuts away from this to a certain extent, but that doesn’t remove the politics from the episode, only the complexity of the situation. Young Louis’ instant addiction makes sense in this story, but it feels as if it’s a world in which everyone immediately becomes an addict, and this cuts against the otherwise impressive verisimilitude.
My biggest problem with the episode is that it’s actually not long enough. In part, this is just because I loved being taken into this beautifully filmed, superbly acted universe, but it’s also that towards the end of the story, some of the emotional notes don’t make sense. Louis’ mom seems to be angry with her son after just a few bad days, at which point we’re told that they’ve been having problems for months. This isn’t something we actually see on screen, and as a result her outburst feels out of place. It also ends up the one time when Louis’ newfound love for lecturing the audience does seep into the episode. The timeframe is jumpier than it should be, and the episode on the whole it hurtles towards a conclusion that feels a tad rushed.
These complaints are minor, however, and especially when compared with the rest of the season, this episode is astounding. Louis’ storytelling has been so creaky, self-indulgent and at times flat-out bad that it was doubly a surprise to see that C.K. still had this in him. While I love the surrealist Louis, this part of him, more interested in spinning stories and developing characters than imparting lessons, has been largely missing. Every detail here, from the mismatched children’s sizes, to Louis’ threat to Lilly that they’re going to “have a talk,” hit perfectly, almost as if this episode were building up inside the show all season and suddenly a burst of unadulterated quality finally had to come out. Next week, we return to the ongoing storylines that Louis has slowly and ineptly parceled out all season, but even if so much of the fourth season is a misfire, this episode alone is good enough to make it worthwhile.
This is why it’s always exciting to sit down for an episode of Louis in a way it isn’t for any other show. You may end up getting ranted at for 10 minutes, but you’re just as likely to end up with this type of lyrical beauty.