American art is full of romantic depictions of the road, from Kerouac to Altman to Dylan, and some would argue that the idea of the frontier is our greatest national creative asset.
Louis CK would not argue this.
In fact, the road of the comedian’s imagination is dark, dismal, and depressing. It’s a place where you stay in a Motel 86—a nice amalgam of Super 8 and Motel 6—endure a series of airport nightmares, and find little, if any, satisfaction in the people you meet. At age 47, the novelty is gone, and his philosophy is best summed up when he calls his agent to complain about his accommodations in the motel: “I can’t do this. I’m going to kill myself in a place like this.”
You can imagine that the Louie of the show reflects the feelings of the “real” Louis CK, even though TV Louie is less successful than his real-life counterpart, and must endure harsher conditions. The city with the motel was Cincinnati, but it could have been anywhere across the country as far he’s concerned. This was a strange, downbeat episode, even by Louie’s unpredictable standards, and aside from a few gags—an airport dessert place called “Jizzy Buns” and a pre-boarding announcement that welcomes “those customers who are dying or afraid”—it’s just sort of depressed. And not in a dramatic, existential way, but in the dull, frustrating, vaguely bureaucratic way that’s so familiar to frequent travelers. Forget the romance—this is a real depiction of the American road, and it’s ugly.
The journey is not exactly fun, but then again, that’s never been the mission of this show. Louie starts out in Cincinnati, where he’s met by a desperate, eager-to-please driver named Mike, whose main goal seems to be having the most tedious conversations with his passenger (“what’s New York like?”). Throughout the episode, he tells stories of how much fun he’s had with other visiting comics like Bill Burr and Myq Kaplan, but all Louie wants to do is sit quietly in the back seat and play with his phone. When he finally has his confessional moment, describing exactly how tired he’s become with travel, and meeting new people, and visiting new cities, his efforts are in vain—Mike starts crying, and it’s just another burden for Louie to shoulder.
The question of “what do we owe a stranger?” is a prevalent one here. Louie makes halting efforts to placate Mike’s emotions, but eventually he’s content to let him wait outside his motel window when he shows up two hours early. The stakes are raised on an airport tram in Atlanta later in the episode, when a young Muslim girl is left behind by her family. Louie tries to call airport security from a call box in the waiting area, but that’s as far as he’s willing to go—when she wanders off and disappears down a stairway, he decides to hop back on the tram and go about his day. The genius of that scene is that it’s both horrifying and utterly quotidian. Even though most of us would (hopefully) follow up and make sure the girl was in safe hands, we also know how fatiguing it can be to attend to our own problems, and how dealing with somebody else’s is exhausting even to think about. There’s a serious temptation, even though we hate to admit it, to step on that tram and leave another person’s troubles behind. There are at least trace amounts of evil in removing yourself from the uncertain fate of an innocent girl and hoping someone else will intervene, but hey, at least you can relax!
Elsewhere, the absurdity mounts. When Louie loses his bag and an airport employee drives him out to the tarmac, he has to look at an anonymous bag from a distance before it’s destroyed (as per airport policy, in another bizarre announcement from the loudspeakers). On the way there, the employee points out a mechanic who is picking bullets from the underside of a fuselage—”people who live near airports, they shoot at landing planes all the time”—but after that Kafka-esque failure, the employee is content to drive Louie directly to his plane, bypassing any and all security.
The episode ends as it begins, with Louie counting off his shirts and underwear for each day as he places them in his suitcase. This time, though, they’re newly bought, and so the cycle continues, day by agonizing day, as the comedian plies his craft in a country that he’s long since forgotten how to love, and can only learn new ways to despise, as he crosses its monotonous expanse.