Amia (Eszter Balint) doesn’t speak any English. She’s shy, so she demurs at first. Then she gives in to Louie. Her resistance is meant to be hard for us to gauge. She keeps saying, “Bye.” It’s later made clear that she has deep feelings for Louie and her initial resistance is out of fear of the heartbreak connecting with him would bring. She’s days away from going back to Hungary, after all. Is “Bye” a repetition of resistance or is it the kind of broken record Amia’s echoed in so many of their other conversations? Certainly, Louie himself stutters his way across half the episode, so impenetrable is the language barrier between the two. His repeated word is “I,” symbolic of his self-centered habits and of his inability to complete his thoughts, even if they’re just for himself.
Does Louie do something wrong by pressing the moment when communication is completely taken away? From a narrative perspective, the later revelation of her feelings takes the bite out of Louie’s actions. A successful emotional result lends us the belief that Louie pressing the moment and following his heart was the right thing to do.
That was “Elevator: Part 6,” the conclusion to Amia’s story arc in the TV show Louie. Its final scene, involving an impromptu interpreter, sparks the kind of melancholy uplift usually reserved for the Wes Andersons of the world. Their story is tragically romantic, even if we’re not meant to understand its nuances along the way.
But Louis C.K. is a comedian. He’s only setting us up for the punchline.
In the next episode, “Pamela part 1,” Amia has returned to Hungary. Louie is heartbroken. He does what many of us do to cushion the impact of a breakup – he looks for a rebound. Re-enter old flame Pamela (Pamela Adlon), who Louie shot down when things were looking up with Amia. Now, Pamela’s no longer interested in pursuing something. She has a habit of emasculating and embarrassing Louie to boot. When his ex-wife can’t watch his kids, however, and Louie has two gigs he has to make it to, it’s Pamela who offers to watch them.
We see one of the gigs Louie’s booked. In his performance, he rails against the idea that we have a piece of clothing we refer to as a wife beater, and questions why men control the world. It’s because they’re afraid of women, he reasons. I wouldn’t agree with that answer, and I suspect Louis C.K. the actor may not either, but this understanding of the world is crucial to what follows.
On his way home on the train, Louie sits opposite a man and a woman as they talk. The man is complaining, while the woman looks alternately disinterested and wary. At the next stop, she books it – it’s suddenly apparent the two didn’t actually know each other. The man is just one of those crazies who rides the New York subway around talking to thin air. As the train starts up again, Louie crosses the aisle and sits down next to the crazy man. Louie listens, nods understanding, and reacts to what the man says. Louie does his best to be the single person in this man’s journey who takes the time to notice him and treat what he has to say as something worth hearing. It’s touching, and it reminds us Louie is an empathetic and generous human being who goes out of his way for others. It makes what happens next all the more poignant.
When Louie arrives home, Pamela is asleep on his couch (much as Amia was asleep on her aunt’s couch when those two were first introduced). It’s late. Pamela wakes as Louie enters. She’s still too tired to be in charge of her faculties. The kids were fine, she says.
The basic instinct to copy what was successful in one relationship in the next one is a feeling we’ve all had. So is the instinct to copy moments we miss from a former relationship – imitating them makes us feel like our strongest emotions still belong to us, that they weren’t “taken away.” So Louie tries to repeat with Pamela the moment he eventually had with Amia.
Pamela resists. She repeats “Bye” in the effort to get the message across. It reminds us of Amia’s repeated “Bye,” but there’s no language barrier here. Pamela expresses exactly what she feels – that she does not want to have sex with Louie. “Bye” gives way to “no.” Louie insists that she wanted to be physical with him once before; why not now? The struggle takes shades of violence we don’t expect from Louie – he tries pulling Pamela’s shirt off; she drags a piece of furniture when Louie tries to pull her back into his living room. She makes it to the door, but Louie won’t let her leave without kissing him. She’s cornered; he towers over her. Throughout this all, both Pamela and the audience retain that feeling that’s key to the character of Louie and the whole show – that he’s essentially toothless. “You can’t even rape well,” she yells at him as they struggle. Yet that toothlessness is the entire point. Why do men run the world, Louie asked earlier. Because they’re afraid of women. No matter how inaccurate that answer is, it’s truthful in Louie’s eyes. It’s an excuse in many men’s eyes. Louie feels wronged by women; this is repeated in countless scenes in which his ex-wife is given – sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly – the benefit of the doubt when it comes to decisions about their children.
Cowed by Louie, Pamela grudgingly lets Louie kiss her. This buys her escape, and Louie fist pumps the air after she leaves. It’s a ridiculous moment – he feels the glee and pride of a first kiss, of that feeling you get when you realize someone likes you the way you like them. Except she doesn’t. It’s a moment of absurdism – there’s no way any human could consider this the beginning of a relationship. And yet it’s starkly representative of the goal-oriented culture of sex. First base, second base, all that crap. In his head, Louie’s laid some claim to Pamela by kissing her.
What’s laid bare in Louie’s attempted rape of Pamela is that a true danger in rape and sexual assault is how easy it is to justify in the moment. It can be justified in someone’s head by past action – if Louie did something before and it was acceptable and successful, then that means it’s always acceptable and successful. It’s easy to believe that if a woman wanted to have sex in the past, then that urge must always be there and she just has to be pushed harder to realize it. One of the key beliefs in fundamentalist Male Rights culture is that women inherently seek to emasculate men, and sexual assault is the natural way for a man to reassert his masculinity. Pamela emasculates Louie, so according to this belief, not only does she deserve assault, it’s the only way for Louie to regain his masculinity. These are the ideas that drive Louie, an otherwise meek and humble person, to attempt a rape.
You’d think that would be the “punchline,” the whole point of Louis C.K.’s long lead-up, but the very next scene provides us an even more haunting idea. Louie is riding with his daughters on the New York public bus to school. “Do you know where we are?” he asks the elder. “Soon you’ll be riding this on your own. What will you do if the bus breaks down?” This protectiveness of his own daughter shows just how hypocritical and deaf to his own transgression Louie is. “Is Pamela your girlfriend now?” his younger daughter asks. Louie’s response is “No,” not because he has any grasp of the reality of the situation, but rather because he doesn’t want his ex-wife to know. It’s so ingrained in Louie’s head that he deserves Pamela for all his pain, loneliness, and heartbreak that he’s unable to comprehend what he’s done and Pamela’s disgust for it. Yet he’ll yell at a passenger for spitting on the bus. After all, that goes against what’s socially accepted. Trying to rape a woman…well, in his mind that’s justifiable.
It’s a bold move on Louis C.K.’s part, but it’s not his first time tackling the subject. In an episode from season 3, “Telling Jokes/Set Up,” the expected gender dynamic is reversed – Louie is beaten and threatened with more violence by blind date Laurie (Melissa Leo) unless he’ll perform oral sex on her. He is raped.
For all the show’s Jim Jarmusch surrealist flourishes and growing Samuel Beckett absurdism, the conscious decision was made long ago to entwine the character Louie and the actor Louis C.K. so closely that it’s very difficult to separate the two. It’s what allows C.K. to make such effective and personal commentaries, but it’s also incredibly risky. Fans and show diehards may not know what to do with these moments. I dearly hope they get it, because C.K. hits the nail on the head. “Telling Jokes/Set Up” was meant to make men feel uncomfortable with the pressure they put on women to have sex. “Pamela part 1” is a demonstration of how easy it is for a rapist to justify his actions as something far more innocuous.
“Pamela part 1” is not brutal or manipulative or overbearing. It just exists; it’s chilling because every act in it is so disappointingly normal. Rape isn’t exceptional or obvious. Its details have become banal; it doesn’t catch our attention. Its hallmarks have become ordinary, expected. Just like the character Louie, we’ve developed a certain comfort level about its existence. That’s the most frightening comment C.K. makes in all of this: as a society, rape doesn’t stand out to us anymore. Its most dangerous trait is how easily it’s excused.