As the third season of FX’s Louie opens, the title character is bemoaning the condition of his aging penis in a stand-up routine at the Comedy Cellar. His dick seems disconcertingly “blurry” lately, he reports, even with the help of his new drugstore reading glasses. Louie is back, as raunchy, candid, and hilarious as ever. Louie’s one wish is to upgrade to “a beautiful, shiny brown dick,” but as we’re reminded during a scene with his girlfriend, April (Gaby Hoffmann), makes evident, the issue isn’t really his dick. It’s his balls.
When April shows up to a date with Louie, he is at the table, a plate of soothing ice cream already ordered. She seems like quite a pill at first, harried, brash, negative. (Complaining about her job, she calls a female coworker a “cooze.”) She may be distracted, but after six months of dating of Louie, she can already read him with expert quickness. “Something is wrong,” she intuits. But what is it? She throws out a series of questions while Louie deflects and denies, attempting to hide his facial expressions so she can’t decode them. But with one nervous twitch of his mouth, she gets it. She begs him to say the words, “I’m breaking up with you,” but he can’t. She’s horrified: “You’re going to make me do it, aren’t you? You’re going to make me break up with myself.”
The 17 seconds that follow are among the series’ most painfully awkward — and that’s saying something. In particular, it’s saying something about courage, what it means and looks like and can’t ever be. In The Courage to Create, Rollo May writes, “Courage is not the absence of despair; it is, rather, the capacity to move ahead in spite of despair.” Louie, who is often despairing, has exhibited something like courage in the past, for instance, in last season’s terrific episode, “Ducklings,” when he traveled to Afghanistan as part of a USO Tour. But here and now, he’s unable to summon up the courage necessary to utter five simple words: “We shouldn’t be together anymore.”
After leaving the restaurant, Louie heads to his car, and the episode takes an unpredictable, jaw-dropping turn that, depending on your spiritual leanings, could either seem like cosmic intervention or just another day navigating the absurd, incomprehensible parking laws of New York. Now in need of solace, or maybe just a distraction, Louie wanders into a motorcycle shop, and in one of the episode’s funniest gags, the stoic salesman details all the injuries he has incurred riding a bike in the city: “I got a permanent limp,” he says, “but I’m walking.” Louise’s convinced, and in the sequence that follows, he takes his new bike on strangely joyous jaunt through Manhattan, hitting many of the city’s most famous landmarks, set to a jazzy score.
The exhilaration is short-lived, of course. Things can’t go simply well for Louie. In a scene set in a hospital, an old woman is lying on a gurney, yelling out repeatedly to a seemingly apathetic staff, “Why won’t somebody help me? I’m in pain here!” It’s a sentiment familiar to Louie and to those of us who watch Louie.
It’s also familiar to April, as far as we can see, and we can imagine that breaking up with Louie may be hard, but also, it’s a good thing for her. By episode’s end, as we find out something more about Louie’s neediness and April’s earnest, costly wisdom, we’re glad for the two brief scenes in which she appears. Upcoming episodes in Season Three reveal what we know, that as much as Louie can see April as a right choice for him, he can’t will himself to make it. Instead, he finds himself attracted to dynamic women who say they desire honesty but who can’t be truthful with him. He’s in pain, he needs help, and he knows it, but again and again, he can’t find the courage to ask for it.