While binging on Netflix and OnDemand over the holidays, Season Three of Louie and Season One of Girls deserve back-to-back viewing.
It’s not only the best way to get a picture of what counted as avant-garde television (I’m cringing as I write that phrase) in 2012, but also helps us see how these very different shows deal with similar themes of loneliness, generational anxiety, failed aspirations, and familial love — often simply from opposite approaches. By watching each series in the context of the other’s perspective, we learn more about both.
To argue this, it’s best to look at two of their respective season’s highlights: two episodes that seem to mirror each other in both formal and thematic ways, while getting at the core issues that both shows address.
In “The Return,” Dunham’s character Hannah goes home to Michigan, where she confronts the aging of her parents, has sex with a pretty-boy high school acquaintance-cum-pharmacist, and deals with the perceived emptiness of her hometown friends, all while brooding about residual feelings for her once and future boyfriend Adam. By comparison, the “New Year’s Eve” finale of Louie seems like a deranged nightmare. It departs from the ordinary traumas that befall our hero, taking us from a frantic Christmas morning to the most disturbing sequence of the series, ultimately leaving us in China.
On their own, “The Return” and “New Year’s Eve” give us more than enough to contend with: parental love, sex, parental sex, dream sequences, gross-out doll surgery, Orientalist desire, Pinwheel Cookies, fears of aging, and one gruesome death. But the hundred things that these episodes address separately seem to cohere when brought together. Watch them in a row, and they offer starkly complementary insights about the reciprocal relationships of youth/aging, sex/death, and love/labor at the heart of both series.
From a formal perspective, the episodes mirror each other pretty straightforwardly. “The Return” begins with Hannah’s trip home. She leaves her apartment with a garbage bag of laundry (how quirky!!), and we cut to a close-up of her parents waiting at the airport. The stifling drive home, during which Hannah gets drilled about her job will sound familiar to anyone heading home for annual dinner-table interrogations (I can’t wait: “You broke up?!? She was so nice!”). These exchanges mark a return, not just to East Lansing, but also to an exasperating of dealing with family.
“You know, if you’re going to do this all weekend,” Hannah says from the childish perch of the back seat, “Just. Don’t.”
It’s infantilizing. Hannah can’t stand it, though neither can she come up with an articulate way to voice her objections. She feels totally stifled.
She ends up crumpled on her childhood bed, and we watch her lying there through her mirror (hold onto that reflective image for now), calling Adam, but ending the call before he picks up.
By contrast, “New Year’s Eve” ends with Louie’s journey to see the Yangtze — an escape rather than a homecoming. We see him eyeing the departure board at JFK and in the very next shot he stands on utterly unfamiliar soil in China. Yet his trip also suggests an attempt at return or recovery. The closing scene of the episode depicts a reconnection with other people. Louie can’t speak to his new Chinese friends, but that doesn’t keep them from communicating with each other over a meal. In a season of mostly grim revelations about the inability to communicate despair, this final moment stands as one of the few instances of simple happiness.
The two episodes move in opposite directions, but both Hannah and Louie are essentially looking for the same thing in different places. They want to feel self-confident, loved (especially by their family), and connected to others, but they both struggle mightily to figure out how to get control of their lives.
Remember that mirror in Hannah’s bedroom. When we first enter her room, we get brief glimpses of objects from Hannah’s youth: a stuffed animal, a bubbly-shaped iMac, a wicker dresser, and — don’t blink or you’ll miss it — a poster of Parker Posey in the 1995 comedy Party Girl.
The poster hangs above Hannah’s bed, and we watch her staring at it through the mirror.
A movie poster in any child’s bedroom is aspirational, pointing to some object of desire. We can’t help but picture Hannah lying in bed as a teenager, imagining herself as Posey’s confident and glamorous protagonist. The shot refers to a previous version of Hannah, one that desired a very different future for herself than the situation she presently inhabits: she’s unemployed, trying to navigate a frustrating relationship with an immature twerp, broke, and dependent on her parents. The poster serves as both a nostalgic remnant of her past and a depressing reminder of how unmoored she feels.
That we view this scene through Hannah’s mirror — a mirror she’ll later stare into, asserting, “You are from New York. Therefore you are just naturally interesting,” mimicking Posey’s protagonist — drives home the mixed-up sensation.
It’s kind of a delicious coincidence for my argument here that Posey appears throughout Louie this season, effectively mirroring this scene.
In the role of Liz, she’s obviously playing a very different kind of character than she did in her 1995 breakout indie-girl role. Liz initially seems like someone Louie could build a future with — someone who could help him move confidently forward. But the relationship fizzles, and the show does a good job of making us forget about her. When Liz reappears on a city bus, late in “New Year’s Eve,” the sense is of relief (“Finally,” I actually thought, “Louie gets a break!”). The music swells and we get ready for a sweet little reunion kiss.
The immediate and visceral sensation produced by the blood that runs out of Liz’s nostrils as she collapses into Louie’s arms (some critics say they laughed here — I was pretty shocked) reveals just how invested we get in the ecstatic relief from misery that this relationship represents. That it ends right in front of our face is pretty awful, and translates the dull malaise that Hannah feels into a straight up gut-punch.
In Girls we watch through a mirror as Hannah confronts the apparent failure of her own life to meet her expectations for the future. She lies in bed failing to connect with Adam, frustrated and alone. In Louie, we stare at Liz’s as she dies, facing head on the termination of Louie’s hope for connection. Both shots capture fear of loneliness and failure, but they do so from differing viewpoints of youth and middle age.
“I’m not ready for this,” Liz says right before she goes into cardiac arrest. And, yeah, the sense in both episodes is that none of us are — we’re never ready for the next thing, the next job, the next relationship, the next city, the next year, the next whatever. Too often the next thing feels too soon, and we’re too frightened or lonely to face it.
Confronting that “next thing” alone stands as the central theme of both episodes, again dealt with from mirrored perspectives. For Hannah and her friends, the next thing has to do mostly with uncertain employment, living situations, and relationships. In Louie, it’s almost always about death and failure as a man/father/comedian.
In both episodes these themes emerge in representations of family relationships.
Hannah returns home from a wholesome Midwestern romp with the pharmacist and finds her father on the floor, the victim of a “sex injury” suffered in media res. Together with her mother, Hannah lifts her father off the bathroom floor. As with Liz’s death, the immediate bodiliness — the feeble fleshiness — of the character strikes us right away (though I’ll admit it’s not nearly as disturbing — maybe it’s the fact that Judd Apatow had a hand in writing this episode that we don’t get as much of a scary kernel here).
When they get Hannah’s father to bed, he says he’s fine, “just realizing that I’m getting older.” He looks tiny and mummified in his comforter. Hannah replies “No, no,” and blows him a kiss, comfortingly denying the simple truth that her father is getting older. She’s not willing to admit openly that her father will die. Nor does it seem that her family situation necessitates this kind of confrontation. After all, Hannah’s dad is happily married with a kid who comes home to visit.
In Louie, this fear percolates in the unconscious wanderings of our ginger protagonist. During the dream sequence in “New Year’s Eve,” Louie’s daughters meet at a café a few decades in the future.
“Wow, we’re like, probably in our twenties,” Lilly whispers. The two sound and look like uncannily distorted characters straight out of Dunham’s Girls. Perhaps more accurately, they’re what twenty-somethings look like to a middle-aged father with young daughters — fragile, uncertain, and full of pathos for their dad. Shot in soft focus, and speaking in sorority-inflected tones, Lilly and Jane talk about their jobs and about Louie.
“Um. I have like a career-y thing,” says Lilly.
Jane replies “I’m probably an artist, and hopefully it’s going well.”
Here’s Louie articulating some of the same vague aspirations for his daughters that Hannah probably wanted for herself when she stared at Parker Posey as a kid. When the topic turns to their father, the girls start to worry aloud about his loneliness, and a shot of a decaying Louie sitting in an armchair with a plate of cookies in his lap fades in.
“He’s so alone. All he does is sit in that big old chair and eat Pinwheel Cookies.”
This is super dark stuff, but it’s also one of the funniest images in the episode, as Louie’s self-pitying unconscious runs wild. He looks like a fatter, lonelier version of Hannah’s dad, each man confronting the pathetic decay of the body in his own way. And what we get from Lilly and Jane sounds exactly like the kind of fear that Hannah can’t express: the fear of being without her parents, or parents having to confront death without others around them.
Both episodes dwell on fears that parents harbor about their own lack of fitness to raise kids. Louie jolts awake, not because of the sight of his own decaying body, but only after Jane’s suggestion that “We’re probably kind of fucked up from having that kind of dad.”
Hannah’s father similarly worries “She’s such an anxious person. She’s like me. She’ll just jitter her way through her twenties.”
Neither Louie’s daughters nor Hannah see the kind of labor that goes into parental love. They can’t understand where their parents’ fears come from. The behind-the-scenes work gets done away from the eyes of children. In Girls, it’s a frustrating, but loving conversation. In Louie, it manifests itself not only in the dream, but also in the episode’s absurdly comic opening sequence.
“New Year’s Eve” opens with flashbacks to a hilarious series of images as Louie tries to fix a doll for Lilly — perhaps none funnier than him drilling into the back of the doll’s head in an attempt to extract its eyes. This is a literalization of the labor that Hannah’s parents perform over their anniversary meal. But Jane and Lilly have no idea. They have a seamless Christmas morning that ends with Louie reading The Story of Ping, which in turn becomes a factor in his flight to China.
In both episodes, we see anxiety over what will happen to one’s children; the labor it takes to raise kids and ensure that they’ll grow into more successful, less alone people, better than us at living life un-self-consciously in the company of people they love.
Girls and Louie tackle this desire from different starting points, and it’s up to us to make sense of where they meet.
So, watch the rest of these two seasons. And for God’s sake hug your parents if they’re around. Thank them for their fancy cable package. They love you.
A-J Aronstein teaches at the University of Chicago. He lives in Chicago's Noble Square neighborhood. Tell him he's not a real writer on Twitter.