On the first of this week’s two episodes of Louie, the title character reluctantly goes on a date with Vanessa, a waitress at the comedy club he frequents. Vanessa, played by the wildly charismatic Sarah Baker, asks him several times before he finally caves in. What seals the deal? A free pair of desirable tickets to an NHL Playoffs game.
The implication is that Louie initially turned Vanessa down because, for one reason or another, he was put off by her weight.
Objectively, Vanessa is larger than American women conventionally described as “attractive” and “thin.” Once Louie goes on a date with her, he realizes that he enjoys spending time with her and that her weight doesn’t define her. But he takes it too far. The kicker comes when she mentions the word “fat,” and he instinctively swats it down like an irritating fly. “You’re not fat!” he retorts. But she is, and she knows she is, and she’s offended that Louie feels like pretending that she’s not will be the easiest way to win her over.
At this moment, the camera locks onto Vanessa, who unleashes a highly critical monologue directed not only at Louie but at all of the men she’s ever met who made assumptions about how she would like to be treated based on what little they knew about what being fat really means. Louis C.K., who wrote and directed this astonishing half-hour of television, guides the camera around her, sometimes closer and sometimes further away, as if contemplating how intimate he can get without being invasive. Occasionally the camera is far enough away from Vanessa that Louie is in the frame too, but even when he tries to issue a response, she keeps talking and the camera pulls away again. She’s delivering a speech that’s been roiling in her head for years, and she won’t let the camera wrench its wandering eye away from her testimonial.
Is Vanessa being unfair? Perhaps. But consider how the episode ends. She doesn’t abandon Louie in a huff, as all indications suggested up until that point. She doesn’t really even let him respond. She makes him hold her hand, and it’s awkward at first, before it gets comfortable. As Louie and Vanessa walk away, the camera lingers at the spot where Vanessa unloaded on Louie. Even though Vanessa has left the spot and her words are getting older by the minute, her message remains firmly planted where the camera sits. Louie tells a silly fat joke and she laughs, and everything is okay, except it’s not and nothing is resolved.
The ending is what elevates this episode from astonishing detour to tour de force. Just as Vanessa doesn’t pretend that she’s radically changed Louie’s mind in an instant, and Louie doesn’t pretend that he’s going to fundamentally change his behavior now that he’s heard the truth, C.K. doesn’t pretend that he’s solved the issue of weight relations by writing a television episode in which a woman complains that people don’t respect her because of her weight. The episode leaves us to wonder how we view people’s weight and how we delude ourselves into thinking that we’ve overcome society’s institutionalized prejudices. Louie tries to tell Vanessa that he thinks she’s beautiful and very attractive, but Vanessa sees what he can’t. Instead of accepting people for who they are, Louie (and by proxy, all of us) fool ourselves into thinking that calling a fat woman “attractive” in that context means something other than, “I’m more attracted to you than I am to other women your size because I’ve talked to you and gotten to know you to the point that I don’t have to think about your weight first.”
It all goes back to those hockey tickets. In the previous Louie episode, a thin and leggy model (Yvonne Strahovski) approaches Louie after his botched attempt to entertain a crowd of wealthy New York philanthropists. Louie doesn’t require a monetary incentive to jump in her car and head home with her, but Vanessa is another story altogether. Taken together, these two episodes interrogate one of the most controversial motifs of Louie – the eccentric, conventionally pretty young woman who seeks after Louie despite his sloppy appearance and awkward demeanor. Though the pair of episodes offers no easy answers, the conclusion of “So Did the Fat Lady” suggests that Louie is as uncomfortable with how he’s treated and depicted women as we are.
Louis C.K. controls nearly every aspect of this show, and considering it bears his namesake, it’s safe to assume that the show’s subjects directly reflect his life experiences. In this case, he’s taken on his critics and come up with an episode that thoughtfully gives voice to the opposite side without pretending that Louis and Louie don’t have their shortcomings. Now we know that Louis C.K. is thinking about how women ought to be treated, and so are we. The solution is no solution but contemplation and progress. Perhaps one day, Vanessa won’t have to dangle expensive tickets in front of a man’s nose before he’ll agree to go out with her. Until then, a fiery showcase on the most exploratory show on television is a start.