Tuned In

Louie Watch: Your Beloved Racist Aunt

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Every week I say that I’m not going to write about Louie every week, and yet again here comes another episode so weird and strangely affecting that I can’t not say a little something about it. So here goes again.

“Country Drive” was another of those Louie episodes that it’s hard to imagine working in a sitcom with a more conventional story structure. It starts off as one kind of episode: Louie takes his daughters for a drive to see his 97-year-old great aunt Ellen, while they complain all the way about being bored. The oldest parent-child setup in the world, but one that quickly gets a Louie spin, reminiscent of Louis CK’s legendary riff, “Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy.” Instead of telling his daughters to pipe down and look out the window, Louie gives them a talk about how amazing life is, how they should be flabbergasted every second by the fact that they are alive and in the middle of a world that they have experienced almost nothing of yet, on top of which they possess minds that are infinite.

Despite the infinite, of course, they’re still stuck in an Infiniti, watching a lot of highway unfold. This leads to the scene of Louie rocking out in the driver’s seat to “Who Are You?” (a song that I’m guessing must have taken a decent chunk of the show’s episode budget, so he made good use of it). The scene plays out and plays out, in a way that lets the viewer—at least a viewer around my age and musical inclinations—identify both with his exhilaration at air-druming and air-guitaring his way through the song, as well as the girls’ mortification (and yet amusement) at their embarrassing dad, right down to the “Who the fuck are you?” line that I assume we were all waiting for.

And then we have the visit itself, in which it turns out that the wonder of history that Lilly and Jane are being exposed to is vintage early 20th-century racism. The scene plays it out deftly, putting Louie in the situation of both dutiful nephew and protective father. First Ellen refers to a dish of Brazil nuts as “nigger toes,” and while Louie is mortified, he also decides that this is a figure of speech from an elderly woman who he’s not going to be able to change.

Then the conversation turns to New York City and it turns out that it’s more than just offensive slang at work: Ellen is a straight-up, unrepentant racist. When she leaves the room to look for cookies, Louie uncomfortably talks things out with his daughters, and realizes he was wrong to cut them off from questioning her about using the word. But before they can—in a twist that’s a bit sitcommy but also effective—she drops dead in the kitchen, having just lived long enough to leave her great-great-nieces with that memory.

The two halves of the episode—Louie driving with his bored kids, Louie encounter his great-aunt’s racism—really connect as one theme. As a parent, you want to expose your children to all the wonders of the world; but exposing them to the world’s wonders necessarily means teaching them about all the world’s unpleasantness too. (This comes up too when Louie explains that they need to visit Ellen because she won’t be around much longer, which ends up introducing the idea of death to his younger daughter, who clearly does not have her mind wrapped around it yet: “How do you know she’s going to die? I didn’t die.”)

All of which is capped off beautifully with a relevant bit of standup, in which Louie wrestles with reading the “nigger”s in Tom Sawyer to his daughters, which brings up not just the question of how you place it in historical context for children, but a larger question: how do you reconcile loving someone—your great-aunt, yourself, your country—with that person or nation’s shameful past? (He also wrestles with the issues around saying “nigger” repeatedly, not just while reading to his daughters but in a room of, it seems, largely white faces—at one point during which, with sharp self-awareness, he realizes that he is starting to sound exactly like Bill Cosby.)

Which in turn, the episode caps off in the credits sequence, as Louis CK and actress Eunice Anderson have a salty, out-of-character conversation about how old she is, and how much she would like a cigarette. It is indeed an amazing world out there, for better and worse.