Louis C.K. and I grew up by each other. I lived just across the football field from Newton North High School, where we both went; he lived across the Mass. Turnpike, closer to Nonantum, better known as the Lake. Incidentally, halfway through the walk between my place and his (on your way, say, to get a movie from Blockbuster and pizza from D&A's) you'll pass where one of Massachusetts' first 20 medical weed dispensaries is slated to open.
"Into The Woods" wasn't filmed in Newton (though last season's excellent "Dad" was), but it's recognizably Newton all the same. It's a wooded, spacious city, one of the old, unplanned suburbs that twist and curl in on themselves rather than sprawling. Good schools, clean streets. It gives kids too much space and too little to do in it. Louie went through the Newton Public School system about 25 years before I did, but Newton doesn't change much. When you're 13 and the tectonic plates of your life start drifting inexorably in every direction, that stasis is pretty existentially terrifying.
Louie's at some kind of outdoor Balkan ska show he has no business being at, when he spots his daughter Lily hitting a joint. The who, what, and why of it all isn't really there, nor is it really important. Louie plows through all those circumstances to smack the offending joint out of her hand, physically drag her out of there, and vent. When her protests go nowhere, she puts the perennial question to him: "What do you know about it?"
Turns out, quite a lot. "Into The Woods" mostly follows a young Louie at the center of that tectonic drift. He has crushes his pale skinny ass has no business having, a bully who beats on him, a mother he doesn't see much of, and he's sliding fast towards high school. We've seen this; this is all the stuff that tropes are made of, down to the "SAY NO TO DRUGS" posters and the $10 bill his mom gives him, for Chinese food or whatever after a school dance. His friend Brad pulls him out of said dance and into the titular woods so they can share their first joint. That $10 goes towards Louie's first weed bulk buy, a quarter-ounce(!) from local dealer Jeff Davis, played perfectly dead-eyed by Jeremy Renner. He's off and running.
Jeff admires Louie's balls (figuratively) for walking right up to a drug dealer's door, and gives him an opportunity: he'll give him a couple ounces of weed for every scale he can steal from the school. So Louie takes advantage of his cool science teacher, Mr. Hoffman, using his trust to get into the supply closet. Mr. Hoffman demonstrates his paternal respect for Louie by offering him responsibilities, but when he returns with the scales, Jeff gives him rewards, praise, and admiration, candy to Mr. Hoffman's vegetables. "You did this," Jeff tells him, "Look at this. You did this." That, to a kid whose agency up to now has mostly come down to choosing between a beating now and a beating later.
The school notices, of course, and Louie's called into the principal's office, only to have Mr. Hoffman explode in his defense (but not before getting out my favorite joke of the episode: "I noticed we were light on scales"). "This school is full of worthless kids: Danny McDowell, Mike Ontario, any of those kids from down the Lake," he rants, contrasting Louie against the bully that weed made into his friend, who'll later be led out of the school in cuffs behind Louie's theft. When Louie later confesses to Mr. Hoffman, that speechifying's gone, along with the spark in his eyes that made long take after long take through the episode so captivating, and it's heartbreaking.
Throughout "Into The Woods," scenes change registers on a dime. One moment Jeremy Renner is kissing his cat, the next he's choking Louie against a wall for trying to get the scales back. A blissed-out chill-out in Louie's erstwhile bully Danny's room becomes a gut-wrenching beatdown when he taunts his brother one too many times. "You're losers," his brother shouts, as Danny whimpers on the floor. Like Louie striding up to Lily's smoking circle, adulthood strikes without warning, steamrolling the sanctity of their rooms, stripping away the thin shells these kids put up to get through the day's deluge of confusion and humiliation. So of course they build thicker shells, using whatever they have at hand. In Louie's case, it's 10 stolen scales and 20 ounces of pot.
By the same token, there's no adult here who manages to get much of a foothold in the Louie problem, be it through coercion (his father), confrontation (his mother, his principal), or faith (Mr. Hoffman); there's always a disconnect on one end of the equation. Look at Louie's blank mask as his mother rages at the boy her son has become: "You're boring. You're sullen. You're vacant. You show me no love." Look at the pain on his face as he says "Fuck you" to the father who shows up to play at being his narcotics officer after another month of absence. He's not unreachable, but even he doesn't seem to know how to reach him.
Early on in the episode, it's easy to get the impression that Louie's recounting his youthful misadventures with the demon drug to Lily, because that's how this works: the parent opens up to their child, the child opens up to their parent, the child cries, the parent cries, their bond is strengthened, everyone's gonna be okay, roll credits. But as we cut back to the present, it's eventually clear that Louie's not opening up to her. He's buying her Five Guys because she's stoned and sullen, and cooking her bacon and eggs, and ruminating. And when it comes time for him to say his big thing, there's no speech to give. Only, "I love you. And I'm here. That's all I got."
Louis C.K.'s talked about this period of his life in his stand-up; you can check out the clip in the comments for the full bit. Listening to this after watching "Into The Woods," I snagged on one detail in particular, when he mentions that he got really skinny because he was skipping meals, not wanting to come home for dinner stoned. Maybe it's too much to read that into Louie's present storyline revolving around cooking his daughter dinner (breakfast for dinner, at that), but I can't help but see it as a statement on himself as a parent, an attempt to love without judgment: If you're home for dinner stoned, I'll cook for you regardless. Louie's already tried to puncture Lily's shell today; now he's doing his best to show her that, around him, she doesn't need it.
[Images via FX]