Though Horace And Pete has mined comedy and drama from uncomfortable discussions about everything under the sun—politics, race, gender, sexuality, marriage, divorce, cancer, mental illness, social progress, conservative tradition, etc.—it’s rarely an uncomfortable show. It’s tense and fraught with personal conflict, but it hardly ever goes into full cringe-level territory, unlike some of the best and worst episodes of Louie. In fact, Horace And Pete is fairly gentle even at its most caustic, empathizing with everyone on either side of the divide, taking to heart that famous quote from Jean Renoir’s The Rules Of The Game: “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.”
That is until “Episode 6,” which plays like a slow-motion car crash. It opens on Pete getting ready for a date—combing his hair, putting on cologne, flexing in the mirror, playacting being cool—only to later discover at dinner that the girl he met online isn’t the age-appropriate woman he was expecting. Instead, it’s Jenny (Hannah Dunne), a spritely 26-year-old girl who likes older guys, but not older guys who like younger girls, which is the reason why she lied on her online dating profile. Though the date gets off to a rocky start with Pete acting defensively about his age and his looks, they eventually bond over their positive qualities and work through their differences involving gender. But the second half of the episode is when their relationship all goes to Hell in a hand basket: Pete brings Jenny home for dinner to meet his family and Horace and Sylvia tank the evening by antagonizing Jenny and revealing Pete’s mental illness and tenuous family connection. It’s a remarkably cruel and difficult scene, and easily the most discomfiting moment in the series so far.
Yet, I keep returning to that Renoir quote to better understand the latter half of this episode. Sylvia’s corrosive attitude doesn’t just come out of nowhere, but rather from the stress of her cancer, the decades of legitimate animosity she’s felt towards her family, and of course, her newfound resentment towards Pete for leveraging his illness to keep her in the family business. When she tells Jenny that she’ll one day puke at the sight of an older man and a younger woman, it’s because of her relationship with her father, who beat her mother and constantly took in younger mistresses. At the same time, Sylvia wasn’t there when Pete made a similar argument to Jenny on their first date; she doesn’t know the full story, only what she sees, and what sees is a young, immature girl throwing herself into a relationship with a man she doesn’t know. It’s not a justification for her actions as there are moments in “Episode 6” when Sylvia is astoundingly mean, but it’s a question of understanding the crucial thing about life: Everybody has their reasons.
It’s a shame that “Episode 6” doesn’t really delve into this idea further, keeping it mostly on the surface and forcing attentive viewers to fill in the blanks. This is the weakest episode of Horace And Pete so far for a couple reasons, but mainly because of the pacing, which is too rushed and abrupt to really make this kind of episode work as well as it should. The first half takes a programmatic approach to Pete and Jenny’s relationship, as if it was only there so that it can be blown up in the second half, which is something that Horace And Pete hasn’t done so far (think of the long conversation between Horace and Sarah in “Episode 3” that goes nowhere and everywhere at the same time.) Plus, the tension in the family dinner scene feels overly manufactured, with everything from the dispute over the wine and the food feeling a little too “writerly,” as if Louie was speeding towards the ending instead of savoring the anxiety and discomfort of the dinner.
Then there’s Jenny, who never really gets to make much of an impression beyond simply being young and interested in Pete. Though Hannah Dunne gives a predictably charming, wonderful performance (she’s consistently one of the very best parts of the Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle, and was also in a very funny scene in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha), Jenny somehow feels too oblique of a character. Her personality is limited on the page but hinted at heavily with Dunne’s performance, making the whole character an uneven proposition. Her blow up at Horace and Sylvia at the end of the episode works because it’s the one moment of common sense rationality, but it doesn’t really feel believable because we don’t really know her.
“Episode 6” is kind of the price one pays with a series this experimental. Some things are going to work better than others, and there are going to be episodes that take a swing and whiff. There are some things here that work, mainly Buscemi’s performance, which it’s top-notch as ever (especially in his devastating final words to Sylvia), but it’s not enough to carry the whole episode. But as always, there’s enough interesting elements here to keep checking in on the adventures of Horace And Pete.