Though Charles Darwin never actually said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most adaptable to change,” it’s arguably the most appropriate quote for Horace And Pete. If there’s a central tension in the series, it’s between adaptation and stagnation, between changing with the times and maintaining old traditions. It would be easy for Louis to position the former as inherently better than the latter, but he never frames the tension in such simplistic terms; instead, he shrewdly illustrates the benefits and drawbacks of both options while acknowledging the inevitability of progress. “Episode 1” essentially introduces this conflict by having mouthpieces from both sides state their case, effectively functioning as a meditation on the issue, but “Episode 5” brings it back into the foreground, pointedly exploring the difficulty of moving on while holding onto your roots, even if those roots are rotten.
After Uncle Pete commits suicide, the question of selling Horace and Pete’s comes up yet again to those who are left behind. Sylvia wants to sell the bar for practical and symbolic reasons—she needs money for her cancer treatment and wants to get rid of the ugly memories that still reside in the establishment; Pete initially doesn’t care either way if the bar get sold but eventually admits that he needs the place to work, live, and receive his medication; and Horace is caught in the middle because he doesn’t exactly want to tear the place down but admits that there needs to be a change. All of the well-worn arguments are rehashed again but under markedly different circumstances: The last tie to the old guard has passed. Now it’s up to the new generation to either perpetuate or end the cycle.
Louis depicts the Horace and Pete establishment as a bevy of contradictions. On the one hand, it’s a cancerous institution that has ruined generations of innocent women and children born into an oppressive environment, but on the other hand, it’s a home for losers and loners that have all been rejected by the outside world. There’s no better example of the latter than Marsha who monologues at Uncle Pete’s wake about her early alcoholism and difficult childhood (she got pregnant in the eighth grade and then proceeded to drop out of school), and how both Horace Sr. and later Uncle Pete were the only ones who took her in. But now that Horace and Pete owe Marsha nothing anymore, she no longer has a home at the one place that allows her to drink for free. Is this a tragedy on par with her contributing to the destruction of Horace Sr.’s family? No, but Louis doesn’t shortchange her feelings for a minute, presenting them as one of many reasons why selling the bar isn’t exactly a no brainer.
However, even when you take that into consideration, it’s still not that simple. Does providing a home for the aforementioned losers and loners justify keeping it open when those damaged by its existence are still around? Is the bar just a “safe space” for those who feel comfortable espousing frequently offensive, antiquated beliefs at the expense of others? It certainly was for Uncle Pete, but the same can easily be said for many of the barflies that walk through their doors, like the nihilistic Kurt who wants to watch America destroy itself, or the rude customer (Michael Cyril Creighton) who treats Pete terribly, or even Margaret (Michelle Wolf) who openly admits her lack of empathy when telling a story about the New York Philharmonic (“I can’t climb into another person’s life…”). But it also houses the quiet, sardonic Leon, the piano-playing Tom (Tom Noonan), and not to mention Pete himself, a mentally ill man otherwise without a home or a job. Adapting to the changing times inevitably means throwing some of these people out into the cold too, but upholding tradition for its own sake necessarily entails carrying around a lot of hate and misery.
Horace’s proposed compromise—bringing Sylvia into the business to help turn it into a profitable business—takes both sides into consideration, but it isn’t exactly a perfect solution. It forces Sylvia to help run a business she despises in an area she purposefully abandoned (“Brooklyn’s coming up, right?” Horace excitedly tells Sylvia to her heartbroken face), and it ultimately means keeping Horace and Pete’s exactly the way it is because rebranding is too risky a venture. Yet, it will help her pay her bills and still keep the place open for those who need it the most. It’s a practical option that will benefit Horace, Pete, and Sylvia in the short term, but they will also be holding onto an ugly legacy left behind by their miserable elders, even if it ends the tradition of the bar being owned by a Horace and a Pete.
The concept of tearing down and rebuilding recurs throughout “Episode 5.” Horace doesn’t want to take a big payout in exchange for tearing down the bar because he’ll be profiting off of the destruction of history, warts and all. It implies that that history doesn’t exist, that it didn’t happen at all. But in “Episode 5,” Louis ultimately argues that it’s more worthwhile for a broken institution to adapt and change with the times than for someone just to burn it to the ground. It means accepting the ugliness of the past but also places the burden on those in power not to keep preserving that ugliness. If the strongest species are the ones most adaptable to change, then they’re also the ones who are most eminently aware of why they’ve changed.
Case in point: Kurt can’t understand why people in the most miserable situations don’t just “peace the fuck out”; he can’t fathom why people would rather sit and complain about their shitty life than just flick the off switch. In a stunning, yet small act of defiance, Pete, who just recently lost his father to suicide, sneers in Kurt’s direction, “Because maybe it’ll get better.” It’s the most hopeful moment in Horace And Pete so far: Two brothers standing side-by-side trying to bring their broken empire into the modern era.
- The end of “Episode 5” tells us that it’s the first act of presumably a two or three act story.
- Jessica Lange hasn’t been given much to do in the series, but she absolutely nails her big scene this week. She delivers it without an ounce of self-pity but with enough awareness that the tragedy is never lost on the audience.
- Horace and Sylvia’s scene in his apartment is also aces, if for no other reason that Sylvia’s statement on hatred: “You gotta get jaded to people hating you, Horace. Anybody who gets to their 40’s without at least ten people hating them is just an asshole…If people hate you, you’re probably taking care of yourself, right? If nobody hates you, you’re probably just some asshole who’s a burden on everybody around you.”
- Oddly enough, Sylvia’s speech throws Pete’s later request for Horace not to sell the bar in a much different light. He’s the nicest guy in the place, but he’s still the asshole burdening Horace and Sylvia with his problems.
- Guest-stars Michael Cyril Creighton and Tom Noonan act in Spotlight and Anomalisa respectively, both of which are up for Oscars tomorrow.
- Tom Noonan plays a piece on the piano while Horace, Pete, and Sylvia discuss selling the bar. That piece is called “08/17/1909 - 4am,” and it’s composed and performed by Noonan himself.
- Kurt’s wish for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders to be co-presidents in full: “Bernie is the only Democrat that’s willing to admit he’s going to hold a gun to rich people’s heads and make ‘em pay for everything, and Trump is the only Republican who’s willing to admit that he doesn’t give a shit or know anything about anything and it’s all a crooked game that only he knows how to play. So then you got this amazing system where, like, Bernie takes all the rich people’s money and Trump just keeps giving it back to them in bribes to keep the economy running.”
- “She’s crying at a wake, but not because of who died. She’s crying because of what a cunt her mother is.”
- “He always said what he felt.” “Oh, please. Those are exactly the kinds of things said at every asshole’s wake.”
- “The only thing worse than living with someone who doesn’t love you is living with someone who really loves you a lot.”
- “Maybe you shouldn’t ask questions unless you want to hear the answer.”
- “Fuck this country.” “Hey. Watch it.” “Why?” “I don’t know. You’re supposed to say that when someone says the thing you said.”
- “You can turn the Internet off, you know that?”
- Finally, the song that closes the episode is Dion and Paul Simon’s “New York Is My Home.”