The third episode of Horace And Pete opens on a woman (Laurie Metcalf) telling a story to someone out of frame. We don’t know who this woman is, or to whom she’s talking, or how she connects to any of the established characters, but we know she’s confessing something. For nine straight minutes, this woman describes how she became intimate with her husband’s 84-year-old father while staying at their family’s Pennsylvania house in quotidian, Cheever-esque detail. She discusses how her attraction to him began from an innocent place—simply watching him work on the house while he told stories of his youth—and then transitioned to something more serious and sexual—him watching her sunbathe in a bikini and then listening to her masturbate. She captures a very understandable sense of yearning and an instinctual desire for erotic adventure, but also the tragedy of beginning an affair that will permanently dissolve a sweet, healthy marriage.
Over the course of the episode, we find out that the woman is named Sarah and she’s talking to her ex-husband Horace because he committed a similar act during their marriage—sleeping with Sarah’s younger sister—and she wants to know how he felt when he was doing that. Constructed around long dramatic monologues and short dialogical exchanges, “Episode 3” fulfills the experimental promise of the series just by adopting a different structural approach, eschewing the ensemble and the setting in favor of a grounded, mostly heartbreaking conversation between two people who once loved each other. Louis films the episode almost entirely in close-ups, breaking from the main action once in the middle (not technically an intermission, but something like a pause) and once at the very end for a nasty “punch-line,” forcing the audience to stay in the characters’ emotions and not to look away when things get uncomfortable. It’s an episode driven by acting and writing as Metcalf and C.K. beautifully embody people prone to self-destructive behavior who try to form some kind of peace over their mistakes and regrets. There’s no conflict to be resolved or typical dramatic action to be found. It’s just a brief moment of connection that exists for its own sake.
It almost goes without saying that this episode is probably the least accessible of the three Horace And Pete episodes released so far. For some, it’s going to be an episode that requires a religious patience for slow-paced conversation with little levity and abundance of tears, but for those who can lock in, it’s a prime example of what a series like this can accomplish. If Horace And Pete is about anything, it’s about reconciling the past with the present, and how depending on your worldview, the future can look like a bright opportunity or a portent of doom. In the past two episodes, Louis fuses that idea into ensemble pieces about dying institutions and conflicting perspectives. But with “Episode 3,” he captures the self-defeating behavioral cycle that facilitates past mistakes to recur again and again.
It’s interesting what this conversation isn’t about. In the hands of lesser writers, this conversation would effectively be a fight between a divorced couple, rehashing old wounds to hurt the other, but Louis removes the idea of judgment from the get-go and the conversation takes on a much more melancholic tone. Sarah is eminently aware of the weight of her actions and she doesn’t want Horace to tell her what she should do, but what his feelings were when he was doing the same thing. Horace describes the depression and guilt he felt afterwards, and how he wanted everyone to die so there could be a clean break. But he also recognizes that he was subconsciously doing it because he didn’t want to be married, and that sleeping with a spouse’s relative is a quick way to dissolve that. He discusses how people come out the other side of these things, and how people slowly and surely move on. Sarah isn’t going to stop sleeping with her husband’s father, but she’s not doing it with her eyes closed.
But when Horace and Sarah’s conversation turns to their own marriage, it’s clear how a parent’s actions aren’t in a vacuum, and no matter how much you justify it, they can permanently affect children. When Sarah tells Horace about how great his son is doing, it’s difficult to watch Horace take that information in, knowing that he’s all but torpedoed any kind of relationship with him. That this comes after Horace’s insistence that Sarah’s husband’s kids will be fine when the shit eventually hits the fan is a devastating depiction of selective memory. (“I didn’t really know what I was throwing away with those guys,” Horace admits. “You still don’t know, Horace, but forgive yourself,” Sarah firmly tells him.) Despite all the logical rationalizations and how time eventually erodes all hurt, Sarah’s actions will damage the people she loves and there’s no way around that, but if you’re not going to be honest with the people in your life, at least be honest with yourself.
However, trying to pin “Episode 3” down to a simple lesson or a theme feels like cheating it somehow. It’s a freewheeling discussion about marriage, divorce, and self-destruction that plays like it would in real-time. Sarah and Horace express gratitude for knowing each other, the pain they’ve held onto, and the love they still feel. It’s as if Louis C.K. decided to plop a camera down and film painful honesty for 40 minutes. It feels personal and nuanced in the way the best Louie episodes feel, but on a much smaller scale. In short, it’s an episode of Horace And Pete, and after three weeks, that’s starting to mean something.
- This goes without saying, but Metcalf and C.K. do some fantastic acting here. Small facial changes and purposeful body language has never carried more weight with these two.
- Alan Alda’s “I can’t believe you married that cunt” line just emphasizes how blind people can be when they hold onto principles and feelings created in the past while still being a nasty closer.
- Funniest bit of the episode has to be the first cut to Louie’s face just taking all this in dumbfounded. I kind of saw it coming, but it still killed when it happened.