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“You are paying your bills doing what you love. You got a beautiful wife. You got a divorce. You get part-time custody of two beautiful kids. Me, I got nothing. No money, no skills, no Twitter. My sperm don’t work…I had em checked out. They’re all dead.” That’s Louie’s brother Bobby sitting across the couch from Louie and telling him how good he has it. At first it’s a scene about Bobby. Why does he actively look for ways to feel bad about himself? His self-esteem is so low that he’s misremembered himself as the older brother, putting even more pressure on himself to succeed. Louie corrects him: “Bobby, you’re 44, and I’m 47.” The joke’s still on Bobby when the egg-timer energy-saving lights go out at the end, a dry cosmic punchline to his sad sack comedy. But in the context of “Bobby’s House,” the opening sequence is also about sizing up Louie. He has a lot of meaningful relationships and a successful career he loves. What he usually stands to lose is dignity, but “Bobby’s House” is going to go a step further.

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It’s like a kinder, gentler Cul-De-Sac, the movie Roman Polanski made after Repulsion about a husband who, in his wife’s eyes, fails to “be a man” adequately when gangsters show up at their house one evening. The last time I wrote about Louie’s overlap with Polanski, I said the comparison dries up when it comes to gender and power. “Bobby’s House” says otherwise. Louie gets beaten up by a girl—a woman, he corrects—and everybody laughs at the bruises all over his face. He has to wear makeup, which gets parlayed into a gender-reversed role-play with Pamela, which in turn leads to a surprise break-up. And at the end Bobby laughs at Louie some more.

The fight scene goes exactly how you expect, and it’s still arresting. At the bus stop some woman (Heather Hardy) slaps some guy across the face and says, “Don’t be standing over there looking at me.” She shoves him and hits him a couple more times before Louie intervenes. If he touches her at all, it’s a soft touch of her arm. The main thing is he tells her to stop beating on the poor bastard. So instead she goes after Louie, and he can’t hit back, because it’s a woman. Nobody intervenes on Louie’s behalf. The bus comes and goes, collecting everyone except Louie and his assailant. Since she’s standing between him and the bus, he can’t go for the doors or it’d be an act of aggression. It’s such a simple and impossible pickle it’s funny in a dry sort of way. Once it’s just them, she chases him down the block a bit and ultimately beats him to the ground, but not before a moment of comic desperation where Louie looks both ways to make sure nobody sees and then gives her a weak punch in the back. When she walks off, the camera lingers on Louie’s body. His pants are soaked in snow, half his face is bruised and bleeding, and, the final indignity, he tries to soothe the pain with a chunk of ice on the ground.

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It’s not very funny, but there is a comic principle behind it. Louie’s held back from really trying to defend himself by a social rule pushed to an absurd extreme. Not that he should have knocked her out or anything—on this show, he’d be the one going to jail if he even touched her head—but he’s not allowed to hit back, because of his conscience and pride, and he’s not allowed to look weak, because of his pride alone, so he gets beaten up. What else is a man to do?

His daughters’ concern turns to mockery when they find out a woman is behind his attack, never mind his bruises. Louie can’t even stand up for himself here. Instead he tries to wring some superficial feminist lesson out of this asshole, as if she’s any kind of role model for his daughters. Very modern of him. Don’t worry about them, though. They’re still laughing.

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Smash cut to Pamela laughing too, and here’s where the fun begins. She starts to do Louie’s makeup, but when she goes to apply lipstick, he realizes she isn’t just covering up his wounds. She’s making him pretty. Louie’s finally in the safest space he could be in, confessing his pain to his partner, trying to erase his humiliation and move on, but instead he gets made to look like a woman, and the relief of male makeup gets postponed again. Now, Pamela has to convince him to let her do his makeup like a lady in exchange for sex, but once he sees how good he looks with a little eyeliner and eyeshadow, he gets into it. Louie being Louie, he fumbles for the name Jornatha, but he’s funny and charming after that. Pamela as Peter asks, “Jornatha, I was wondering, do you wanna dance?” He puts his hand to his chest and says in a Southern belle voice, “Well, I hardly know you.” Pamela plays dominant, she fondles his breasts, she turns him on his stomach and makes him role-play doggy-style. When we come to, they’re lying in bed somewhat awkwardly, and she’s enjoying a post-coital chapstick. By contrast, he’s the one who gets clingy and wants to talk about formalizing their relationship in light of the very intimate thing they’ve just done.

That’s when Pamela realizes she has to break it off. Louie wants something Pamela isn’t offering, and she wants him to have that with someone. Ultimately Louie betrays himself. He backtracks and begs to hold onto an unfulfilling relationship. Even in humiliation he’s happy to settle. Pamela has to be the adult, “be the man,” for both of them. He turns to her crying, mascara dripping down his face, and Pamela cracks up. The next day, after all that, free of the makeup, down a partner, visibly battered, Louie sits there across the table as his brother laughs at him under the credits. From Bobby’s perspective, finally his brother is cut down to size. Louie takes it in stride, as usual. The universe just has it out for him.

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Despite the humiliated, cross-dressing man at the center and the masculine-feminine power dynamic, “Bobby’s House” diverges from Cul-De-Sac thematically. The makeup and the role-play and the submission turn out not to be so bad, even kind of fun, and if anything Pamela gains respect for Louie. The expectations of masculinity are the problem. Louie doesn’t know how to defend himself against a woman, he’s embarrassed by the attack, and he’s mocked for it. Louie isn’t degraded by playing a woman. He’s degraded by playing a man.

Stray observations:

  • Bobby calls two hours before Uncle Jack’s wake, but Louie didn’t even know Uncle Jack died. It turns out he didn’t. They go to a different Uncle Jack’s wake, an East Asian man with a polite family that doesn’t ask questions about Louie and Bobby. A clue: On the way there, Louie asks Bobby how he heard about the death. “I read it in the obits.” Did he not read the article?
  • I know the non-Pamela episodes have been pretty popular, but I’ve loved the Pamela ones so far. I hope this isn’t the last we see of her this season, but it’s halfway over already.
  • Apologies for the lateness. I messed up on the scheduling.

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