“‘Kathy, I’m lost,’ I said / Though I knew she was sleeping / ‘I’m empty and aching and / I don’t know why.’”—-“America,” Simon & Garfunkel
Horace And Pete preaches many truths, but if there’s one that it emphasizes over and over again, it’s that you can never truly escape your past. Sure, you can run away, and swear you’re going to be different, and fashion a worldview entirely in opposition to what you were taught, but it’s never going to be enough. The ghosts of the past are stronger than any one individual’s willpower, and they will haunt and torment you as long as you pretend that it doesn’t have any bearing on your present, that it only exists in the proverbial rearview mirror. It’s not enough to forget the past; it must be reckoned with and faced head on, especially if it’s painful. As Tom (Tom Noonan) says late in “Episode 10,” you have to find the place in you where it hurts and be kind to it, even though it wasn’t kind to you. That’s the true measure of strength.
Horace never quite learned that fact. He never faced the realities of his past even though he knew what they were. He just perpetuated his history over and over again by taking over the reins of his family bar, not only out of a misplaced sense of responsibility, but because it was easy. Horace and Pete’s, the institution, is a prison of abuse and neglect, a place that harbored and embraced all the worst impulses in people, and squashed out the light in the world. It may function as a genuine community, a space for the misfits and oddballs of the world, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s built on suffering and misery. Horace believed that he could adapt it to modern times, bring a fresh perspective and a woman’s point of view into an oppressively male environment, because maybe it’ll get better. While that’s an admirable idea, it’s ultimately misguided. Sylvia understands what Horace never could: Horace and Pete’s is a black hole, and it will suck you dry the longer you spend inside its walls.
In “Episode 10,” the final episode of Horace And Pete, Louis C.K. finally gives us a glimpse of Horace and Pete’s past on the last day the Wittel family was together under one roof. He presents the Wittel homestead as a brutal, cruel place where the threat of physical violence hangs over every single moment, misspoken word, or accidental slip-up. Horace VII (played by C.K. himself) rules over his home with a scowl and a fist. From the moment he wakes up in the morning, the entire house is on eggshells. A young Pete (Nolan Lyons) silently pours his cereal for him as it’s expected, to no reaction from Horace VII; he taunts and hurts a young Horace VIII (Jack Gore), the one legitimate son of his; and he sneers vitriol at his wife Marianne (played by Edie Falco), clearly the victim of years of emotional and physical abuse. There’s no nostalgia to this family portrait; it’s just filled with despair.
Even though it’s 1976, the dynamics of the bar are more or less the same. There are the same types of political discussions, only this time they’re about Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter instead of Donald Trump; there are the strange eccentrics that walk through the doors, like a broke customer (David Blaine) who performs a magic trick much to the ire of Uncle Pete (played by Steve Buscemi); there are the same types of heated arguments and testy conflicts diffused by drinks. The main difference is that the violence and cruelty are out in the open, especially towards women and minorities. Nobody bats an eye when Horace drags Marianne by her hair as she tries to leave the bar, or when he grabs a young Sylvia (Sofia Hublitz) and yells at her for socializing with African Americans (he obviously uses much less polite terminology). It’s a tyrannical space dominated by white men who throw their weight around without any care for how it affects the innocents around them, especially children.
We know how the story goes: Marianne abandons her home in the night with Horace and Sylvia in tow, and leaves Pete behind, but actually seeing what happens throws the reality of the situation in a whole different light. When Marianne goes back to get her bag, she sees Pete fill up all the water glasses in the house “because it’s important.” Confused and distraught, Marianne backs away because she doesn’t understand that Pete’s actions are a result of mental illness, but also because she knows what’s about to happen next. She runs out of the room just as Horace VII begins to beat his nephew. His cries of agony ring out throughout the bar as Marianne leaves it behind and Uncle Pete listens from the staircase.
This is the real Horace and Pete’s stripped of all the mythology and tradition and “heart of Brooklyn” talk. This is what Horace VIII and Pete have been defending for half their lives. This is the ugly reality that no one likes to talk about.
The second half of the episode is set in the present the night before Easter Sunday. Pete’s been missing for over a month and presumed dead, Sylvia is planning to leave the bar come Monday with Harold (Reg E. Cathey), but Horace is stuck in the prison he’s helped maintain. He’s depressed over Pete’s disappearance and refuses to move on, preferring to listen to the same barflies run through the same discussions from now until the end of time. Sylvia implores him to “claim a fucking life” now that all of his ties to Horace and Pete’s are gone. But he’s still paralyzed. He’s been nursing the same Trump-sized hurt in his stomach for his entire life, and he’s just been hurting it more and more without ever once trying to contend with it.
Just then, almost out of the clear blue sky, a ray of sunshine walks through the door in the form of Mara (Amy Sedaris), a woman interviewing to be the new bartender. Bubbly and sweet, Mara hugs Horace upon meeting him, and begins to win him over her confident, yet positive personality. She’s traveled the entire country, absorbing and learning from the world around her, and has gained wisdom and peace instead of just cynicism. She even gets Horace to smile just once, even though he was just crying minutes earlier, and invites him to go to Chicago with her next weekend. Mara represents hope in a dark place, an out for Horace after years of internalized pain. She plays “America” by Simon & Garfunkel on the jukebox and walks out the doors, but not before giving Horace an idea for what he wants to do with his life.
But we never hear it because at that moment a dirty, deranged Pete walks through the door as “America” swells in the background. Horace and Sylvia are overwhelmed, embracing him with open arms. “You’re okay. It’s okay,” Horace says to him quietly, urging him to sit down. “It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s alright.” For a second, it’s the homecoming that Horace has prayed for in all its glory, a beautiful second coming of a lost sibling, a kind soul marginalized by society for all the worst reasons.
Then Pete picks up the knife Sylvia was cutting limes with, and crosses the stage. Horace tries to calm him down. The stage goes black and Sylvia’s screams ring out. It’s all over.
C.K. smartly doesn’t tackle all of the intertwined tragedies in Horace And Pete in a single episode, but instead he chooses to focus on the downfall of Horace, an ordinary man who ceded his life to an institution that gave him nothing in return. As Sylvia says, he sat out his life working in a family bar, choosing to be a part of the wallpaper instead of being his own person. Though Pete worked there alongside him, his own struggles and his courage ultimately defined him outside of the bar. He fought admirably against a disease that ravaged his brain without mercy. But Horace? He was just some guy who was never anything outside of an ugly tradition, who died at the hand of Pete, unaware that he was killing the one person who loved him the most, who lived most of his life as a broken man who never could crawl out of the world he was born into.
That’s why Sylvia realizes as she’s packing up the place and Horace’s estranged son (Angus T. Young) walks through the doors asking about his father. She can’t come up with anything. “But he was your father,” she tells him before bursting into tears. Horace was his father and Alice’s father, and he was Sylvia and Pete’s brother, and Sarah’s husband, and Horace VII’s son, and Uncle Pete’s nephew. He was somebody, even though he was nobody, which makes him more than worthy of tears. Sylvia weeps not just for Horace, but also for her entire bloodline, the decades of despair, and the lives lost in the bar. Though she’s often been the only person who had a clear perspective on her family’s past, Sylvia still has to face up to the fact that this is who she is, and no matter how much distance she places between her and Horace and Pete’s, she’ll always be a part of it one way or another. The past is the past is the past, and it will never leave you alone because it’s never through with you.
So she sits and cries while Horace IX sits beside her, wondering who his father really was, in the very place that he called home.
- There are many small powerful moments in the 1976 section, but my favorite is how Horace VII barely acknowledges Pete because he’s not his son, but Uncle Pete praises him when he says he won his baseball game.
- Amy Sedaris is delightful, and pretty much every line of dialogue she speaks in her brief scene is brilliant. But my favorite is when she says she’s in a hurry because she has a popsicles in the car. “Popsicles melt, and then it’s juice. Who likes juice?”
- Other notable guest stars this week include Colin Quinn, who plays Jimmy, a teacher who frequents Horace and Pete’s in the 70s, and finally Burt Young, who played Paulie Pennino in the Rocky series, as Horace VI.
- Kurt believes we’ll all elect Donald Trump because he’s a needy human being who desperately wants to be president, and because America is a generous country, we will give it to him. We’ll see if that turns out to be true.
- “Yeah, we’re all connected. That hippie shit is true.”
- “Yes, right now! All you fuckin’ have is right now.”
- As the credits indicate, that’s a wrap on Horace And Pete, as well as AVC’s coverage. Thanks for following along with me. I hope you loved this show as much as I do.