In Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret, a young girl (Anna Paquin) accidentally causes a bus accident that results in the death of an innocent pedestrian. While a large part of the film focuses on the complicated aftermath of this traumatic event, much of it focuses on the life around that event. Lonergan repeatedly cuts away and digresses from the main action to focus on seemingly “irrelevant” or “trivial” matters, only the irrelevant and trivial are in fact the “point” of the film: Tragedy doesn’t occur in a vacuum, but rather it happens amidst the noise of life—the stupid arguments, the anonymous clashes, and the sudden coincidences. With Margaret, Lonergan gets at something overwhelmingly poignant: When tragedy strikes one person, their world stalls, but the larger world keeps on turning, and watching everybody move on while you’re paralyzed can be a jarring experience.

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Louis C.K. captures this idea in miniature in a scene in “Episode 9” when Horace returns to the bar from the hospital after hearing some disturbing news: A battered, bed-ridden Tricia tearfully informs Horace that she tried to wean Pete off of his medication and he attacked her in his mentally ill state. Nobody had heard from Pete in a week’s time, and neither Horace nor Sylvia was looking for him out of fear, guilt, or because of a myriad other emotional responses. Shaken and upset, Horace walks into the bar while Kurt, Sylvia, and the other bar patrons are arguing about the Hulk Hogan-Gawker verdict. The camera tracks him as he slowly walks around the bar, spotting Tom playing at the piano, all the while this circular discussion happens in the foreground. It’s a standard, go-nowhere, talking-past-each-other argument we’ve come to expect from Horace And Pete: Everybody’s spouting their own beliefs or derailing the conversation without actually listening to anyone else.

But C.K. frames this argument against Horace’s crippled emotional state, mining tension from Horace’s internal pain versus the noise. Though C.K. initially cuts between Sylvia and Kurt fighting about the verdict, he eventually maintains focus on Horace’s wounded expression as he tries to ignore Leon’s knowing stare. Eventually, Horace cracks and bursts out his anger and hurt at his inability to help his brother. Not his cousin, but his brother. It’s a shattering moment that’s no less emotional because C.K. telegraphs it visually, but it’s made even more devastating when Kurt makes an ill-timed crack after Horace’s outburst (“Hey, Horace. Where’s Pete?”): The camera lingers on Horace for a couple seconds before he hits Kurt with his paper and tries to lunge across the bar after him. This is the emotional state of a paralyzed person unable to help a loved one in need—frustrated, depressed, and desperate.

It’s at that moment when Ricardo the police officer come through with his promise to Pete to bring the Mayor of New York to Horace and Pete’s. Yes, that’s the actual Mayor Bill de Blasio in the flesh. Yes, Kurt introduces himself with, “Oh, shit. You’re the mayor! Excuse me. You’re the fuckin’ mayor!”, and then proceeds to badger him about the size of the NYPD and whether or not they could take on the French army (Mayor de Blasio replies, “We don’t have a problem with France. It’s okay.”) Yes, Leon asks him what the time is and when Mayor de Blasio tells him he then asks if he could quote him on that. It’s a thoroughly strange, amusing scene in any context, but especially in this context and in this episode. Such is life. Ricardo was just following through with his favor to Pete. Neither he nor the Mayor knew that Pete’s gone and may never come back. They were just in the neighborhood.

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Yet, Horace can’t be present for his bar’s good fortune, let alone enjoy it. Instead, he retires to Pete’s empty room, sits on his bed, and weeps for Pete’s pain, for the suffering he can’t ease, and for all the time he no longer will have. C.K. shoots the scene in one static shot; we don’t get access to Horace’s face any longer, just his hunched back while he mourns. But instead of C.K. wallowing in Horace’s sorrow, he instead provides something resembling a “happy ending” for Pete, a brief moment of peace for someone who never found any. Not quite a dream sequence or a fantasy, the last scene of “Episode 9” takes place on an imagine stage where Pete and Uncle Pete have it out one last time and by the end come to some kind of understanding.

For about seven minutes, Pete and Uncle Pete circle each other, feeling each other out, wondering why the other is there, and yelling at each other. It’s familiar, yet strange, for the sole reason that C.K./Horace imagines Pete and Uncle Pete to have awareness about their respective states, i.e. Uncle Pete knows he’s dead and Pete knows he’s off his meds, and they discuss this openly. Their conversation initially takes on a Beckettian tone (“What the hell is this?” “What, I’m here!” “No you’re not. You’re not here.”), and eventually transitions into an honest discussion the two never could have in real life. Uncle Pete praises Pete’s courage and livelihood when he was younger, trying out for hockey even though he was better at baseball just because he wanted to. Pete explains to his pull-yourself-up-from-your-bootstraps father something he never could understand: There’s no good end for his life, so all he wants is a little peace. It’s a small moment of reconciliation that couldn’t happen for a variety of reasons, but it can exist in the vestiges of Horace’s mind, as well as in the series proper, making it all the more powerful. A last tribute from a brother who did the best he could even though he knew that best could never be enough.

Early in “Episode 9,” Kurt counsels a woman (Ann Carr) on the perils of online dating after her date just went south. He argues that online dating sites match people up based on similar backgrounds and common interests, except people don’t connect on the basis of those things, but rather on chemistry. The main problem is that chemistry between two people is rare and planning for it is futile. Yet C.K. argues that it does happen more often than Kurt thinks, it’s just almost always fleeting. Take Tricia and Pete for example: They shared genuine love for one another even though it was bound to end poorly; or Horace and his ex-wife Sarah, who got together under dubious circumstances but still created a family, albeit a now-fractured one; or even Horace and Pete, two brothers who stayed by each other’s sides in adulthood to prop up a dying institution with their own hands. It’s easy to say that Horace And Pete has a bleak worldview, or that it revels in misery, but C.K. always presents hope within the tragic frame. If anything, he argues that it’s on us to enjoy the brief moments of happiness amidst the drudgery, the sadness, and the heartbreak. Or if you can’t make it happen, the least you can do is invent it, if not for yourself, then for someone you love.

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At its finest, Horace And Pete is part web series, part stage play, part freeform creative expression, and when all of those modes come together, it can make for powerful “television.” “Episode 9” is the Horace And Pete experiment at its finest, featuring some of C.K.’s best writing and direction to date. Funny, digressive, and heartbreaking, “Episode 9” succeeds because it doesn’t shortchange its self-contained oddball nature, but still operates on the audience’s knowledge of its characters to mine its emotional depth. It’s the first episode of the series that feels like it would come near the end of a standard television season, bringing together some of its disparate elements—Leon’s stoicism, Kurt’s loud mouth, Pete’s illness, Horace’s inner pain—together for some kind of climax. When it’s firing on all cylinders, Horace And Pete constantly reminds you that there’s nothing else around that looks or sounds like it, and somewhere between Tricia’s long monologue, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s cameo appearance, and the Garry Shandling quote that ends the episode, I was reminded of that fact yet again. Like chemistry between two separate people, that’s a rare quality these days.

Stray observations

  • Sylvia’s interview with Gerald (John Sharin) was mostly self-contained, except for this spare line that hangs over the episode: “Most human beings have potential to bring trouble and trauma.”
  • Love discovering Kurt’s occasional hypocrisy each week. For example, he claims that it’s “antiquated bullshit” to claim that men can’t yell at women, but believes in equally-antiquated notions of falling in love, like two people catching each other’s eye in the supermarket.
  • We find out that Leon is sober and they pour him apple juice because he likes sitting in a bar and drinking.
  • Really liked how C.K. never skims the absurd reality of Tricia’s Tourettes even when she’s delivering such a powerful speech.
  • Tom Noonan makes an appearance. He discusses how he was an actor, but quit because he couldn’t fall down on purpose. He also holds Horace back from attacking Kurt.
  • Possibly hardest laugh is Kurt muttering that de Blasio is “big as shit.”
  • “$120 million? That’s enough to educate every fucking kid in Africa!” “Well, they gotta work for it. You can’t just throw money at them.”
  • “Your premise is wrong. We don’t have an army. We have a police force.”
  • “Goddamn this family’s aggressive.”
  • “Where’s Pete?” “Don’t ask that. They punch you in the face here.”
  • “You know, I don’t think anyone ever loved Pete before. He was like a little boy. He was all new. And it felt like enough.”
  • “I may be crazy, and yeah, maybe I see things, but there are things in my life that are real. They really happened! And they’re in my head. They’re in my memory and they’re in my heart, and you can’t take that away from me, Pete!”
  • This is the Garry Shandling quote that closes the episode. May he rest in peace.

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