By this time, you’ve probably read, tweeted about, and sorted through no shortage of confrontational reaction pieces on Maureen Dowd’s essay on getting so high she thought she was dead. A collective of Internet voices pointed out why marijuana was not the culprit of Dowd’s existential eruption but a mixture of inexperience and poor planning. Dozens leapt to the defense of pot in the wake of what they considered an unjust maligning of their dear friend, following the form of so many television programs and films of the past two decades that have worked to glorify recreational use of the drug after years of criminal stigma. In the sociopolitical spectrum, Dowd represented the closing of that cycle: a rebuttal to all the rebuttals. And in the aforementioned spectrum of pop culture, we have Louie doing the same. Or so it might seem.
This week’s episode of the often surreal comedy/drama takes the form of a 90-minute mini-movie, shafting the show’s usual subversion of structure, stories, characters, and basic sentiments we’re used to seeing on air in favor of a far more conventional, soft-spoken anecdote about a 13-year-old boy’s first experiences with pot. The extended flashback about the dawn of Louie’s marijuana use, which makes up the bulk of the episode, is inspired when Louie catches 12-year-old Lily smoking a joint with a few kids her age. His nerves explode as he wrangles her away from the pack, plops her down by a nearby tree, scolds her for this behavior, threatens to inform her mother, takes her to get a burger, and then drives her home silently… throughout the mission, Louie doesn’t seem to have a clue about how to handle this sort of thing. And that’s probably because, as we learn from a flashback, nobody really knew how to handle it when he did the same thing at her age.
We meet Louie (Devin Druid, who we’ll forgive for a deficit of freckles) in his last year of junior high school. The young man, pre-first toke, is warm and loving to his mother, attentive in school, and an all around good fella. With the knowledge of where this episode is setting to go, there’s the inescapable ambiance of propaganda here — such a good kid torn asunder by the clutches of recreational drugs: Louie does lose his grip quite a bit once partaking in the bounties of weed. He becomes lazy, tired, edgy, and resorts at his lowest point to stealing a handful of scales from his school’s chemistry department (and his beloved teacher, played by Skipp Sudduth and named ostensibly for Philip Seymour Hoffman, to whom the episode is dedicated) for trade with his shifty drug dealer (maybe my favorite Jeremy Renner performance yet).
On paper, it does seem over the top, and the episode veers in that direction quite a few times, barely avoiding the after school special state of being. But once “In the Woods” grabs hold of the characters around Louie, like his mom, friends, friends’ families, teacher, principal, guidance counselor, drug dealer, and long absent father (played by F. Murray Abraham in his third role on the show, the previous being Louie’s Uncle Excelsior), it proves itself as an episode not about marijuana, but about the way people react to marijuana.
Louie’s friends react to the idea of starting a life with pot with hungry glee. His dorky pal thinks hedonistically, encouraging Louie to get in the drug selling game, while a “wrong side of the tracks” new friend/former bully who hitches his wagon to Louie in light of his latest score of hash, warns against the dangers of dealing, and dealing with dealers. Adults around these kids have adverse reactions: they respond with hostility (the bully’s older brother, lamenting this waste of time and money as their mother succumbs to illness), legal threats (Louie’s principal, suspecting him of theft of the school’s property), moral condemnation (Louie’s father, rearing his head for the first time in a month to express his distaste for Louie and his choices), and compassion (a guidance counselor who caps the episode with reasonable theories about Louie self-medicating to overcome his parents’ divorce). But the one that really hits, the one that veers closest to Louie’s own befuddled reaction: his mom, played once again by Amy Landecker (and quite astoundingly), who is simply hurt.
She is hurt over the thought of losing her son: his purity and innocence. And she, with more burdens upon her than adult Louie, is torn to accusing him of abandoning her and himself. Of becoming selfish, vacant, and boring (we recall just last week, Dr. Charles Grodin said the very same thing of Louie… but it didn’t sting quite as much then). Louie recoils immediately after accusing Lily of leaving behind her childhood for good, knowing that experimentation, while indicative of an ushering in of the new, does not necessitate a deletion of the old. Still, he’s afraid to lose his girl to things she can’t handle, and more inevitably, adulthood altogether. And rightfully so — considering the Louie we know from the show’s admittedly loose modern day canon, he has never been the same since “growing up.” He might miss his old self. And just like his mom missed him when he began to change, he’ll miss Lily as she does.
But as “In the Woods” shows us, this doesn’t mean that Louie is ruined; that’s where it differs from the propaganda of health class specials that we’re used to, despite mimicking them in tone (probably with intention). Louie maintains integrity in the face of fear throughout his plethora of mistakes. He stands up for his bullied friend, dissuades from the use of violence, owns up to his crimes, and ultimately reconciles with his mom. Marijuana didn’t make him worse, it was just a bridge to him becoming older. By the end of “In the Woods,” Louie was the kind of person who’d have to fix his mistakes rather than never make them in the first place.
The episode is a ways away from the glorification of pot that we’ve seen in most adult television shows and movies of late. After years of demonization, Judd Apatow and his ilk took the drug back to showcase how harmless and fun it can be. And it can be both of those things. But just like any other new experience at the onset of teen- and adulthood, it can also be a problem. More important than the drug itself is the way people react to it… and not just the users.