After the giddily happy-sad ending of the ambitious "Late Night" arc that took up the previous three episodes of "Louie," it was inevitable that last night's actual season finale, "New Year's Eve," felt a little anticlimactic. It even started at what for so many has to be the year's most deflating moment -- Christmas after the presents are opened. Louis (Louis C.K.) watches his daughters tear into their gifts as he hunches wearily over his coffee, flashing back as he does to all the trouble and work he put into getting and wrapping them, including a hilarious sequence in which he tries to fix the fallen-out eyes of the porcelain doll he bought for Lilly (Hadley Delany) by sawing open the head and later fixing the paint with melted crayons.
Despite Christmas lacking the magic for grown-up Louie that it has for his little girls, it's still a holiday he gets to spend with his family -- until his ex-wife Janet (Susan Kelechi Watson) arrives with her husband to take the kids on a trip abroad, leaving Louie to reveal that the rest of his plans for the holidays involve sleeping a lot.
"Louie" has explored how its main character quickly goes feral when his children are away for an extended period of time -- in "Dogpound," back in season one, he spends a few days eating only pizza and ice cream and then smokes pot with his neighbor and adopts a dog that immediately dies. But Louis' insistence here on throwing the Christmas tree out the window and going back to bed in the afternoon doesn't feel like indulgence, it feels like defeat, like he actually has no life aside from his work and kids, and that all he intends to do with the free time is wait it out. Not everyone's willing to leave Louie all by himself ("Do you have to say 'all'? Can't i just be 'by myself'?"), and Amy Poehler calls in as yet another of Louie's siblings to invite him down to Mexico with her family to visit their grandmother for New Year's. It sounds appealing enough, and they've even bought him a ticket, but Louie resists until he comes across a new broadcast on TV about how many people commit suicide when alone on the holidays.
The fear that life is slipping away, that the time you have to find love, connection and meaningful experiences is all too easy to waste on things that are merely comfortable or easy, has been a constant presence on this year of the show. This episode confronts it directly by having Louie dream about his grown-up daughters meeting for coffee and talking about how their sad father just sits at home alone eating cookies, probably having damaged them for all future relationships. It's a dread that pops up in the amusingly unceremonious way in which the show reintroduces and then disposes with Liz (Parker Posey), who Louie runs into on the bus to the airport and who immediately has some catastrophic illness and has to be taken to the hospital, where she dies right as the clock strikes midnight. Louie isn't going to be rescued by something so straightforward as meeting the woman of his dreams -- one of the best things about this season has been the way in which the character has slowly come to grips with the fact that he has to take charge of his own life and to put himself in situations, professionally and personally, in which he might not feel at ease.
And he doesn't immediately feel at ease in China, after hopping a plane to Beijing in one of the episode's many dreamlike turns in order to visit the Yangtze River, inspired by the children's book "The Story about Ping" that he read with his daughters earlier. He wanders the streets of the city asking people where he can find the Yangtze and has a tough time -- not just because he doesn't speak Mandarin, but also because the Yangtze doesn't run through Beijing. When someone does finally take him to river, it's a trickle through a field, not the kind of thing you feel good about having traveled thousands of miles to see -- but then a family nearby takes him in, entertained to have a foreigner at the table, and Louie starts his year joking with these cheery strangers, sharing food and laughs and not giving a damn that he doesnt understand a word they've saying.
This season of "Louie" reached further and aimed higher than the show has in its first two years, and the result has been some misses and uneven efforts like "New Year's Eve" alongside the hits of "Miami" and the "Daddy's Girlfriend" and "Late Night" arcs. And it's a better show for these moments, one that, like its title character, is putting a considerable effort into moving forward and growing. Louie may not be the guy he used to be, with the full head of hair on the flashback comedy special, but he's still cautiously open to new things, to evolving and seeking out happiness.
And in its third year, "Louie" may be the only show in television exploring that process in an individual, one that allows that journey to involve love, family and work, but doesn't allow it to be dependent on any one of those. In its hero's solitary journey, "Louie" finds a bumbling kind of grace.