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We got an hour-long installment of Louie this week, and C.K. came up with just the story to fill it. Afghanistan served as the setting in what turned out to be a humorous and moving episode following Louie on the first leg of a USO tour. “Duckling” showed that sometimes the good intentions of children can be enough to overcome any differences, and scored plenty of laughs while doing it.
Even before Louie headed off, “Duckling” was making me glad the episode had a whole hour to play with. It kicked off with the usual stand up segment, but Louie seemed more open and relaxed than he normally does; just riffing with the audience instead of doing a set. And the very child friendly joke about the lion and the giraffe was a fitting opening to an episode that was actually inspired by an idea from one of C.K.'s real-life daughters. The classic over-explanation of the joke actually got a bigger laugh though. Dolores(from “Blueberries”) showing up again to give Louie the evil eye in the first scene also didn't go unappreciated. Louie's last night before heading out can't just be a quiet evening with his girls though. So after a few more shots of him wrangling ducklings and putting the girls to sleep, while having to emphatically deny Jane's request to keep one of them(“Dude, no!”), you can't knock Louie for needing a smoke break. He's just a 43 year-old man, with a secret stash of cigarettes and a bathtub full of baby ducks. Who better to entertain the troops?
To say Louie looked like a duck out of water in the helmet and flack jacket is probably too easy, but that's certainly what he was going for in jumping from the shot of the wading ducklings, to him clinging to the inside of a Black Hawk helicopter. Even better was his one word summation of his surroundings at the base; a simple F-bomb does just about cover how most of us civilians would be feeling right about then. Now the episode just wouldn't have been called “Duckling” if the little guys all stayed back in Manhattan, and it wouldn't be Louie without some weird tangent involved in his already larger-than-life adventure. Lilly's note was sweet, but heartwarming can't compete with hilarity, and Louie's reaction to the boxed up duckling ended up being much more memorable, “Holy s*** on the tits of a dog!” Louie's fellow entertainers also got a laugh, especially the introduction of Keni Thomas, the former Army Ranger and current country singer who was playing himself. Thomas packing his own heat convinces Louie to bring the little stowaway around with him – because as anyone will tell you; if you don't have a pistol, a duck is the next best thing.
Louie's performance at the base was as comical as his normal standup routines, which is impressive considering the circumstances. Whoever organized the lineup should have their head examined(perhaps it was the emcee played by comic Todd Glass, who has appeared in a bit role on the series before). Thomas comes out first to depress the hell out of everyone with a war song, next the cheerleaders get the guys frisky with their number, and then Louie is expected to make the soldiers laugh? Talk about FUBAR. Louie rolls with it though, and as I said, does better than ever would be expected. Seeing how much these soldiers really appreciate having them there was a touching scene to follow up the laughter(the responses of “Sir” hit harder than anything else for some reason). But the best part of the episode was still to come with Louie's trip out to Camp Timothy.(Which was likely dubbed that after Tim Hetherington, the photojournalist who was killed in Libya earlier this year, and to whom the episode is dedicated.)
The fear of the awkwardness that may ensue not withstanding, you couldn't help but laugh at the irony of Louie traveling halfway across the world only to end up in a cramped, smelly venue, just like in New York. Louie adapts instantly though, realizing that this close-knit pack of alpha males would pounce on any of his usual self-deprecation. Insult comedy isn't foreign to Louie either, it's just not something he relies on often. He can fall into it easily when he needs to though(“I don't know you either, dickface.”). At least this time he only had to follow another one of Thomas' sad numbers and not get the guy's minds off the cheerleader's pom-poms.(I'm not a fan of country music, but if you look at his past, you'll see Keni Thomas is one of the few who can justifiably sing about the life of a solider. He just needs to work on his timing.) You have to respect that these men haven't seen any of the creature comforts we take for granted every minute of the day, but are still more receptive to laughing and generally being entertained than many of the jaded audiences Louie plays for back home. Of course, just as Louie is forgetting his fears with a soccer game, in fact forgetting about leaving all together, is when the helicopter returns to pick them up. The water that was in Louie and Kenni's eye's after saying their goodbyes seemed very genuine on both their parts.
The Black Hawk's emergency landing effectively cutoff the waterworks, and if it didn't, the heated standoff certainly did. I've seen plenty of Chekhov's Guns in my days spent in front of a television(just last year The Walking Dead gave us a season long one with a grenade), but a Chekhov's Gun with a duckling has to be a first. It did the trick though, as the broad appeal of physical humor is only outweighed by everyone's love of laughing at Louie. Whether Afghan or American, anyone can appreciate watching a man slathered in sunblock scrabble after a duckling - especially when the alternative was bloodshed. And though the moment was a little sappy(as were other parts of the episode), Louie has more than earned the right to a little sentimentality; if only for how often it has cut to the bone in the past by portraying real, raw emotion. You also have to consider that C.K.'s children were likely more on his mind with this episode than any other, because as mentioned, his youngest, Mary Louise, apparently came up with the original concept. And even someone as cynical as me couldn't help but feel a little choked up watching Louie leave the life-saving duckling in the hands of the young girl; especially after, for the second time of the day, his ride shows up just when he had forgotten he was waiting for one. In an episode with several brilliant subtle touches, Louie waving off the Kevlar before boarding the Black Hawk was one of the best. He may not have his duck with him anymore, but it's clear Louie's fears aren't going to dampen the rest of his USO tour.
“Duckling” may not have have reached into our psyches to expose something we didn't want to know about ourselves. It may not have had the single biggest laughs of any episode. It may not have even had the greatest soundtrack. But none of that stopped it from being one of Louie's best episodes to date.