I’m glad that I watched this series. It was far from easy, and its ending was as painful as anything I have seen on television in my life. I’d like to thank again Pete L-M for suggesting this. I will almost certainly never watch this again in my life: there are some experiences that do not need to be refreshed and this ten part story, that refused anything easy, is one of them.
The final episode divided itself into two. The first half, the First Act, was an extended flashback, set forty years ago. Louis CK played Horace Wachtel VII, and Edie Falco his wife, Maryanne, Steve Buscemi played the Pete who we would meet at the other end as Uncle Pete.
The action was set around the day Maryanne left, taking with her Sylvie and Horace, but leaving Pete: Pete, Horace’s brother but not her son, Pete, tall, athletic, a source of lightly concealed pride to his otherwise piece-a-shit real Dad: Pete who, in the middle of the night had got out of bed to fill all the glasses in the above-the-bar apartment with water, because it had to be done before sunrise: Pete who was left, offstage, screaming because his perceived Dad was beating him.
It was another world, and God help me, it was horrible. It was brutish and nasty, a place of hatred and anger, of viciousness between people. I lived in that time, that year, I turned twenty-one in its November, I never came anywhere near a world like this New York abyss, this Hell-like place, but there wasn’t a second of it that was wrong, that was an exaggeration or a condensation. At least I have lived long enough to leave that world behind, or to have had that world recede for there are signs it may be returning, in a week where one Presidential candidate advocated the shooting of the other if she should win.
(Apart from anything else, it was truly fucking stupid because the Democrats would still have the White House and the Republicans would be out in the cold, so it would be completely ineffectual too).
And Horace VII was an absolute bastard, a total and utter twat. A petty tyrant, a wife-beater, a child-beater, the enforcer of his will because without it he would disappear up his own fundament. Horace VII made his wife and kids’ lives miserable because he existed on the sense of senseless, aimless power it gave him. Fucking bastard, fucking waste of space. No wonder Horace VIII, Pete and Sylvie became who they’ve been these past nine episodes.
And it was immensely instructive to be so forcefully reminded of the difference in ages between these siblings. Horace has been the leader throughout, for all his ineffectuality, with Pete dependent upon him, and Sylvie the outsider. But as kids, I was reminded that these roles and the reversal of their ages. Little Horace, a small, pudgy kid, humiliated by Uncle Pete over the pee-pee baseball incident in front of the whole bar. Athletic, handsome Pete, the elder brother, the icon of potential taking care of his younger friend, so much with-it until that moment of OCD obsession.
And Sylvia, eldest of all, teenager, more than teenager, already sexually active, most directly aggressive because she’s had it longer, had it hard, had Horace VII’s incapacity with women beaten against her for more years, the seeds not merely sewn but growing strong and true, yet crippled.
This young trio were perfectly cast. They were what their adult avatars had been, their adult forms were there in them.
And so to the end of the story. How much of an end it would be was hard to see. This series has ignored convention, so a non-ending was perfectly possible. It’s Easter tomorrow, Sylvia’s got out the old, old decorations but will Horace have them put up? The answer’s no. Horace is not for doing anything, not even that.
But he’s going to have to do something. Pete’s gone, and Sylvia’s going, leaving on Monday with Harold, leaving the bar, New York, everything that reminds her of her life and she wants Horace to do something. Anything. She’s not shown it, but he is her brother, she does love him, and he’s wasted all his life so far. She’s survived the expectation of death and is now going to live. Please, please, please let Horace do something. Let him live. Not just exist.
Horace has no idea what to do. We look at him and we cannot see him changing. He’s dead inside because Sylvia’s right, he has never really been alive inside. Horace won’t act because he can’t act. He can only react, and even then in the most minimalist way possible.
Then Roger, the cop, enters the bar. He tells Horace and Sylvia that there is not the remotest trace of Pete, that after a massive manhunt, there is nothing whatever. It’s being called off. If nothing has been found after so much time, so many men, there is nothing to find. Pete’s gone. Gone. It takes ages to force the word out but Pete is dead.
Sylvia takes it calmly, practically. Horace can’t. He tries to strike back, to blame Roger for giving up. He doesn’t want to give up because to give up is to force an action upon him, to acknowledge a change.
Into this comes Mara. She’s an applicant for the Waitress Wanted. She begins with a hug for the seated Horace. Mara’s a talker, bright, positive, upbeat. She’s a force of nature, interviewing herself for Horace. She’s been around, forever on the go. She’s everything this series hasn’t been, yet you can see her in it. Amy Sedaris, in what is all but a monologue, makes her into the kind of force that would destroy the dark, depressed world of ‘Horace and Pete’ has been simply by not noticing it. She’s a window, a chance, a possibility. She makes Horace smile, she invites him to this party she’s going to in Chicago, she hugs him standing up as she leaves: see you tomorrow, when she starts.
The effect is astounding. Mara’s impact has allowed Horace to accept that Pete is dead, that he will never come back. And in that moment, Pete returns. I had tears in my eyes. He was bedraggled, grubby, windblown, but he was smiling. Smiling ruefully, smiling affectionately. Smiling to be home. Smiling…
Horace welcomes him joyfully. Sylvia is stunned but glad. Horace leads him to the bar, to a stool. Pete’s still smiling. He hasn’t said anything. There’s a sharp knife on the bar: Sylvia has been cutting limes, for gins. Pete picks it up, steps away. Horace goes towards him, Sylvia warns him, Pete’s turned, the blade invisible. Then the stage lights go out, and Sylvia screams.
It might have ended there. No-one would have argued if it had ended there. Instead though, the lights faded up. The bar was empty, closed, boxes all about. Sylvia’s supervising their removal, dispassionately. Harold is the Greek Chorus, telling us that ‘Horace and Pete’ was open for one hundred years, run by Horace and Pete, brothers. But then Pete killed Horace and had to go aware somewhere. No more than that.
Sylvia’s still leaving. She’s abandoning the bar, leaving it behind. It no longer encloses her and she refuses to concern herself with it. Harold goes out to the van, but as he does a young man comes in. He’s round-faced, with one of those ineffectual fringe beards, big glasses, baseball cap, jacket over checked shirt. Sylvia tells him they’re closed but that’s not why he’s here. He’s never met her before but she’s his aunt. He’s Horace Wachtell XI. He never knew his Dad and he wants to ask Sylvia what he was like.
At first she’s Sylvia, and caustic. Horace XI could have come here any day, his Dad was always here. It’s a cruel riposte, but I for one cannot fault her for it. From his appearance alone, Horace XI spells hapless, hopeless loser in big red letters. He’s too late, he has only come because his Dad is dead, and it’s on him, and if it weighs him down for the rest of his life, it fucking well should. It’s on both. It’s ever just you alone.
Sylvia starts to explain but what can she say? She can’t praise Horace, can’t build him up. He was nothing and nobody and Sylvia least of all is going to pretend he was special in any way when he wasn’t, but her voice starts to catch and she apologises and it comes again and she apologises again and then it’s just a case of sitting doubled over in a chair and crying for loss, loss of everything.
Which is where we leave Horace and Pete, and I’m crying too, because though classical tragedy is defined as the fall of a great one from power and grace, we in these twentieth and twenty-first centuries have learned that tragedy is not exclusively reserved for the rich and powerful, and that we all of us are surrounded by it and we are just as helpless in the face of it as the next man or woman.
Louis CK went massively into debt to fund this experiment, yet one more thing for which he should be applauded. He’s stated that that rules out a season 2, but he’s also got ideas for it, though I personally cannot see how there is anything left on which a further extension of the story could be built, and I don’t want this series to be marred by anything that cannot stand alongside it on the ground that it and it alone occupies.
Horace and Pete was unique. For me, that’s enough.