A lot of television casts are Caucasian by default. Horace and Pete, the 10-episode web series produced, written, and directed by Louis C.K., is the rare show actually about whiteness. It’s specifically built to probe the myth of the close-knit, tradition-bound Irish Catholic Brooklyn family. The series watches—without wavering—as this structure finally destroys itself. This is a story about the end of white dominance in America.
Horace and Pete’s looks like the combined apotheosis of every other pop culture bar you’ve ever seen. Historically, television has been a hangout medium, with its manifold characters popping into one’s home on a weekly basis. Many TV series had their own nexus for these characters, whether a bar or a coffee shop or a diner. Horace and Pete’s is Cheers and Monk’s and Central Perk and Moe’s and a thousand other hubs of chit-chat and quips and will-they-or-won’t-they and other assorted shenanigans. The brown-green palette and vaguely Irish aesthetic is comfortably familiar in its purposeful non-specificity.
There’s one major difference: No one can take a break from all their worries here. Horace and Pete turns the friendly neighborhood bar, the spot where TV says you can call “base” in the hellish tag of everyday life, into the crucible of its inhabitants’ suffering. In the case of the proprietors, it’s a large cause of everyday suffering. The bar is 100 years old and the final bulwark against gentrification in its Brooklyn neighborhood. But its status as a local institution is a straightjacket, not an asset.
The main players are members of the Wittel family, which established and has always run the bar. Horace (the eighth of his name, played by C.K.) is estranged from his children, while Pete (Steve Buscemi) has none. There’s nobody willing to pick up this baton. Horace’s sister Sylvia (Edie Falco), who left Brooklyn and never looked back, considers this a good thing, and urges Horace and Pete to join her in cashing in on urban renewal and get $6 million for the place. The chief opposition comes from the “former” Pete (Alan Alda), Horace and Sylvia’s uncle and Pete’s father. (Until the last leg of the first episode, everyone always has been under the impression that Pete is Horace and Sylvia’s brother. Uncle Pete sets the record straight with frightening nonchalance.)
Uncle Pete is a monster — unpleasant, cruel, and every kind of prejudicial -ist one could think of. He and his brother, the late Horace VII, beat (figuratively and literally) the current generation into the sorry shape they’re in today: Horace’s inability to improve his life or get close to anyone, Sylvia’s toxic bitterness, and Pete’s crippling mental illness. He’s the series’ personification of tradition, an emblem of straight white male hegemony pathetically lashing out against his mounting irrelevance.
As the show unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that the Wittels have experienced little beyond incessant spousal and child abuse in the bar’s century of existence. It’s an archetypal vision of patriarchal oppression and pressure to conform, rendered harrowingly real by the naturalistic acting and coldly understated camera. Many critics have mentioned how the show consciously apes the style of Playhouse 90 productions, shot with a multi-camera setup from a stage perspective. Its emotional rawness and immediacy aside, it also intensifies the atmosphere of old-fashionedness. Presenting these characters via a format from the ‘50s highlights how they’re trapped by the attitudes of the ‘50s.
Multiple people recite the refrain of “Sometimes they’re brothers and sometimes they’re cousins, but there’s always been a Horace and there’s always been a Pete running this place,” but what could be quaint tradition later sounds like the judgment of Cain. Each succession of Horaces and Petes have recreated themselves within their juniors. It’s samsara with a tang of Budweiser in the air.
This is made especially clear in the first half of the final episode, an extended flashback to 1976. C.K. plays Horace VII, Buscemi plays a younger version of Uncle Pete, and Falco plays Horace and Sylvia’s mother Marianne. Always a Horace. Always a Pete. Always women who suffer. Even the political arguments among the bar’s patrons sound the same, though they’re about Ford and Carter instead of Trump. The Wittels could have abused one another until the end of time, but the greater shifts in society have made it impossible for the wheel to turn much longer. This is the thrust of the plot, concentrated on the bar’s impending demise in the present, but the ruinous seed is planted in that flashback. Marianne defies her world and leaves Horace VII, taking young Horace and Sylvia with her.
Horace later returned as an adult, and so, however unwillingly, does Sylvia. The story pivots on Uncle Pete’s suicide, which takes place between the fourth and fifth episodes and sets in motion the end of the show’s “first act” and the beginning of its second. With him gone, Horace, Pete, and Sylvia are finally clear to do whatever the hell they want with the bar. Ultimately, they can only compromise on continuing to run things mostly the same as always, with minor adjustments. Misery creates its own company, and science has shown that cycles of intergenerational unhappiness are more than an attractively potent literary device. People often find it difficult to imagine life outside of what they know — or if they can, it’s too scary or intimidating to aim for. “Because it’s what’s always been done” is the worst reason for doing something, but it can be weirdly comforting. It’s not bad; it’s how things are supposed to be. If you’re disgruntled, then you suck it up. If that status quo is good to you, then it behooves you to impress it upon the youth. This is why things do not change. This is how things do not change.
But they do regardless, and the tragedy of Horace and Pete is that its characters missed out on what all the changes in culture could have offered them. They suffer because they couldn’t fit into the old molds society cast for them. Horace was sensitive and timid, and ruthlessly mocked and beaten by his elders for it. Pete’s mental instability, met with punches instead of treatment, rotted him from an athletic youth to a haggard wreck of a man. Sylvia was constantly stifled for being, well, a woman. The old idea of proper manhood and womanhood is on its way out the door, but they’re already locked out. A parade of young people who are free to be openly gay or “hipstery” or trans or to do whatever they want with their lives get to come and go, chuckling at Uncle Pete’s archaic worldview. He can only hurt himself now, but the damage is already done to his family. With the poles of culture shifted, he’s left bewildered by everything from abortion to cunnilingus (which he finds revolting — why would one ever “Put yourself beneath a woman?”).
There’s no place for those who cannot evolve, and in a hostile environment, they’re doomed to self-destruct before they can ensure the continuation of their species. Uncle Pete kills himself without even the dignity of ceremony from the show. Pete succumbs to his disease after his medication is discontinued. After a chance encounter with a friendly stranger (one-scene wonder Amy Sedaris), Horace thinks he knows a way forward. But then the shell of Pete, looking at Horace and seeing only their father (an easy mistake — remember, same actor), murders him with a lime knife.
Only Sylvia, who put as much distance between herself and Horace and Pete’s as possible, survives. When asked about Horace, she bleakly eulogizes him as, “nothing, really. He was no kind of man. He was not particularly funny or smart or kind or … Y’know, he was just some guy.” Anonymized by how white supremacy’s assumed greatness instead leads too many men to lifelong mediocrity. Yet she breaks her series-long unflappability and lets out ragged, uncontrollable sobs. No kind of man is still a person. Still her brother.
Horace and Pete doesn’t ask for sympathy for the dismal white men hidebound by tradition. It considers empathy — “Find the place where it hurts and be kind to it” — but doesn’t ask for that, either. The most it asks for is pity. Pity for people rendered miserable by the rules they themselves enforce. A conversation in the first episode sees a conservative and a liberal attempt to find common ground by explaining to one another why they believe what they do. In the last episode, a barfly suggests that Donald Trump, trying to drag us into the grave with the ‘50s, represents the place where America hurts. Sylvia may bid Horace and Pete’s a deserved good riddance, but she can’t help but weep for it. It’s a part of her, no matter how unfortunate that is. Don Draper once sagely pitched to us that “nostalgia” in its Greek root literally means “a pain from an old wound.”
He wasn’t quite correct. It means “the pain from returning home.”