Larry David has a lot to answer for in the finale of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." (Photo/John Johnson-HBO
Larry David has a lot to answer for in the finale of "Curb Your Enthusiasm." (Photo/John Johnson-HBO

In ‘Curb’ finale, Larry David defends his life — but has he learned his lesson?

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In the final season of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” Larry David’s crime — the one he is on trial for at least — is the mirror image of the one that ended “Seinfeld.”

The infamous 1998 finale, which David has spent much of this season of Curb defending, saw Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer brought in for unwittingly violating statute, Article 223-7 of the Latham County Penal Code, called, after a biblical fashion, the “Good Samaritan Law.” 

In Massachusetts, they encounter a robber hoisting an obese man out of his car. Rather than intervene, Kramer films the incident while Jerry, George and Elaine trade quips about the man’s weight. The sheriff lets these out-of-towners know that failure to assist the man in danger is itself a crime, and soon, characters from their past testify to their collective sociopathy.

In “Curb,” David’s crime was giving water to an elderly Georgian voter in the punishing heat, an accidental act of defiance that challenged the inhumanity of a real-world law, SB 202, which prohibits handing out food or water within 150 feet of a polling place or 25 feet of the line to vote.

But the final accounting is the same in the final episode of “Curb,” called “No Lessons Learned,” itself a likely reference to the “no hugging, no learning” edict of “Seinfeld.”

Much as the Seinfeld quartet was made to answer for their many sins in Manhattan, David’s behavior outside of the Peach State is what is ultimately judged, even as his supporters rally at the courthouse. Character witnesses like his coffee store nemesis Mocha Joe, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Bruce Springsteen paint him as a credible monster. 

They attempt to show a pattern of, in the words of the district attorney, a man who lives “outside the guardrails of human decency.” But while the “Seinfeld” trial reinforced a disregard for others, “Curb” points to a man who regards others far too much. The show was never about nothing, but the decorum and expectations of a very specific and urgent something. 

It’s not Larry who is always wrong — sometimes it’s the law. 

Critic Wesley Morris recently called the show’s dissection of etiquette “Emily Post with boxing gloves.” Truly, though, it shares more with the centuries-old dialectic of Jews kvetching and parsing out an inherited societal playbook on which there is no consensus. It’s Emily Post debating the ontology of an all-you-can-eat buffet with a contrary chavruta (rabbinic study) partner. Within this framework Larry can be, as Morris notes, both “heretic and Talmudist.”

Unsurprisingly, water and sharing it with the thirsty is a concern debated in the Talmud.

Bava Metzia 62a features a baraita — a teaching — about two people walking a desolate path, with one jug of water between them. If both drink from it, both will die — if only one drinks, he will make it to civilization. What to do?

David, in his extreme privilege, would never have to face this situation, but we can hear him make the argument that it would be foolish for two people to die when one could live, much like letting a dog’s final meal of frozen yogurt go to waste. This opinion jibes with that of Rabbi Akiva. 

The anecdote of the water first arose in the parsing of a line from Leviticus: “and your brother should live with you.” This may in fact be the guiding question in all of “Curb,” if not all of Judaism: What does it mean to live among others? For that, he endeavored to provide lessons for us.

The DA (Greg Kinnear!) says David lives outside the law. This isn’t exactly true. Larry lives by his own code, which he regularly claims is consistent with the Golden Rule — which can be found in the Tanakh and in the words of Hillel, explaining all of Torah on one foot: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”

In one notable invocation, in the Season 2 episode “The Doll,” David confronts a woman who told him he couldn’t bring a bottle of water into a movie theater because it’s “the rules.”

He argues that if the roles were reversed — and she had water — she wouldn’t want him policing her. She says it’s basic common courtesy. “That doesn’t supersede the Golden Rule,” David answers. “That’s the big one.”

Larry claims to want to treat others how he would like you to be treated. Unfortunately those ways do not always align with the wishes of normal people.

He may delight in a “freak book” present for Ted Danson — but that doesn’t make it a thoughtful gift. He may prefer to avoid social obligations and favors, but others find great meaning in them. His notion of fairness — Danson should be responsible for fixing the hole in the shirt David gifted him, David should pay for the dry cleaning of a klansman’s robes that he soiled — is skewed in ways that are inconsistent or objectionable. Even in the finale, he objected to being “squealed on” for using his phone on an airplane, and then proceeded to squeal on others.

“Georgia v. David” isn’t the first time David’s soul has faced a reckoning. In one of the show’s false endings he is brought before the True Judge after he dies donating a kidney to Richard Lewis. Iranian mullahs adjudicated whether to lift David’s fatwa, ultimately approving of his past transgressions. In that same season, he faces Judge Judy, arguing for custody of a plant he neglected to water. (In her Solomonic wisdom, Judy rules that the woman who took care of the sick plant is the one who deserves to be its caretaker.)

For almost 25 years the audience, like God during the Days of Awe, has been figuring out exactly which ledger David belongs to — in the Book of Life or Death. 

Larry is no sage or tzadik — though his defense attorney does liken him to Jesus. He does not seek that title. When Ari Melber asked him about the philosophy of his oeuvre on Friday, he demurred, answering, “I’m not an intellectual; I’m just an idiot from Brooklyn.” 

But it is striking that in many instances he has a better grasp of Jewish propriety even than clergy. 

This season a rabbi insisted there was nothing in the Torah to prevent the placement of a defamatory stone in a new plaza at the temple that reads, “Larry David is disrespectful to women.” But the stone — which the same rabbi later adds to, writing how David is a shanda — breaks a fundamental taboo of Lashon Hara. It is a grave sin that Larry knows intuitively, even if he couldn’t name it.

And indeed it is Lashon Hara of character witnesses that undoes him, though, in the context of the court, it adheres to a commandment. No one is bearing false witness for all of Larry’s indiscretions, and yet, in the grand drama that is David’s picayune concerns, their testimony recalls the words of a different Jewish sage at the Sermon on the Mount: Judge not lest ye be judged. Few showing up to court to point a finger at Larry — whose behavior in the dock is notably monstrous — are blameless. (Yes, even Vindman was at fault for using David’s master bathroom, from where he overheard David’s far-from-perfect call.)

It is in the prophetic tradition, of hard truths and difficult personalities, that David has made a most strident case for a world that needs righting. Even in the final moments he scolds Susie for lifting the window shade on an airplane, exposing her row-mates to an unwanted glare. Though he may not have learned his lesson, in 12 seasons David’s ways have served to instruct as well as to implicate. For that, and maybe that alone, is he guilty.

Well, that and a subpar “Seinfeld” finale, now perhaps finally redeemed.

This article was originally published on the Forward.

PJ Grisar
PJ Grisar

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].