Excepting the noble and underappreciated septic worker, few professionals have to deal with as much regular degradation as the lowly actor. Whether on stage or screen, to pursue a life in the spotlight is to volunteer one’s self for constant humiliation in an exciting variety of forms, and there’s nothing more self-esteem-annihilating than the audition circuit. While awaiting judgement from a cabal of strangers who will forget your name by the moment you walk out of the room, you’re made to sit among people who look peculiarly like yourself, except with stronger jawlines and thicker hair and healthier skin and skinnier waists. (They are, in all likelihood, thinking the same of you, but the pre-audition brain instinctively rejects any comfort this notion might bring.) It’s all designed to remind the Z-list actor that they are utterly expendable, interchangeable, and insignificant in a city teeming with better-looking carbon copies.
Even by the usual audition standards, however, Sally’s tryout in this week’s episode of Barry is particularly brutal. When she gets the news that she’s been requested by name to read for a millennial-geared TV series adaptation of We Bought a Zoo — an idea just stupid enough to sound real — she’s so excited, she curses during her party-princess side gig. From there, she does everything an actor is supposed to do, rehearsing her sides until they’re second nature, finding the beats of her dialogue and shading her character. But the really crushing thing about showbiz is that even when you’ve done everything right and followed every instruction, bad luck and a lack of connections will win out every time.
The second she walks in the room, she instantly recognizes an old castmate from an ill-fated roller-derby show (fate conspired against the title of Bonnie and the Boston Bombers) and realizes something’s wrong. The bad news gets worse from there: Not only did the producers not ask for Sally, they actively lobbied against her and gave her a shot under duress from their star. Already off her game, Sally then learns that she’ll be expected to play the mother of a woman her own age who only scans as younger because she’s spent more time on the treadmill. It’s demoralizing on no fewer than three levels, the final tier of mortification being Sally’s realization that she hasn’t stagnated in her career, but she’s actually moving backward. Who among us could possibly blame her for stumbling out of the casting room in tears?
In the musical Chicago, Roxie Hart explains the symbiotic relationship between performer and audience: “They love me, and I love them for lovin’ me, and they love me for lovin’ them, and we love each other, because neither of us got enough love in our childhoods.” Success as an actor can keep insecurity at bay, but for the unknown masses toiling in one-line bit parts, something else has to stand in for that love. It’s here that Hader’s direction and Duffy Boudreau’s script fall back on the oldest cliché in the book, like a psychological connect-the-dots: Full to bursting with misery and self-loathing, Sally pleads with Barry to come over so she can get her rocks off and feel a bit of temporary inner calm. The episode ends with her sleeping semi-peacefully. Her go-to vice has gotten her through another day.
Barry’s there too, but he’s somewhere else entirely. He’s not aware that, at this juncture, he’s being used as a sex toy capable of dispensing reassuring platitudes. (Worth noting: The Spanish word for “dildo” is consolador, as in from the verb consolar, “to comfort.”) By the time they’re both lying in bed, he’s in a faraway place, perusing a supermarket soup aisle with Sally in a vision of domestic banality. They’re happy together, but it’s all fakery. Set aside the fact that no one has ever felt true happiness while inside a supermarket, he hardly knows Sally. He idealizes this relationship in the same manner that he has the life of an actor, sanding off all the unpleasantries until it’s a clean path to a better life. Sally knows better, however. Love is hard work, and so is booking a network job. All Barry can hear is, “You don’t have to do this.”
Though the more accurate read of his relationship to contract killing might be “You have to not do this.” The episode’s B-plot introduces a foil for Barry in the ancient Chechen assassin Stovka, a warning of the harrowing future that awaits him. A lifetime of causing pain has left Stovka a shell of himself, seeing no cure for his own guilt but suicide. The scenes between Fuches and Stovka hit a rarefied high of gallows humor, but they’re the also the darkest passages that the show has produced yet. Even on the long term, for Barry, the stakes are life and death. He cannot continue making a living killing. It’ll be the end of him — the only question is who will be holding the gun.
• Barry’s favorite soup is “broth,” in keeping with the cipher-like anti-persona of Barry Block. To quote the great Louise Belcher: “If she were a spice, she’d be flour.”
• Henry Winkler’s Gene Cousineau remains an expert-level name-dropper, even when the name isn’t really his to drop: “Patrick Swayze — a true friend, until we had a falling-out and he had it written into his will that I should be barred from his funeral.”
• The Chechens remain enchanted with the little luxuries of life in America. This week? The wonders of private delivery service DHL. “You can track it online — it’s actually really cool!”
• Stovka’s hoarse response of “45” when asked his age is a godly deadpan. Perhaps someone warned him ahead of time that everyone in Los Angeles lies about how old they are?
• The montage of police interviews with the acting-class students reveals that Barry is actually a skilled actor, but he just can’t turn it on or off. When playing it cool in front of the cops, he creates and instantaneously inhabits a character; the only trouble is “man trying not to get arrested” makes much more sense for Barry as a dramatic premise than “person purchasing soup.” When the stakes are right, Barry’s Psyduck-like savant abilities come out of latency.