The whole “those who can’t do, teach” adage presents a conundrum, most clearly articulated where acting is concerned: If a guy’s halfway decent on camera, what’s he doing at a dumpy performance space yelling at a bunch of amateurs instead of traipsing off to shoot in some remote country? Anyone with the availability to teach acting necessarily lacks the success to be qualified for that very job. You’ve got to be just competent enough to convince your charges that you know what you’re doing, and yet not so competent that you could actually be doing it.
The living embodiment of this brain twister is Gene Cousineau, who claims the spotlight this week with a surprisingly intense, layered turn from Henry Winkler. Not unlike Barry, passing for a normal guy in his violent everyday life, Gene os adept at assuming a persona. This episode casts him as two men, one pathetic and ground down by a career of one-line gigs, the other commanding and seductive. Winkler convincingly inhabits both the beta and alpha positions, showing the audience the mushy innards behind the chest he puffs out in class or around women. Gene has less control over how he turns this on and off, however. His problem is not that he’s a bad actor, but that he can’t do it on command.
There are few words more humbling than “Gene M. Cousineau, reading for ‘Man in Back of Line,’ self-managed.” The episode joins Gene at an audition where everyone knows his name, a graceful writerly shorthand for untold years of cycling in and out of this same office. It’s a nothing part, enough words to number on fingers, but he enters with the immaculate professionalism of a seasoned veteran. He knows what he’s doing, standing up straight before the camera as he tells them that he’s going to give them two options. But good acting isn’t about making strong eye contact or wearing a memorable scarf or getting a chuckle out of the casting director. It’s about emotional honesty, and on his second go of this simple line-read, Gene sounds like a person doing an impression of a person.
His most comfortable stage is neither the proscenium nor the closed set, but rather a secluded booth at upscale restaurant Stella Luna. When he parleys a call from Detective Moss into an ambush-date, she expectedly bristles at his advances. But here, Gene follows his own advice to greater success: He commits to his bit and (as the episode title states) to himself, sinking himself so deep into the lounge-lizard lothario persona that she starts to believe it as well. With a hypnotic cadence to his breathy, husky voice, he rather perceptively recognizes her loneliness and offers a preferable (barely so, but preferable all the same) alternative. He reveals the corny charm behind his incorrigible flirtatiousness, communicating with his mesmerizing monologue that all he wants is to have someone to spoil. To Detective Moss, that doesn’t sound so bad, and hey, the guy’s friends with Judd Hirsch. He’s sold her.
The relatively innocent timbre of Gene’s persistent flirting forms a harsh, troubling contrast with the other sexually charged interaction between a man and woman in this week’s episode. Sally continues to magnetize misfortune like the main character of a Romanian drama, outdoing last week’s audition humiliation by several miles. The agent who’s held off on officially adding Sally to his roster comes out and straightforwardly says he’s trying to decide whether to sign her or fuck her. He plays it off as a joke after she reacts to his blunt proposition with visible horror, but that doesn’t stop him from vengefully torpedoing an audition and freezing her out of the industry completely. She copes in her usual way, by breaking down and then bedding the nearest normal man in her immediate vicinity.
Sarah Goldberg has been doing fine work this season so far, and yet it often feels in spite of the material she’s been given. That Sally will eventually bear a more major significance to Barry’s life than an unwilling non-girlfriend seems clear – my fear is that she’ll be made a casualty of his lies, the probability of which seems more likely with this new thug muscling his way into Barry’s operation – but until that’s specified, the show is putting her through hell for no apparent reason. Add to this the fact that Sally is kind of a shitty person, as amply evidenced by her icy brush-off the morning after she and Barry knock boots, and the character starts to look muddled. We watch her get subjected to gross sexual harassment, then spurn a thoughtful if miscalculated gift from poor, confused Barry, only to cuckold him with Pinocchio’s body Zach Burroughs. The show hasn’t dug deep enough into her psychology to make these actions square up with one another, or to make their failure to square up feel deliberate.
As of right now, Sally’s primary utility is to provide a goal for Barry to fixate on, throwing his emotionally stunted development into sharper relief. She’s a Josh Chan-type for him, a vessel into which he can place his hopes for a stabler, more loving future, irrespective of the reality of the situation. To continue the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend comparison, a pairing that seems more natural the longer you think about it (see: California as shining alternative to day-to-day drudgery, even in its least glamorous form), Barry shares Rebecca Bunch’s habit of fixating on little phrases out of context and letting them grow into signs from the universe. In CXG, Rebecca lets a rather existential-sounding butter advertisement unlace her sense of being on a Manhattan street corner; this week’s episode begins with Barry smiling with contentment after Sally tells him, “And now you exist.” She’s talking about having created a Facebook for him, but he takes her statement on more general terms. Sally provides a physical extension for Barry’s concept of acting, something he doesn’t quite understand but still believes can save his soul. The cold, sobering answer to this misplaced hope is right there in the same episode, unfortunately. A life outside killing is much more “guy in line” than Glengarry.
• Barry’s matter-of-fact explanation for his dandy little outfit is so perfectly guileless: “I went to J. Crew, and this was on the mannequin.”
• In Barry’s fantasies of Los Angeles success, he looks about 30 percent douchier (something about the necklace), and he’s best friends with Jon Hamm. They grill together!
• For someone so good on his feet, you’d think Barry would have a better explanation than “it’s a very well-managed company” when questioned about how his auto parts sales bring in so much cash.
• Though Winkler properly owns this episode, Hader does save the best bit for himself. Barry’s unwitting reinterpretation of Alec Baldwin’s immortal Glengarry Glen Ross speech converts all the machismo and bluster to apprehensive politeness. He manages to bring that “just circling back!” email you sent to your boss at 4:50 p.m. on a Friday fully to life.