In its second episode, “Use It,” Barry fully presents itself as the workplace sitcom suggested by the funny little banalities of the pilot. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a contract gun, a gangster, or a cop — everyone’s subject to the same incompetence, pettiness, and awkwardness of the average mid-range retail-paper office. Bill Hader opens up a rich comic vein by contrasting the sensational life-or-death stakes of the crime genre with interdepartmental fussiness and uncomfortable client meetings. For the police hot on the trail of the Chechens, investigative work means hectoring the tech guys to do their job more than it does cracking skulls. When they’re not sawing Fuches’s tongue out of his mouth, the Chechens behave like account men who make a living schmoozing new business. Regardless of the work, work is work is work.
Despite the fact that it requires a great amount of time and effort, acting is not work for Barry. Whereas his nine-to-five requires a buttoned-up professionalism from the already-stoic man, his acting class offers a safe refuge where he can engage with deeply repressed feelings in a safe and controlled capacity. He takes on his first real assignment as a thespian in this half-hour, a charged exchange between Meryl Streep’s nun and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s priest in Doubt. At first, he balks at the proposition — Hader’s delivery of “I’d love to play a priest who’s molesting little boys” is the deadest of deadpan — and even after he acquiesces, he feels completely estranged from the part. He’s nagged by the same doubt of fraudulence that plagues all newbie actors: that they feel silly wearing someone else’s clothes, and what’s worse, that everyone can tell.
Barry gives fair cause for its leading man’s reluctance to give himself over to the process. (“How does this make us better actors?” he asks, as he clumsily mirrors a partner’s movements.) He recognizes that most of the people in his class are nitwits, and the show does too; this episode plays up the ridiculousness inherent to the type of person who signs up for an acting class. At the world’s most tone-deaf wake, one of his classmates busts out the time-honored anti-classic “Webster’s Dictionary defines…” while speaking about their fallen comrade. There’s the obligatory yeller, as in the one person in the class who believes loud acting is good acting. A sufficient amount of non-embarrassing acting reminds Barry of why he wants to do this, but he’s still anxious. He doesn’t want to be one of those people.
It’s a familiar sensation for any actor, and most overcome it through the exact same emotional process that Barry begins at the end of “Use It.” The late Ryan’s father shows up at his son’s service to say a poignant piece about all their relationship meant to him, and for the first time since he began pulling triggers for money, Barry is confronted with the very real ramifications of his actions. He’s overcome by guilt, an unfamiliar churning of the gut that he doesn’t like one bit. He will learn that the only path out of this despair is through it, by fully coming to terms with it by incorporating it into performance. This is the work of an actor, in its purest form, to transmute the tempestuous forces inside yourself into another person. In the best cases, making art can exorcise the self.
As committed to compartmentalization as Barry is, he’ll have to address new dimensions of his own personality sooner rather than later. Sally (Sarah Goldberg) evolves into an intriguing quantity over the course of this episode. Barry’s seemingly one-sided infatuation last week was expected for a man whose psychological development has been at least a little arrested, but after he drops her off at her home, she feints like she doesn’t want him to come up to her place. He rebuffs her, and all of a sudden she’s more interested in him, purring, “So, do you wanna come in and talk about why we shouldn’t do it?”
But Barry knows he’s already put her in danger merely by association. The final shots confirm this. His lifestyle is ill-suited to closeness; investment in another person makes them a weakness, one that can be exploited by a wily enemy. Barry’s learning a lot of lessons these days, most of them about himself or the life he’s chosen to lead. Hopefully he won’t have to learn too many of them the hard way.
• Henry Winkler continues to own this show. Three times, I had to rewind and rewatch “I wish I could say that this was the first time one of my students was gunned down in the street, but it’s not. And as much as it pains me to say it, it is most likely not the last.”
• Let us enjoy autocorrect humor while we still can. Future generations, who will revere Barry as a seminal work of television craft, will have no idea why Fuches accidentally sent “Chechens are looking to kloob us” when text messaging goes fully in-synapse.
• Somehow, the guys trying to murder our hero also provide the comic relief. The little flash of self-awareness from the Chechens when they call their buddy with the creepy apron “too self-consciously scary” and add “it’s just a lot, you know?” is pure gold.
• Attention must be paid to Hader’s outstanding direction in this episode. An industry-side below-the-line worker prior to his break into comedy and a lifelong student of cinema, Hader brings a distinguished visual sensibility that opens up new possibilities for comedy through artful composition alone. Barry’s conversation while mirroring Sally cheekily obscures their mouths when each speaks a line, resulting in some top-flight eyebrow acting. And, of course, the centerpiece of the episode is the out-of-focus background fight between Fuches and the Chechens while an unaware Barry speaks on the phone out on the balcony. Jacques Tati would be proud — a show about work that still indulges in Playtime.