Q: Who is the greatest acting coach of all time? A: It’s not Konstantin Stanislavski, and it’s not Sanford Meisner. I am of course referring to Steve Guttenberg in the capacity of his guest appearance on Party Down, where he plays a congenial version of himself prone to dispensing pearls of thespian wisdom to cater-waiter nobodies. His most favored mantra, repeated both during an impromptu table read and when deciding to nude up before entering a hot tub: “No risk, no reward!”
That expression paraphrases a major Gene Cousineau lesson: “Make the unsafe choice,” an adage that lent the third episode of Barry its title and one that Barry himself has taken to heart. Performing memorably is all about making these daring choices. It’s Gloria Swanson bugging her eyes out and talking like the villain of a radio play, it’s Heath Ledger sticking his words in his throat as a symbol for his cowboy repression, it’s Robert De Niro whittling his body down to sinews to add another layer of alienation to a fringe lunatic. Barry took a real-life risk at the end of last week’s episode, allowing Taylor to live instead of further compounding the guilt already gnawing at him. But the thing about risks is that when they don’t yield rewards, the outcome can be disastrous. For an actor, that might mean getting booed. For Barry, it means watching a man’s head explode like an overripe cantaloupe.
Barry implicitly makes himself responsible for Taylor and his actions the moment he allows the man to keep his life, and Taylor isn’t the sort of person you want linked to your fate. “Chapter Six” gives the character a bit more space, and actor Dale Pavinski manspreads to fill his screen time with what could fairly be called aggro-deadpan. Even when talking like an NPC from Grand Theft Auto, he sounds so nonchalant; he says of a desert lookout post, “This would be a sweet place for a hot tub. Fly in some chicks. Fuck ’em.” It’s an offhand remark, no different in his eyes than commenting on the weather. Taylor isn’t great at reading the room, not when Barry would like him to turn off the hard-core pornography while they’re speaking and not when Barry pleads with him to turn the car around before they’re all killed. Taylor appears to be more interested in playing out his most violent hero fantasies than emerging from the mission alive, proving a deadly liability to Barry. Letting him live was a bad bet that Barry knew he was making.
The episode tacitly contrasts the concluding firefight with an earlier shootout between Detective Moss and a grumpy Chechen who figures killing Sally will be a fair substitute for taking out Barry. The Moss strand of plot makes for an ironic counterpoint to Barry’s attempts to live mindfully and deliberately. (He does some real growing-up this episode, too, finally accepting Sally’s rejection via an unsettling exercise reminiscent of Nathan for You’s audition from hell.) She decides to stop taking risks, giving up the acting-class lead and breaking things off with Gene before they go any further into unethical territory. And yet she still reaps a reward, almost entirely by accident. She has the good sense to put two and two together when the creepy guy slinking away from the scene has an Eastern European accent, but that she encounters him at all is mostly dumb luck.
In the ensuing action scene, its reflective nighttime surfaces redolent of Michael Mann’s work — if nothing else, this series confirms Hader’s bona fides as a dyed-in-the-wool cinema geek — Moss gets one step closer to the truth, gaining undeniable confirmation that there’s a link between the Chechens and the acting class. With the bullets flying in this half-hour, it’s clear that Hader is readying this season’s endgame as well. (Great news on that front: Barry has already been renewed for a sophomore season, so we can rest assured that Barry isn’t buying the farm any time soon.) How Barry will get himself out of the predicament in which the final scene leaves him is anyone’s guess, but more salient still is how he can escape morally unscathed from a series of backfired risks.
For all its absurd humor and Jarmuschian flights of stagnant ennui, Barry remains at its heart a morality play about the immorality of people who put on plays. Barry now has a few innocent lives on his hands, most troublingly the friend with a wife and kid who thought they were all going into the desert to do a little light intimidation. Barry’s first point of concern is getting out of the desert with all of his body parts intact, but a more complicated challenge awaits him back in polite society: living with himself. As a nervous, passive guy, Barry doesn’t handle guilt and its attendant self-loathing so well. The mere prospect of it drove him to welcome an evident psychopath into his crew. But hey — no risk, no reward.
• Anthony Carrigan continues to delight as Noho Hank, a gangster who takes no shortage of pleasure in the little things. For once, the standout line of the episode doesn’t go to Gene: “Goran! This is great physical comedy of you!”
• Of course, Gene can’t make it through an episode without a great read too: “You put your tail between your legs and slunk off like a beaten man! That’s listening!”
• Gene, by the way, knows that an actor’s true age must be kept under lock and key. Officially, he is 47 years old. Just check his IMDb.
• Barry’s projected fantasies of his future continue getting stranger. This time around, we see Barry’s cabinet full of Oscars and his white son Denzel teleporting to school in the morning.
• More brilliant direction by Hiro Murai in this half-hour, the standout sequence being the chilling approach to the enemy that closes the episode. Murai cuts between close-ups in the front seat and the back until the harrowing final shot, which breaks from that pattern by bolting the camera to the car, keeping the object still while the world around it hurtles toward oblivion. As visual metaphors go, it’s a subtle, ingenious move.
• Debra Messing says you should only play parts that scare you.