Barry has always shown that at its best, acting can be a tool for catharsis — a way to exorcise your inner demons, to combine empathy with self-expression. But in Hollywood especially, a successful career in acting also comes with a lot of extra stuff, like the necessary evil of self-promotion.
Sally experiences her first press junket in “Ben Mendelsohn,” a rapid-fire series of formulaic interviews from outlets like E! News and Access Hollywood asking boring questions like “Who do you think should be the next Spider-Man?” (Sally’s suggestion of Ben Mendelsohn is amazing, but Katie’s pick of Harry Styles is much more audience-friendly.)
Sally advises Katie to be herself during the interviews, but that’s much easier said than done in this setting — especially when Katie can’t even be truthful with her boss and friend. And she certainly can’t be honest during the actual interviews. When one journalist brings up Joplin’s focus on abuse and asks Katie about Sally’s new healthy relationship with Barry, you can see on Elsie Fisher’s face how much Katie wants to tell the truth. But she ends up just saying Barry is awesome because this press junket is a space for quick soundbites, not real dialogue.
Besides, nobody seems to want to listen to Katie anyway. When Natalie tries to soothe her fears about Barry harming Sally, nothing she says sounds comforting; it just demonstrates, again, how normalized Barry’s violence has become, especially to his old classmates. “He treats Sally like a star,” Natalie says. “That’s why she keeps him around.” Her words are more significant than she realizes.
When it comes to the non-Sally characters in the Hollywood half of the series, season three’s primary acting-related story seems to be Barry and Gene’s involvement in Laws of Humanity (or should it be “Laws of Hugh Manity,” a pun we learn this episode?). It’s a cheesy but widely watched legal drama, and it feels like a big opportunity when Gene learns that the producers want to honor his generosity by giving him a line, even though he threw hot tea in the showrunner’s face back when he was a PA on Murder, She Wrote.
Gene is playing a man taking on the company that hiked prices on the meds that could’ve saved his wife’s life. The role has some obvious ironic relevance to his own life: Barry plays the pharma bro personally responsible for the wife’s death, who learns over the course of the episode to own up and apologize. If Gene were interested in forgiving Barry for killing the love of his life — if he actually wanted to move past this — the role would be perfect. But the obvious truth is that Gene could never forgive Barry, and he shouldn’t be expected to. So having to actually listen to Barry’s false apology on set and meekly accept it is an exercise in torture, not catharsis.
This many months later, Gene is still processing the implications of Barry’s betrayal. In the middle of running lines in the trailer, he gets some clarification: Fuches, the man who led him to Janice, was the family friend who originally got Barry into this line of work. That means Barry’s monologue from the pilot was “fucking true.” It’s quite satisfying, from a viewer’s perspective, to see Gene put the pieces together, recognizing the dramatic irony we’ve seen play out ourselves. But it’s heartbreaking to see him blame himself for not seeing the signs. Barry’s not wrong when he assures Gene that he can’t put Janice’s death on himself. But he is wrong when he acts like nobody is at fault. “The whole thing is really unfortunate,” he says, placing the blame on the circumstances instead of the real perpetrator.
Barry thinks that the moral of his story is that anyone can change if they really want to and that redemption is possible by putting in some hours and surrounding yourself with good influences. That’s where Laws of Humanity comes in, presenting a falsely empowering and unearned forgiveness arc in under an hour. Barry, identifying with the pharma guy he’s playing, thinks he can accomplish the same.
Luckily, Fuches calls Barry up and punctures that fantasy a bit, reintroducing the sort of twisted father-figure love triangle that fueled much of the past two seasons. In their first conversation since season two, Fuches begins by vaguely apologizing for “whatever you think I did to hurt your relationship with Mr. Cousineau,” but quickly turns hostile after Barry neglects to return the apology. Fuches is just as violent and entitled as Barry, but he’s not wrong when he points out Barry’s delusions about hashing everything out with Gene. “You’re never going to move past that!” he yells. “You destroyed that guy’s life!”
It’s with that unsettled feeling that Barry films his scene with Gene, who can’t bring himself to accept the apology, even in character. Instead of seeking catharsis through performance, Gene gets it by following his own instincts, striking Barry in the face and telling him to stay away from his family before storming off. It’s the final puncture in the fantasy that pushes Barry to regress again, agreeing to another dangerous hit arranged by NoHo Hank.
I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, the crime drama half of this season is working better than past seasons so far. I’ve always liked Hank’s antics, but they haven’t always had real stakes; before I re-watched season two a few weeks ago, I didn’t quite remember the particulars of the power shifts among the Chechen, Bolivian, and Burmese mobs. Now, though, Hank is in love, and suddenly the lighter scenes have more of an urgency and direction to them.
In “Ben Mendelsohn,” the story kicks into high gear as Cristobal successfully convinces Fernando to back off the Chechens — and Hank diverts the Chechens’ target from Cristobal to Fernando, though Cristobal could still easily become collateral damage. He has to turn to the one guy he never wanted to work with again when he fails at his attempt to “activate the patsy” and bring Fuches home.
But it shouldn’t take long for Fuches to actually return. His enraged incredulity at his surrogate son’s refusal to take responsibility is enough to make him abandon an idyllic, remote life herding goats with a beautiful woman. She even explicitly cautions him about his resentment getting the better of him, sharing with him a fable about some dead souls who chose to turn into panthers and seek vengeance against the farmer who killed them instead of forgiving him and going to heaven.
Of course, Fuches’s only takeaway is the bit about putting an army together. At this point, he’d accept spending an eternity at the bottom of the ocean if it meant teaching Barry a lesson. Maybe he’ll get his wish.
• My favorite acting moment this episode is Bill Hader’s expression change when Gene interrupts Barry’s giddy fanboying about the set to ask if Janice suffered. As in episode two, it’s always easy to track the moment when reality falls short of Barry’s expectations.
• Natalie: “I love this romper. It says, ‘I’m a woman, but don’t treat me like one.’” Sally: “That’s what we were going for.”
• The press-junket sequence reminded me a lot of The Other Two, one of the other best shows on TV.