A hero who can’t seem to catch a break is the main ingredient in any story. It’s the perfectly complex situation to place your characters in, the writing gold mine you wish you could submerge your characters in constantly. Because the bigger the problem, the more story there is to tell, the more possibilities there are to explore. The bigger the problem, the more suffocating for the character.
The bigger the problem, the bigger the audience’s agony.
And, ironically, the better the episode.
Barry, through its incredibly well-managed tonal contrasts that are a gift to watch, pulls the audience’s emotions in so many different ways, that it’s hard to take your eyes off the screen for even a split second in case you miss anything. It keeps the audience on its toes, it forces you to care and to watch and to be interested in what the characters are going through.
Because boy, is this episode full of surprises.
This week, Barry’s put in quite the emotional and physical conflict when he has to figure a way out of his partnership with his crazy ex-marine buddy while maintaining his cover. It’s not an easy feat, because the Chechens are going after Sally and the police remains eerily close to the acting class he is a part of.
YOU’RE SAYING THE HELL OUT OF IT
If the show’s established anything in its six first episodes it is that Barry is desperately in need of coaching. He is never in place, he is always late, he never knows what to do or how to react. And reacting, when it comes to the acting world, is half of one’s job.
In the real world, in the emotional world where he has to be able to socialize and create bonds, Barry is almost physically incapable of listening. Which, ironically —and here’s the key to Barry’s complexity— is precisely what he’s best at when he’s carrying out a job. His problem is that he’s used to listening and complying, he is used to listening to orders and carrying them out. It’s one of the reasons why he can’t distance himself from Fuches or the job. But in the real world, the one without assassins or constant death, Barry can’t listen. He never learned to.
He doesn’t listen to Sally or what she wants, and even when he does, he does so poorly and then doesn’t act accordingly. He never listens to himself, to what he wishes, to what he wants to do. And so he never does anything to satisfy his needs.
Barry has to learn to listen. He’s only just getting started.
So when Gene Cousineau tells him his main problem is that he’s just waiting for something to happen instead of reading the room and reacting —in a scene, always as a metaphor of what Barry’s actually going through in his life— it’s almost like Barry can’t tell the difference. Because he’s always waiting for something to happen. He is never active. He never takes initiative.
He’s just there.
Things just happen to him.
And a lot of things happen to him, actually. Especially in this episode.
The show is incredibly well written. It goes without saying, at this point. But with each episode the writers’ abilities to tie in Barry’s acting tips with his emotional needs remains remarkable and outstanding. Regardless of how glaringly obvious the lesson sometimes appears to be, regardless of how incredibly vocal they are about it, it’s amazing to see it all come together.
Immediately after understanding that he has to read the room and then act accordingly, Barry is confronted with the chance to take initiative. He calls his ex-marine buddy in hopes that he can make him understand that he is doing the job alone. And his interlocutor is the single most boring man in America. His responses never vary in tone, and they are hardly different words. They’re just low grunts and sounds over the telephone. Barry takes the challenge, he reads his responses however well he can and tries to change his tone, his sentences, his message to make it clearer.
And, of course, it doesn’t work.
But Barry has taken the step. He’s put in the work.
He’s working towards his goal.
One has to appreciate, as well, the comedic irony in the episode’s title. “React With Your Face” could very well be the title of Bill Hader’s autobiography, because the extent of his facial expressions seems unprecedented and unique to his acting. It’s these contradictions what actually make the show shine brightest. Its capacity to ironically reflect on itself is terribly hilarious and not something you see a lot nowadays.
Bill Hader still knocks it out of the park, by the way. Every scene he’s in is better than the previous one, and his range proves to be wider every episode.
It’s hard not to be a proud fan of his, to be honest.
TOMORROW AND TOMORROW AND TOMORROW
Sarah Goldberg describes her character as heartbreaking, and frankly, it’s one of the best definitions anyone could ever come up with for Sally. Every week she becomes more complex, every week we’re challenged with whether to like her or dislike her, whether we’re going to judge her for her mistakes or whether we’re going to be compassionate and feel bad for her.
This week, she somewhat arrogantly steals the role of Lady Macbeth from one of her fellow classmates and calls herself the best actor in the class. But as if that wasn’t enough, she asks Cousineau for the role of none other than Macbeth himself. Selfish? Maybe. Interesting? Definitely so.
Her know-it-all attitude is at times hard to understand, but the brief glimpses of naivety and ingenuity and pain that Goldberg so wonderfully portrays immediately allow for a connection to be formed with the audience. She’s been hurt, she’s been disappointed, she feels like she can’t seem to catch a break —doesn’t that sound familiar? And so she becomes stronger, tougher, much more resilient. She strives to be better, she never looks back.
But her scene with Barry is amazingly heartbreaking to watch, because beneath her snarky remarks and her sassy stance, we catch a glimpse of an honest concern and insecurity that isn’t as apparent anymore. Barry and Sally are forced to confront their relationship issues on stage with a repeating exercise that will prove harder to watch than any explicitly romantically challenged scene.
“Start with something easy,” Cousineau says, “Say ‘I love you.”
Who ever said saying ‘I love you’ was easy?
It definitely isn’t for these two characters who are not only juggling with their place in the world and with their identity, but also with their relationship with each other.
Barry ends up murmuring the words with such earnestness, with such tenderness and honesty to them, that Sally can no longer keep up her cold façade and is forced to channel her deepest emotions with those three very betraying words.
In some ways, it almost works as an apology.
One that is certainly not enough and will certainly not help their case too much. But it’s, at the very least, the beginning.
It’s a place to start.
The good news is that Sally’s life is apparently not threatened anymore, given her Chechen stalker’s deadly fate. At least now we only have to worry about whether she’ll be strong enough to get through everything that the world throws in her face or not.
THE DEFINITION OF CLIFFHANGER
An episode with such tonal contrasts, where one very deeply emotional scene between Barry and Sally ties almost directly with a very comedy-centered conversation in which Barry’s social incompetence is once again highlighted, the surprises have to be constant. The twists in the narratives have to exist. Barry has accustomed us to this, and yet whenever they happen, we’re still not ready to see them.
The insane amount of things Barry has to go through in this episode is enough to suffocate him and the audience. Whenever you think something is getting resolved, the issue just grows in importance. We thought we were allowed to breathe in relief when the acting class is finally discarded as potentially suspicious, and then the Chechen almost gets to Sally. We thought Barry had succeeded in making his ex-marine buddy understand he was going at it alone, and then he shows up with a 4X4 full of other ex-marines.
And just when you think it can’t get any harder for Barry, the car he is in, the one driven by a maniac who has no control of his sanity whatsoever, is bloodily shot at before the credits roll and the only guarantee that Barry isn’t dead is the fact that the season is longer than these six episodes.
But you never expect it. Despite the episode’s narrative giving you all the clues for you to understand that Barry’s life can only lead to these kinds of situations, you are left speechless and open-mouthed when the guys he’s supposed to kill shoot the car down. Even after Barry screams at his buddies to slow down, you never see it coming.
Shame on us, really.
But here’s what it is, here’s what it means: Barry’s life will never be anything more than a constant fight. He can keep imagining his future with kids in a futuristic home —sans Sally this time, by the way— but the guarantee that he will eventually get it is smaller and smaller each week.
Whether he’ll be strong enough —like Sally— to battle it for as long as it takes, is still to be decided.
In any case, the remarkably applause-worthy element in last night’s episode is its ability to make the audience feel like what’s happening is too much. It is the writing’s —and the acting’s— capacity to make us literally sigh in anger because he just can’t catch a break, can he?
Maybe he never will.
We’ll still be rooting for him to, however.
Barry airs Sundays at 10.30/9.30c on HBO.