So that final scene at the end of last week wasn’t a fantasy sequence. We’re now years into the future, and Barry and Sally are living in an isolated house in the middle of nowhere, with their socially maladjusted son John.
Sally is now a diner waitress who goes by Emily. She wears a wig and too much makeup and plays up her Missouri accent to disguise her identity. She goes to lengths to not hang out with her co-workers, she drinks vodka straight from the bottle in between work and home, and she’s not a terribly involved parent to John. She hate-watches her former assistant Natalie, now a big star on a popular and terrible sitcom, and while she’s clearly pining for the life she could have had, and feels was owed to her, even the life of compromise she rejected at the end of last week’s episode seems more appealing than what she has now.
Barry, meanwhile, (now going by Clark) seems content, homeschooling his kid with some very basic Abraham Lincoln facts he learned from YouTube, but as always, it feels like he’s simply going through the motions of being a normal person. Barry tells John he was in the Marines, and portrays himself as a hero. He rewrites the story where he kills civilians into a heroic tale where he’s a medic who saves someone’s life. The lessons he tries to teach John — whether on relating to other people or the Great Emancipator — all slip slightly off the rails. And he tries to balance his one-dimensional ideas of being a good dad with a constant paranoia about getting too close to anyone outside their small, very remote household.
John manages to make friends with a kid, and when his friend gives him a baseball glove, Barry discourages him by showing YouTube videos of horrific Little League injuries. And when there’s a knock on the door in the middle of the night, we faintly hear kids giggling and running away, but that doesn’t stop Barry from standing guard all night, gun in hand, while Sally and John fall asleep hiding in the bathtub.
John’s a quiet kid, who seems to have a pretty clear sense of how screwed up his parents are, and can hear their whispered fights through the walls, as Barry pleads with Sally to cut down on her drinking for the kid’s sake. He also clearly understands that other kids have a life that his parents are keeping him from, and he starts to grasp that his parents also have a life they’re keeping from him. He nervously asks another kid, “Does your mom wear hair on top of her own hair?” As the episode goes on, with Barry willfully oblivious to how unhappy his wife and child are, and just as oblivious to how unequipped he is to be a father, you just feel worse and worse for that kid.
Bill Hader’s direction also goes a long way to underscoring how isolated and unhappy these characters are. There are long shots of vast, empty plains, like a snowless homage to Fargo. It’s so flat that John doesn’t realize that tall trees exist in the world. Barry and Sally sit in easy chairs on opposite sides of the living room, with an empty love seat in between them. All of the characters on this show are isolated and searching for connection, and even living under the same roof hasn’t fundamentally changed that.
We’re also isolated from the rest of the cast. Taking Barry out of last week’s episode apart from the final minute let us spend more time with the rest of the cast, and the reverse is equally true here. We don’t ever cut away to check in on Hank or Fuches, we’re just stuck here, in this tiny house on the plains, with this dysfunctional, antisocial family.
Sally does have some small amount of outside contact through her waitressing job, but that amounts to a chummy older woman who she’s wary of getting too close to, and a dirtbag who stops just short of sexually harassing her. But she ends up talking to him because, as in previous episodes, she still has no one to turn to. He talks approvingly of his violent criminal brother, and he tells her he fantasizes about her. He takes her completely indifferent reaction as encouragement and follows her into the bathroom. She kisses him, and then ends up choking him until he’s purple. He apologizes and leaves, but next time we visit the diner Sally’s gotten him fired, and the owner praises her, saying most people look the other way. Whatever Sally’s many issues are, she’s owned her traumatic experience of killing Barry’s attacker at the end of last season, and is quick to stand up to a potential abuser, although the show’s taught us to be wary of anyone who’s prone to violence.
It’s only at the very end that we finally get a glimpse of Los Angeles, eight years after the events after Barry and Sally went into hiding. So we’ve got our in to re-connect our unhappy couple to the rest of the show again. And thank goodness. Spending another quiet-tension-filled episode on the plains would be hard to take.
• It’s perfectly in character that Barry’s knowledge of Abraham Lincoln runs the gamut from a 3rd-grade-level YouTube explainer, to a clickbaity “dark side of Abraham Lincoln” video. And, of course, the fact that he’s on the penny, which he repeats multiple times as if it’s instructive. It’s hard to explain why his fumbling attempts at teaching his son are so bleak and darkly funny, but it’s a fine line, that takes a remarkably subtle show of writing and acting.
• In our quick scene in LA, we see a billboard for Sally’s acting protege from last episode now starring in Megagirls 4. Sally would probably take it as another frustrating reminder that other people got to have the career she wanted. But it’s also a sign that she might have had some real success as an acting coach, had she stayed.