EW's TV critic contemplates Paper Boi's focal episode, 'Barbershop'
Last week’s Atlanta took a road trip outside town, following Van (Zazie Beetz) and Earn (Donald Glover) to a strange German celebration. “Barbershop” is another road trip, in a way. The only main character in the episode is Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), but even in his own focal episode, Paper Boi is a passive figure. He just wants his hair cut. But his barber (comedian Robert S. Powell III) has other plans.
Or, actually, he has no plans. Or so many plans that he might as well have none. Called away mid-trim, the barber brings Al along to semi-improvised adventures. At his girlfriend’s house, he cuts a child’s hair. Then the power goes off. At a house under construction, the barber microwaves some Zaxby’s chicken and asks Al to put some lumber in the truck. A woman arrives, declaring that they’re stealing her wood, and threatens to call the police. They drive away. The barber sees his son skipping school. The barber crashes into another car, and when a pregnant woman steps out of the other car with a primal scream, he drives away. And then he finally cuts Al’s hair.
It’s a familiar structure for Atlanta, the circular Odyssey. It’s also a great showcase for Henry, who says so much with his weary expression, a not-unamused exhaustion suggesting he already knows how all the stories end. Shouldn’t things be looking up by now? Al’s career as Paper Boi is taking off. (“You Hollywood now?” asks his barber. “You datin’ Kim Kardashian now?”) He’s getting this haircut: A photo shoot coming up, some kind of magazine interview. And then somehow he becomes a supporting character in the hilarious 10-ring circus of the barber’s life.
Henry is hilarious, getting laughs just from deadpan facial reactions. But “Barbershop” also depends on Al’s slow burn, on the feeling that he’s a patient man being pushed just a little too far. He’s trapped, hair half cut, a man on a quest he didn’t sign up for. There’s a sadness and a strength in how Henry plays Al: He can seem resigned, a passive observer like his cousin Earn always is. Then he’ll suddenly take decisive action — contextually heroic, but inevitably fraught with confusing consequences.
What keeps episodes like this from feeling completely random? I think it’s the simmering feeling of genuine danger. When the woman at the construction house threatens to call the cops, Al gets tense. He’s still on parole, after all. After the barber picks up his son, he rants and raves, not looking at the road; Al and the son both tell him to look where he’s driving, so the ensuing car crash feels somehow inevitable.
It’s awful how the barber drives away from the pregnant woman; her appearance reminds you of the horrific ending of the prologue that started this season, when gunfire sprayed across the back of a car and a woman emerged, bleeding and screaming. But what’s Al supposed to do? He’s got weed in his pockets. Not a crime in civilized states, but a parole violation waiting to happen. In this sense, the barber’s choice to flee is a funhouse reflection of Al’s own terror. “Sorry about that hit-and-run thing,” the barber says casually, noting that he doesn’t want to go to prison either.
Powell’s a joy in this episode. The point of his character is that he never stops talking, always has a few different angles. His side hustles are like an existential Ponzi scheme: He’s always too busy on something else to focus on the matter at hand. “You know I dabble in construction from time to time!” he says, a conversation starter I hope to say at least five times in my life. He complains to his son that he works three jobs, but he seems to be juggling many more.
This episode was written by Stefani Robinson, who wrote last season’s party episode “Juneteenth.” Donald Glover himself directed it, making thoughtful decisions to heighten the weird journey into something mythic. When they finally return to the barbershop, Glover films them walking from the parking lot to the back entrance in one long take— the noble explorers, returned from their long journey! (It’s at the end of this shot that Al forcefully grabs the barber, communicating a threat without saying anything.)
And at the end of the episode, when Al returns for his next haircut, there’s a delicate and unexpected reversal. Al goes to another guy in the shop: He strolls in slowly, making a show of not talking to his old barber. He sits down, asks for a taper fade.
“How low?” says the new guy. “A 2 or a 3?”
Al stutters, mumbles, confused; the old guy was a problem, no doubt, but he never had to ask those questions, and maybe Al doesn’t know the answer. He looks back at his old barber, already moved on. The new barber’s electric trimmer turns on, and Al visibly jumps, nervous.The final shot moves in close on Henry’s face: Resigned again, not sure if he lost something on purpose or by accident.
One final note: Halfway through Robbin’ Season, I keep picking up this running idea — half a subplot, more of a motif — of technology breaking down. The nerds at the music startup couldn’t quite get Paper Boi’s music to play on their state-of-the-art sound system. Clark County’s sound engineer kept having those pesky problems with his computer. Van lost her phone at the fastnacht festivities, and I guess the phone didn’t stop working, but she only found it after she punched a possibly un-symbolic demon, so that’s weird.
And then in “Barbershop,” at the barber’s girlfriend’s house, there was that blackout. Maybe he just forgot to pay the bill. But even the seatbelt in his passenger seat doesn’t work properly. Everything’s breaking down in Robbin’ Season. And it doesn’t feel like anything will get fixed.
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