Next year’s Emmy voters already have the unenviable task of choosing between a handful of “The Bear” performers for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Comedy Series, but it’s not too early to consider Doug Jones, who returned to “What We Do in the Shadows” this week for a truly impeccable turn as Baron Afanas.
Jones has played the ancient vampire ever since the pilot, when he was unrecognizably made up to look emaciated and decaying. It’s rare for any actor to be able to portray the same character in such varying physical forms, and gives Jones the opportunity to test out different vocal choices and body language, all of which pay off throughout the series. Before being accidentally fried in the sun by Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), the Baron moved with slow grace, intimidating fellow vampires not only with his age and stature but with an outward appearance that underscored both (this isn’t the first time that the character stole the show either; revisit Season 1’s “Baron’s Night Out” if you need a reminder).
At first, Season 5, Episode 8 “The Roast” looks like it will be about Lazslo (Matt Berry) and his roommates’ attempt to lift his spirits. But after The Guide (Kristen Schaal) accidentally divulges to the Baron that Guillermo is the one who nearly killed him, things take a sharp, unhinged, and fantastic turn. At first, Baron takes the dais, where Jones unleashes every over-the-top mannerism to magnificent effect. From the repeated choice pronunciation of vampire (“wampire”) to hand gestures underscoring his impassioned speech to the flare of rage that causes a blackout when the Baron’s eyes turn red and his voice drops to a menacing growl, Jones’ performance is hypnotic (pun intended).
This episode, written by Sarah Naftalis & Lauren Wells and directed by Tig Fong, packs a whole lot into 28 minutes. It’s the longest episode of the season but that extra two to three minutes make it feel supersized, and create space for extra escapades like Nadja’s convoluted plan to make Guillermo and the Baron talk it out. As with the rest of the episode, the interrogation room gives Jones hefty helpings of dialogue that he saturates with emotion and drama. He relishes Guillermo’s shocking vampirism, but when he learns that Nandor (Kayvan Novak) isn’t responsible, he calls it “a devastation, a violation (“wiolation”), a humiliation! A shame from which neither you nor Nandor shall ever recover.” He finds the music in every line reading, especially that one.
In the final act, Baron confesses to having “gone soft,” which the writing hints at before he admits it. He’s surprisingly empathetic, almost mentor-like, when he talks to Guillermo alone; Jones grounds the scene without sacrificing Baron’s essence even without flamboyant action accompanying his words. When the Baron does admit to his monotonous life in New Jersey, Jones gets to show it through a few quick, chaotic flashbacks that wordlessly convey both the melancholy and hilarity of his situation.
“What We Do in the Shadows” is nothing if not a skilled sitcom, and the writers manage to expertly maneuver us back to equilibrium. Lazslo’s funk, Baron’s ire, Guillermo’s attempts to flee, and the Guide’s clumsy secret keeping are all resolved in under 30 minutes, and life at the Staten Island manor resumes — with only Nandor left in the dark about Guillermo’s big secret. Baron and the Sire adopt several mutant Guillermo toads who infuse their lives with new meaning, with Jones closing out his guest appearance as Baron’s newest form: father.
“What We Do in the Shadows” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on FX and Fridays on Hulu.