Barry Season 2 (HBO)
Written by Alec Berg, Bill Hader, Taofik Kolade, Jason Kim, Duffy Boudreau, Emily Heller, and Liz Sarnoff
Directed by Hiro Murai, Minkie Spiro, Liza Johnson, Bill Hader, and Alec Berg
The tagline for Barry is “a hitman tries to make it as an actor,” a premise which sounds like the worst Hollywood pitch of the post-Goodfellas 1990s. Think about pictures like My Blue Heaven or Analyze This, where mob stereotypes are played for laughs. It’s the theme of Barry that keeps us coming back every week, “Can people who have done bad things still be good people?”. Co-creator and star Bill Hader, known for his comedic chops honed on Saturday Night Live, manages to find the perfect middle ground where he can have moments to play things for laughs but then flip things around in an instant to discover the most heart-rending moments of pathos. Barry is a funny tragedy.
This season delved deep in exploring the origins and rippling effects of toxic masculinity, not just through Barry’s apparent murder for hire work but looking at experiences other characters have gone through related to toxic and abusive behavior. Sally, Barry’s girlfriend, confronts the domestic violence brought down on her by an ex-boyfriend through a short stage piece. Gene Cousineau faces down the adult son he abandoned to pursue his acting career. There are some wonderfully satiric moments like when Barry, sitting in the lobby of Sally’s agent and gets asked to audition for a lead role in a feature comedy, while Sally has struggled to get work beyond playing wives and background characters.
Separate from the acting storylines is the continuing saga of NoHo Hank, the Chechen gangster who is now aligned with Cristobal, a Bolivian gang leader. Domestic bliss is interrupted when Cristobal allies with the Burmese and NoHo Hank finds his position as second in command usurped. The character of NoHo Hank represents an odd counterpoint to the other violent characters in the show, with his demeanor being much softer and congenial. His greatest desire is to return to the happier days where he and Cristobal hung out as buddies. This leads to Hank using violence to get the attention of Barry only to threaten and then cajole the man into helping him train his guys to take out the Burmese.
In the middle of the season, we were gifted episode 5 “ronny/lily” which has Barry showing up in the home of his latest mark but determined not to make this kill, warning the potential victim. Instead of being met with thanks, Barry has the crap kicked out of him and embarks on a surreal night where reality seems to bend at the seams. This long dark journey of the soul acts of the turning point in the Barry/Fuchs relationship, a moment that has felt inevitable since the beginning of the show. Throughout this season we’re given glimpses into Barry tour of duty in Afghanistan, and just a hint at the damaging role Fuchs played when Barry came back.
In most comedy-dramas, you would expect that a character’s backstory would allow the audience to sympathize more with them. When we finally see the origins of Barry’s talent for killing, we are not met with a somber dark turn but a joyous moment of acceptance. His fellow soldiers suddenly embrace Barry for taking out targets from a phenomenal distance. It’s only later that we see the kill that instilled doubt in Barry, that broke the spell of camaraderie. There’s a great moment where Barry unloads this story on Cousineau, and his acting teacher and mentor responds dryly with “You can never tell anyone else that story” only furthering Barry’s sense of monstrousness.
Moreover, that is the big hook of the show, wondering what path Barry will go down. If he remains as a killer for hire, it’s almost inevitable that he’ll come up against a force stronger than himself and be killed. However, without these intense and violent experiences, Barry would not have those profound moments of acting, reaching into himself and access the bad memories. Every time Barry has burst past the low expectations of Cousineau or his acting cohort has been in the immediate wake of Barry’s giving into his dark rage or in the aftermath of what his violence has caused. There won’t be easy ending when this show finally wraps up, but the complicated and emotional journey to that undetermined ending will be fascinating.