He tells God that he has gained his selfhood at great cost to other people. (James Ellroy)
wallflower: Barry begins with the title character (Bill Hader) in a motel room after he’s just killed someone, and then tracks him going home, playing video games, meeting with his handler Fuches (National Treasure Stephen Root), getting a new assignment, and not much caring about anything. By the way, this is a comedy, and here’s the wacky twist: Barry goes to L. A. and decides he wants to become–an actor! Throughout the first season (eight half-hour episodes that have just concluded; it’s been renewed for a second season), Barry’s desire to become an actor and possibly give up the criminal life hit one obstacle after another; his biggest deficiency as an actor was his utter emptiness. He couldn’t draw on his emotional experiences because he couldn’t access them, or he didn’t have any.
SPOILERS begin here; for episodic coverage, check out Ruck’s reviews at the Leftorium.
Like many an HBO series, the season’s formal climax came in the penultimate episode: Barry can act. Well, it’s one line (Macbeth’s “My Lord, the Queen is dead”) but delivered with so much force and emotion that his onetime lover and current scene partner (Sarah Goldberg’s Sally) was able to react and build a great monologue from it. Barry has created for himself an inner life, based on killing something like a dozen people since we met him, including the one person (Chris Marquette’s Chris) who could have been a friend to him. Did we mention that this was advertised as a comedy?
Ruck Cohlchez: Well, if it was a comedy, not a drama, all you have to do is talk really loud and fast. Anyone can do it.
Barry, instead, represents an incredible character journey, from an empty killer to someone who’s found something which gives him a reason to live, a reason to to try to be a real person, a good person. Of course, you can’t just walk away from that life, flip a switch like that, and Barry’s attempts to become a real person complicate his new life and his criminal life in ways that cause a lot more damage than if he’d just stuck with being a hitman. At least four people uninvolved in the criminal underworld are dead who wouldn’t be if Barry hadn’t tried to go straight. And of course, the one that hurts him the most, the one where he kills a decent person, someone who as an ex-Marine who’s outside both the acting world and the world of organized crime, could have provided Barry with a stable, grounding friendship, is the one that connects him to his emotions enough to allow him to act. (What a horrifying discovery that must have been.)
One sign of how much Barry has succeeded at that inner life is that he’s willing to do anything to protect it. He killed Chris before merely for threatening his liberty; in those stunning last few minutes of the season, we see Barry’s got a life and a budding creative and romantic partnership with Sally, and so Moss (Paula Newsome) threatens so much more. And so Barry kills an active-duty police officer and his acting teacher’s girlfriend.
wallflower: one of Barry’s achievements was how it played with genre conventions, and used that play to keep us off-guard. The presence of Hader and Root, the half-hour format, and the early acting scenes (under the direction of Henry Winkler’s Gene Cousineau, as funny and indelible as his Barry [!] Zuckercorn) all suggest lighthearted comedy, something on the order of Tropic Thunder or Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. What we got instead was something closer to a classic crime drama, one with a lot of hilarious material worked in: Guy Tries to Get Out of the Life. Genres are rules for crafting works of art, and Barry quickly finds that changing profession from “hitman” to “actor” is a lot harder to do when you’re in a crime drama.
Hader’s performance, from the beginning, tells us we’re not in an easy comedy. To the extent that there’s a Hader persona in movies, it’s easygoing and kinda goofy, something out of the Stan Laurel tradition of tall skinny funny guys. Here, he uses that height to a different end: Barry is always tense, not in a coiled-spring way, but like he’s deeply uncomfortable in his own body and even more so when there are other people around. Barry is a Marine out of the service, a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (there’s a KIA bracelet memorializing a fellow Marine visible in the first scenes) and he’s probably dealing at the least with some level of PTSD, but even more, he can’t find any way into a civilian life. He’s only truly comfortable when he’s killing someone.
That’s another aspect where Barry and Barry play with genre expectations. In Lethal Weapon, Black gives Mel Gibson a neat little monologue:
When I was sixteen I did a guy in Laos from a thousand yards out, a rifle shot in high winds. Eight, maybe ten guys in the world could have made that shot. It was the only thing I was ever any good at.
Black/Gibson’s Martin Riggs is, of course, good at a lot of things: funny, charming, sexy, witty. Barry is not, he’s truly only good at killing. We’re so used to killers in genre fiction being hypercompetent badasses that it’s a wonderful shock to see someone who’s not. When Barry tries to deliver a threat, it comes out as nervous and weak; when he has to deliver the Alec Baldwin monologue from Glengarry Glen Ross, he interprets it as Baldwin trying to help the salesmen. (“I wanted to see if you could play someone with balls,” Gene says.) So often, genre characters get delivered to us as complete packages: we’ve seen them before, we know what they will do. Barry is genuinely unformed, and genuinely unpredictable. That’s what you want for a good story.
Ruck Cohlchez: I’m sure I’ve used “He’s Barry good” at some point to describe Gene as an acting teacher, but I don’t remember where.
Hader’s performance is one reason the show works so well and the end hits so hard. We can see how empty Barry is from the get-go; we see there’s nothing inside him except the job, except his capacity and capability to kill; even once he finds that spark in acting, and in his dreams of a future relationship with Sally, he still seems to be empty the rest of the time.
Hader’s most memorable roles often involved him inhabiting characters, mostly on Saturday Night Live (see Stefon, or James Carville) or Documentary Now! (honestly, it’s hard for me not to just cite Carville again), so I wonder if he was a bit more of a blank slate as far as someone we could project a screen persona onto. (When we have seen him, it’s like you described; his cop in Superbad is what stands out to me.) Barry uses Hader’s physicality well; it’s not just that being tall allows him to loom over others as needed (funnily enough for a hitman, it’s usually more out of awkwardness than intimidation), but the way he carries his shoulders is a simple touch that adds to the character’s sense of constant tension, of tremendous weight, of simply never being at ease. (Everything you described about his ineffectuality at anything but killing is true, and I’ll just go on to add that his version of the Glengarry monologue is some of the highest comedy of the season.)
This whole cast is excellent, and I’m sure we’ll go through and praise some of the showier (Anthony Corrigan as Noho Hank) or big name performances (National Treasure Stephen Root, or Henry Winkler, who’s both), I want to give some to Sarah Goldberg, who makes Sally a fully-formed character, selfish and self-absorbed and ambitious but also genuinely talented and capable of warmth and driven. I have my fears about what might happen to her relationship with Barry when they have a collaboration that bombs, but the writers allow Sally to be a three-dimensional person, and Goldberg is up to the task.
wallflower: Sally is another example of the way Barry trips up the rules of genre. Sally isn’t an ideal for Barry to save and she’s not the reward for Barry becoming good. Like you said, Sally is genuinely selfish (and Goldberg lets herself play that); she goes through a very complicated (and very funny) relationship dance with Barry all season in a way that always feels real: probably my favorite moment is in episode two, where she launches a prepared speech about how they shouldn’t sleep together–and Barry is totally cool with that, one more time when he failed to give her what her performance needed. Later, when she gets simply and brutally sexually harassed by an agent (Robert Curtis Brown) it hurts to watch, because that’s not her function in the plot. Barry generates sympathy for its characters by dramatic rules: characters have goals, they act to achieve them, they don’t exist as props for a main character. We enjoy their victories and hurt at their defeats no matter how we judge them.
Barry himself gets caught between two father figures this season, and much of his emotional story comes down to which one he chooses: Fuches or Gene, and they’re two more characters who don’t quite fit into the standard genre archetypes. Both initially appear as exploiters and then get revealed as something more honest. Fuches uses Barry for his earning potential and stiffs him on his share of the $ (this is clear in the first episode) but he also provides Barry with not just crucial logistical support (how Fuches generates multiple alibis for him is one of the funniest things this season) but also the moral structure that he got in the service and that he desperately misses since then. (Dale Pavinski’s LEEEEEEEEEROYYYYY NNNNJENKINNNNNNNNNSing Taylor is where Barry might have been headed without a Fuches to order his life.) Gene rips off his students for all he can, too, but he also honestly gets what’s necessary for acting, pushing them, praising and withholding praise as necessary. He’s not a particularly good actor (and a worse liar, claiming he’s 47 years old) but he’s a committed one. It’s his appreciation for Barry’s life story that will set Barry on the path towards acting in the first episode, and set off his last kill in the finale. If, for now, Barry sides with Gene, it’s not because Gene is good and Fuches is bad, it’s because that’s what Barry wants right now. This could go in a different direction next season.
Ruck Cohlchez: AAAAAAHH, Gene! Sorry, it’s too easy to make Arrested Development references with Henry Winkler. That said, Gene has a very Barry Zuckerkorn moment in the pilot, when he insists on cash up front from Barry for acting lessons.
Your observation of Barry’s fear of becoming Taylor is reflected in one of Bill Hader’s “inside the episode” segments, where he observes that Barry is sort of torn between Taylor as the Marine he’s afraid he’ll become, and Chris as the Marine he hopes to be. (Which makes his decision in Chapter 7 all the more painful after his indecision in Chapter 5.) Fuches doesn’t exactly provide Barry with a way to be a better person than Taylor, but he does give him, as you said, a framework within which to operate. Barry’s a follower, he’s been taking orders all his life, and Fuches is just the current iteration of that, manipulative and exploitative as he is. (And now maybe Sally and Gene are, in a certain sense.)
On the flipside, we have the relationship between Goran and Noho Hank, another relationship with a sort of employer/employee dynamic. (It’s not quite the same, as the Chechens seemingly have a more traditional organization vs. Fuches’ sort-of mentor-manatee relationship with Barry, but bear with me for the purposes of comparison.) Like Fuches and Barry, Goran and Hank move further apart as the season progresses, but for different reasons: Goran’s more traditional approach to gangsterhood clashes with Noho Hank’s, and some of those reasons are legitimate (who brings a lipstick camera to a hit?!) and some are less so (the objection to offering people submarine sandwiches). One might call Goran’s need to flex power “toxic masculinity,” but what the fuck is toxic masculinity?
Seriously, though, Goran’s style of management by domination clashes with Hank’s style of cultivating relationships, and this leads Goran to increasingly marginalize Hank, to the point where in the season finale, Hank, who seems to genuinely like Barry, calls to warn him that Goran and the others are coming after he’s left behind– which gives Barry a chance to save Fuches and take out the rest, making Hank the new leader of the Chechens.
wallflower: Man, the Goran/Hank relationship is just all kinds of awesome. Any other show would cast Carrigan as a soulless killer (completely bald, the actor has alopecia) but Noho Hank is just a brilliant comic creation. Goran’s world is his family and the old country; Hank lives in a contemporary world of lipstick cameras and Bitmoji. He’s friendly to everyone not as a business strategy but because that’s what he wants to be. There’s something of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie in this character; the guy genuinely wants to do right by everybody, even if it means killing someone, and that’s what makes him a particular kind of wild card. The Zoo Story gets named as Barry and Sally’s next play, after The Front Page, and that could be where next season is going: a long lethal dance between Hank and Barry, with them switching off each episode who’s the crazy one, and who’s protecting his normal life.
Just as Goran and Hank have different ways of being in the world, so do Taylor and Chris. Taylor is all id, all the time, and indifferent to anyone around him; this guy will watch porn movies in front of you and ignore the need for reconnaissance, and that’s what gets him killed. Chris has found stability, a family, a job; he’s able to live in the world, and that compulsion to a normal life is what gets him killed: he can’t not talk about going out on a mission to his wife, and he can’t keep that information from Barry. Barry’s trajectory throughout the season has been to go from an isolated man to someone who lives in the world, with a girlfriend, a teacher, and a community, and what we’re seeing is the cost of all of that. The monologue he really needs to perform is from Heat: “have nothing in your life that you cannot walk out in thirty seconds flat if you spot the heat coming around the corner”–and one more time, that’s to protect them as much as you.
The Heat legacy points to perhaps Barry’s most remarkable and necessary aspect: this season has been four of the most tightly plotted hours on television. The presence of Hader and Root and the plot element of acting classes made me think this was gonna be an Apatovian hangout show, where we would see various aspects of Barry’s life and other lives and get to know them. Hader and co-creator Alec Berg went the other way, where the consequences of Barry’s actions keep catching up to him, and always faster than he or I expected. (Invite Taylor to a party and leave plans for a raid lying around, and you have fucked yourself, thoroughly and permanently.) The show uses Macbeth as a thematic runner, because it’s arguably the first noir, with the same major plot element as Barry: don’t think you can commit just one crime, especially if it’s murder. A hangout comedy would have had Barry-as-killer and Barry-as-aspiring-actor in an uneasy balance with each other; the dramatic structure of Barry forces him to pick one or the other, and shows the cost of the choice.
Ruck Cohlchez: I like the reference to Hollow Man in the title here; that movie is about a man who literally loses his morals, ethics, and soul as he loses the ability to be seen on the visual spectrum. Barry is trending in the opposite direction, but in his case, the cost is so great that maybe he would have been better off just staying a hitman.
That’s what makes Barry a true tragic hero. In the vein of Vic Mackey, he’s a bad man who thinks he’s good, or can be good, and is willing to do whatever it takes to maintain that fiction. Like Vic, he thinks he can compartmentalize the two, and like Vic, the two become entangled in a way that causes more damage than if he’d just commit to the life he’s already chosen. (As characters from Tony Soprano to Kanye West have observed, there’s only two ways this things ends: dead or in jail. “Retiring and living happily ever after as an actor” is not one of those two.) From the very first episode, his unwillingness to commit to killing Ryan leads to complications with the Chechens; his attempts to build a normal life away from being a hitman are what put him in touch with Chris, and subsequently Vaughan and Taylor; his attempt to salvage some of his soul by not killing Taylor because he’s a Marine ultimately leads to the deaths of three Marines. And the fact that Moss, as per the title of Chapter 8, knows her truth, and Barry’s truth, and Barry doesn’t, leads to her death as well. (The true lesson of season 1 of Barry, of course, is that if you make a Facebook account, a lot of innocent people will die.)
And like a good tragic hero, his bad qualities are wrapped up in his good ones. (It’s not for nothing, after all, that he’s only able to genuinely act after he’s killed someone who was a real person to him.) And Barry makes for great tragedy, because, as someone I know said once, “A good enough definition of tragedy is a story where if we made the decisions the characters did at the beginning, we would have to act as they did at the end.” I’d no sooner become a hitman than a cop, but I empathize with Barry because he genuinely does want to leave his old life behind– it’s just not possible, and the decisions he makes to that end continually complicate the matter and cause more destruction than if he’d never tried leaving the life to begin with. I empathize with Barry because he’s a human being who finally has a life that’s happy, fulfilling, and has love in it. I know how precious such a thing is (even if you don’t come all the way from “hitman” to build one) and I know why a person would do anything necessary to protect it.
wallflower: Through the means of its dramatic structure and the comic effect of having its characters not quite follow their genre roles, Barry pulls off something pretty darned impressive: it keeps a high level of empathy going for just about everybody. Even Taylor, who would be nothing but a dumb plot point in a lesser work, made me feel sorrow in two directions: Barry goddamn well knew what was going to happen if he let Taylor on the job, and he knew equally well what was gonna happen if he didn’t kill Taylor when he had the chance. Barry is a remarkably confident work, knowing what it gets from following the rules and knowing just how far outside those rules it can play. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of the first, near-perfect season of Eastbound and Down, and leaves me with equal hope and worry about whether or not they can sustain it.
So, what happens now? Barry plays fair with plot and always brings the consequence sooner than we think, so the fallout of killing Moss should start raining down immediately. (In contrast, Critically Respectable Drama The Americans took the kind of plot turn Barry did in its second hour in apparently its next-to-last episode.) My guess is that will bring Fuches back into the game; keeping with the idea that Barry is only good at killing people, he’ll need Fuches back to get out from under Moss. (There has to be a pun in there somewhere.) We’ll also see, I’m thinking, the Breaking Bad-type question of “when will Sally find out?” Also, Hank has a lot of Gus Fring-like qualities, specifically Fring’s calm and business smarts without his need for revenge, and he’ll probably want Barry’s particular set of skills as part of his business model. (Pretty sure Hank’s already laid out the spreadsheets.) At the speed this show goes, I’m thinking one more great season and then out–Eastbound and Down is as much cautionary tale here as inspiration. (Part of the reason Vice Principals was so good was that Team Jody Hill learned from the mistake of their earlier series and limited themselves to two seasons. When you tell a story, it has to have an end.)
Ruck Cohlchez: The interesting thing to me about Noho Hank is that I’m still not sure how effective a criminal he is. He’s smart and above the need for macho posturing like Gus is (the bullet-by-DHL is… something, but it’s certainly not traditional flexing), and he’s effective at building loyalty through relationships as opposed to intimidation (which is what Gus prefers, although he certainly has enough intimidation to fall back on), but Gus would never do anything as stupid as the lipstick camera, and we really haven’t seen Hank successfully do any gangster shit. (“Getting shot by Barry while accompanying a sniper” is about it.) I’m hoping that what we get of Noho Hank in season 2 shows him being genuinely good at his job; it would be too easy to write him as a guy who’s in over his head because he’s not macho enough.
I have no theoretical bounds on a length of time the show could run, but mostly because I have faith in the writers to do what is necessary; they’ve stuck to plausibility and moving the story forward well enough that if they think they can make it work for three or four seasons, I’ll watch. I do agree, though, that it seems unlikely to run very long given the pace at which it’s moving. Similarly, given the pace that it’s moving, it’s hard to guess too far into the future. (I mean, most TV shows would have made that twelve-minute epilogue, from the fadeout to the bar to the final cut to black, into its own season.)
I’d be shocked if we don’t immediately see the effects of Moss’ disappearance (I’m already terrified just thinking on opening with Gene discovering her missing), and the question of what Barry actually did and how well he covered his tracks already looms large. I have to imagine that even if he did a good job, a lot of scrutiny is going to come down on the three people who were the last to see Moss alive. And given the acting class’ connection to organized crime through Barry and Ryan, the LAPD is probably going to be less expeditious about moving on from the class as suspects in her disappearance.
I can definitely see Barry having to call on Fuches to help him cover his tracks, although given that Noho Hank is both clearly fond of Barry and Barry’s best local contact for resources in the criminal world, I wouldn’t be surprised if Barry turns to him. (Fuches does have a way of insinuating himself into these situations, though.) Given who Barry is and how few capacities he seems to have outside of killing, I can’t imagine he’s going to be able to get out of this alone. Similarly, I can’t imagine that, now that he’s an actor, he could just return to being a hitman in L.A. while giving that up. He’s too visible to go back to being anonymous.
I don’t know what Sally would do once she found out– and it seems impossible she’s not going to find out– but I definitely see that ending in tragedy for one of them, either Barry killing Sally or wrongly convincing himself she won’t turn him in. There’s a certain selfishness to Sally in that she only seems to value Barry in terms of what he can give her (before they have sex, it’s rides to auditions and emotional support; by the final episode, it’s his ability as an actor); and there’s a real question as to how she would interpret the knowledge of Barry as a killer in such a transactional framework. There’s also the question, as I said earlier, of if something else will cause their relationship to fracture– if it turns out Barry simply isn’t the actor Sally thought he was, that would absolutely be grounds in her mind to break up with him, and given that Barry murdered Moss in part to preserve his relationship with Sally, there’s no telling how he would react to losing something that he killed for. Maybe even that would be something that caused him to tell her the truth.
Really, the best play for Barry now is to cut and run, but if he does that, there’s no show, and that would be sacrificing the life he wants besides. I think that, once all is said and done, Barry is going to cause even more destruction and damage around him in an attempt to hold onto a normal life. Barry keeps saying in the finale he’s leaving the life behind for good, “starting now,” but I think the big lesson for Barry, and the great tragedy of Barry, is that “now” can never come.