About halfway through Barry’s Season 1 finale, “Know Your Truth,” it appears Bill Hader’s eponymous hitman has fallen into one of his frequent daydreams. Next to an idyllic lake surrounded by lush forest, he’s lying on a hammock with Sally, going through the lines of a play. These placid reveries—of being with Sally, raising a family, having a successful career as an actor—are Barry’s solace from the darkness of his actual life. Except this time, it’s actually happening. With the Chechen mob boss Goran eliminated and his manipulative handler Fuches sent back to Cleveland, Barry is finally getting to live his dream. It appears that an optimistic future, removed from a life of perfunctory assassinations, can finally become a reality.
But in truth, that life is still very much a fantasy. The lakeside scene is indeed taking place in the not-so-distant future, with Barry and Sally at Gene Cousineau’s enviable lake house for a getaway—Detective Janice Moss is also there, now in a relationship with Gene. However, over dinner, Gene recounts Barry’s emotional parking-lot monologue from the pilot, in which he described in exhaustive detail the sad state of his post-war life as a hitman. Barry can hardly contain his exasperation—one of the few moments in the series that Hader registers serious, expressive peril in his eyes—as Gene inadvertently reveals that Barry is a key figure in the Chechen crime spree. Janice notices Barry’s panicked reaction, and though the dinner continues uninterrupted, it’s evident that Barry’s aspirations of a normal life have been squashed. When it matters most, he can’t put together a good performance. Though throughout Barry’s compelling first season, no one can.
Among many other things, Barry has been a show about putting on performances. You see it in the aspiring actors in Gene’s class; in the alarmingly friendly Chechen gangster Noho Hank, whose demeanor seems better suited for hotel management than organized crime; in Fuches, who keeps Barry in a perpetual cycle of mundane killings without any human connection; in Gene, who’s nowhere near the acclaimed thespian his in-class bravado makes him out to be; and most of all in Barry himself, convinced that he can play the nice guy and separate his moral compass from the demands of his job. The characters of Barry are overly eccentric, sometimes veering into caricatures of themselves—this is the entertainment business, after all—but the series uses their vanity to hold up a mirror and let the audience reckon with an uncomfortable truth: that we all put on performances in our own lives, some more convincingly than others.
It’s not a particularly uplifting message, which places Barry in the company of other TV comedies that lean into drama and introspective malaise to devastating effect—Atlanta, especially its second season, and BoJack Horseman chief among them. But through using two familiar, frequently cited occupations in TV and film—the contract killer, and the actor—Barry demonstrates how performances are often a smoke screen for desiring real human connection, and how often people don’t know how to attain it.
Consider the series’ most complex, and sometimes most aggravating, character, Sally (Sarah Goldberg, in a breakout role). Sally is perhaps the only actor in Gene’s class who has a serious shot at making it in the industry—apologies to Janet from The Good Place!—but continuously undermines her talents through an insatiable desire to become famous. In one of her character’s most telling moments, she seeks reassurance from Barry—not to hear that she’s a good person or an actor, but that she’ll one day become a “star.” Her sense of validation is completely reliant on achieving a certain level of fame. Still in the midst of the climb to stardom, though, she spends the first season performatively smiling through rejection and heartbreak. She plays the role of confident leader in front of the acting class, crafting a persona in order to cope with and mask the harsh experiences of enduring a condescending audition or being propositioned by her sleazy agent.
But she also breezily uses Barry as a tool for her own ambitions; his acting is a vehicle for her stardom, and not his own. As for him, Barry acts willfully oblivious to the one-sided nature of their dynamic out of a desperate need for human connection, after years of Fuches keeping him so removed from the outside world. In his mind, this is a normal, transactional part of the human experience. It’s a role he’s happy to play.
The intimacy between Barry and Sally—and between other characters in the series—often toes the line between performative and genuine, sometimes concurrently. Fuches appears to have a sincere admiration for Barry—a willingness to be a father figure or sorts—while simultaneously ensnaring him in a profession that slowly eats away at both their souls. Gene’s frequent propositioning of Janice, juxtaposed with his somber audition for a role as an anonymous extra, masks his insecurity. In Barry, broadcasting a certain image of oneself is more important than looking at your own reflection—a scathing satire of acting, yes, but also a treatise on the human condition. The characters’ actions don’t demonize them, but allow the audience to empathize with their struggles and ambitions, and to see how universal their constant acting really is.
In the finale, Sally informs Barry that she used to be married to an abusive partner and says that she’s never told anyone before—and then immediately clarifies and lists four other people from the class to whom she’s made this same confession. “Using my pain and my work, it’s helped me to process it,” she tells Barry. “It can be the same for you.”
Except, in Barry’s case, he doesn’t want to revisit the “process” that produced his best line delivery in the group’s rendition of Macbeth: Barry murdered the only friend he knew. Barry’s circumstances are—let’s just say—unique, but like any person, he’s trying to put up a facade as best he can. By the finale, however, the viewer’s aware that Barry is beyond redemption, and capable of any atrocity in the name of self-preservation. Janice’s fate in “Know Your Truth”—once she puts the pieces together about Barry’s connection to the Chechens—is sealed before Barry ever pulls the trigger.
“If you could just walk away from this and forget about it, everybody’s life would be better,” Barry pleads to Janice. “We want to be happy. We want love. We want a life.” Barry’s speaking a universal truth, but the more he’s become entangled in a life of senseless killings, the farther he’s gotten from ever attaining those goals. Like anyone, Barry can’t put on an act forever.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.