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How ‘Barry’ and ‘Killing Eve’ Make ‘Bad Fans’ of Us All

The two best new shows on television present villains so complicated—and compelling—that we resist calling them villains at all. What does that say about us, and where can the shows go from here?

Jodie Comer as Villanelle and Bill Hader as Barry HBO/BBC/Ringer illustration

The two best new shows of 2018 center on some very bad people. This is hardly a recent development; the defining innovation of TV’s so-called Golden Age was the recognition that the natural bond between audience and protagonist sets up a series of ethical flytraps when a hero stops acting like one. Tony Soprano strangled a man in the fifth episode of his show; Carrie Bradshaw hurled a pair of McDonald’s sandwiches at a wall during an argument in the second season of hers. Often, there’s a boiling frog component to these reversals, all the better to lure us into a false sense of security. Walter White underwent a slow-motion metamorphosis before he became Heisenberg, a process now repeated on the Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul.

HBO’s Barry and BBC America’s Killing Eve share a connection more distinctive than good TV made out of bad behavior. That two separate series about contract killers premiered within weeks of each other is one of those strange coincidences enabled by our current surplus of content—like how The People v. O.J. Simpson and O.J.: Made in America complemented each other so eerily well, or the Getty kidnapping became the hottest IP of winter 2018, or there were once multiple series set in the F. Scott Fitzgerald extended universe on Amazon Prime alone. The concurrence of these highly specific shows doesn’t feel like happenstance.

The central figures of Barry and Killing Eve share a job description. They also share a storytelling purpose: leveraging the instinct to project decency, vulnerability, or plain morality onto characters with a writerly self-awareness uncommon even for the post-Draper era of television. That Barry’s namesake hitman and Killing Eve’s namesake killer take lives for a living isn’t a hey-wouldn’t-it-be-cool hypothetical; it’s a fundamental part of each series’ project. These people aren’t even antiheroes. They’re villains we spend a lot of time with and develop affection for—the former by necessity, the latter by design. Both shows turn that affection back on the viewer almost as soon as it’s formed, raising the harrowing possibility that Barry isn’t the only one who’s wrongly convinced he’s on the side of the angels, nor Eve the only one allowing herself to be seduced by the dark side.

Most Golden Age series had us fall in love with an antihero, then put that love to the test. More often than not, this led to fans who clung to their idols well past their expiration date, drawn in by decisions that were meant to push them away. The phenomenon was regrettable but understandable, since the link was already forged; in for a penny, in for the cold-blooded disposal of a proxy son. By contrast, Barry and Killing Eve both have a dead body in their first scenes, then get their captive audiences to fall in love anyway. What does that say about us?

Barry concluded its first season Sunday night with a twist so dark that some wondered about the show’s long-term viability. After seven and a half episodes of balancing acting class with organized crime, everything had somehow worked out for Barry Berkman (Bill Hader): He was dating Sally (Sarah Goldberg), the girl of his dreams; he was costarring in a play with her, a pursuit that fed his soul instead of chipping away at it; and he was doing it all without police scrutiny or ill will from the Chechen mob, now headed by his buddy NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan). It was, of course, too good to be true, like the recurring daydreams about a post-violent life that haunted Barry all season. With one offhand comment from acting teacher Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), to whom Barry had poured out his heart in the pilot, Detective Janice Moss (Paula Newsome) was onto him. (Janice is also Gene’s girlfriend.) That left Barry with two options: let her live, or keep the life he so richly—in Barry’s opinion, anyway—deserved.

The central debate of Barry’s entire season is condensed into Barry and Janice’s final conversation. “We want the same thing,” Barry argues. “We want to be happy. We want love. We want a life.” This is the necessary condition of the show Barry anchors. An audience needs someone to root for, and in order to root for Barry, we need to believe that his actions haven’t disqualified him from the satisfaction he’s gone to increasingly unforgivable lengths to pursue. The traditional television viewer would assume Barry sides with, well, Barry, if only to prop up the show’s continued existence. But then Newsome offers a counterargument so simple, so true that it instantly cuts through Barry’s bullshit—and ours, too. “But we’re not. We’re not the same, Barry,” she responds, as sad as she is certain. “Because I’m a cop, and you’re a fuckin’ murderer.”

I should note that we don’t see what comes next. There’s just a gunshot, seen from the window of the guest bedroom at Gene’s vacation home where Sally is sleeping, and a visibly shaken Barry trying to will himself back to sleep. It’s possible the Barry writers will bring back Janice in Season 2, which is currently being written. It’s just not what the scene suggests, because Janice’s death builds on the total collapse in Barry’s self-justification that began when he killed innocent ex-Marine Chris (Chris Marquette). As horrifying as it was to watch Barry dispatch a civilian, Chris was a character who existed almost entirely in relation to Barry: an example of what he could have been, and what he wasn’t. Janice is a woman engaged in her own search for inner peace despite a tough, demanding job. Barry’s happiness comes directly at the expense of others’, and it’s increasingly hard for him to claim he’s any more entitled to a chance at long-term prosperity than anyone else.

Personally, Janice’s presumed death was the moment I turned on Barry in a way I find it hard for the show to reverse; I’m not entirely sure it will try to. Barry’s past may not automatically disqualify him from assimilating back into mainstream society, though Barry would like us to consider that question much more closely than its initial episodes seemed to suggest. Barry’s present, however, sees him drift further from his dream the tighter he clings to it—a tragic paradox, yes, but one of Barry’s own making. Hader and his cocreator, Alec Berg, have taken the daring step of demonstrating Barry’s failure to redeem himself at the beginning of their show’s run—not in the middle, when we’re already invested, or at the end, when we no longer have to spend years in his company. I, too, am uncertain about where the show will go from here. But given that Barry was able to walk such a narrow tonal tightrope from its outset, not to mention an ethical one, I trust that Hader and Berg have a longer-term vision in mind. In the meantime, they’ve offered us plenty to think about.

Killing Eve is a more puckish and playful show than Barry, reflecting the radically different personalities of their superficially similar assassins. A Russian ex-con turned international woman of mystery, Villanelle (Jodie Comer) has no desire to exit the lifestyle that brings her into contact with Eve (Sandra Oh), a British intelligence agent set on tracking her down. Villanelle is unrepentant about not just the murders, which target various international power players at the behest of a shadowy organization known as The Twelve, but the obvious joy she takes in them. Villanelle doesn’t have emotions so much as she tries them on, and guilt isn’t nearly as fun to play with as malice or joy.

Without any internal struggle between Villanelle and her conscience, Killing Eve exports much of its conflict to Eve and the push-pull between the spy and her target. Like many cops-and-criminals sagas, Killing Eve is a story about obsession; more specifically, it’s a story about being obsessed with someone you have no power to change or influence. There’s plenty of room for Eve to become more like Villanelle, which she does. (And in some cases, quite literally: Villanelle steals Eve’s suitcase and returns it stocked with new clothes and perfume. Eve then dutifully tries them on.) There’s virtually no chance of Villanelle becoming more like Eve, at least in the moral compass department.

Killing Eve is well aware we’re just as drawn to Villanelle as Eve is. She’s liberated, carefree, fun, funny, and bewitchingly beautiful. Eve’s attitude toward her is equal parts envy and admiration, with fear and disgust as distant thirds. But because Eve is well acquainted with Villanelle’s body count, her enchantment comes with a compulsion to rationalize. This puts her squarely in the shoes of the viewer, vainly searching for redeeming qualities in an objectively irredeemable person to justify her fascination. “I know something happened to you,” she tells Villanelle in their first extended face-to-face encounter, a tense dinner Eve hosts against her will in her own kitchen. “What did he do to you?” She’s referring to Villanelle’s first-ever casualty, a murder-castration committed back when she was known as Oksana. Eve is looking for an explanation—an origin story to clarify Villanelle’s behavior, and therefore at least partially excuse it. Villanelle knows it, too: “I need someone to help me,” she sobs. “I don’t want to do this anymore.” Eve doesn’t fall for it, which is what makes her a worthy adversary for Villanelle and not just another hapless spook. Still, you can see her fight against the temptation.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Killing Eve’s lead writer and showrunner, is an experienced hand at manipulating an audience’s urge to identify with a protagonist. Fleabag, her breakout series, charmed the viewer with confessional fourth-wall breaks and insouciant asides, only to reveal that the eponymous heroine’s dysfunction went far deeper than nihilistic jokes. But even Fleabag waited until its finale to unveil the full extent of her indiscretions. By the time Eve and Villanelle have their sit-down, Villanelle has already murdered dozens of people and several of Eve’s colleagues, including her valued mentor, Bill (David Haig). A neat cause-and-effect to explain her psychosis almost certainly doesn’t exist. But even if it did, it wouldn’t exonerate her—just allow Eve to tell herself she’s trying to rescue someone from the real bad guys instead of feeding one of them shepherd’s pie. The show sends a powerful message, if one it’s ensured won’t totally land: With Villanelle, what you see is what you get. Killing Eve isn’t letting her—or the spectators who’ve idly Googled her incredible pink dress—off the hook.

Earlier this year, American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace used a reverse-chronological structure to make sure there was nothing to distract its viewership from the monstrosity of Andrew Cunanan’s misdeeds. Barry and Killing Eve are equally ruthless about exposing the full extent of their leads’ culpability, yet Hader, Berg, and Waller-Bridge allow this wrongdoing to coexist with poignance, in Barry’s case, and likability, in Villanelle’s. The effect is much messier, and arguably even more uncomfortable. Given the chance, all of us would willfully ignore the overwhelming bad to focus on the possibly nonexistent good, a truth Barry and Killing Eve demonstrate both on and off the screen.

Much of Barry’s and Villanelle’s appeal comes from Hader’s and Comer’s tremendous performances: Hader’s melancholic and desperate, Comer’s vivacious and spiteful. Much of it also comes from a tendency to place ourselves in the perspective we’re presented with, encouraged by a lifetime’s worth of film and TV. It’s a hard habit to break, enough so that the shows have led to some jarring dissonance in real life. Bill Hader has expressed discomfort at being told his character gunning down strangers without remorse “was straight-up hot” when it was “supposed to be crazy disturbing.” Over the past few weeks, Tumblr has turned into a Villanelle fan club. We’re so used to leading roles being aspirational ones that we continue to act like that’s still the case, even when it manifestly isn’t.

Considering how unusual Barry and Killing Eve are, though, it’s understandable that viewers are still figuring out how to respond. That serial killing is a more outlandish form of rule-breaking than everyday narcissism helps explain the lack of revulsion; it’s harder to process, and therefore internalize or judge. But so does our reluctance to admit someone we’ve projected onto, felt for, or aspired toward didn’t deserve our attachment. Barry and Killing Eve make bad fans of us all.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.