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The Hitman’s Reality

After six episodes questioning whether what you do defines who you are, on Sunday night, ‘Barry’ made it clear that its killer-for-hire protagonist is beyond redemption

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Spoiler alert

The question that drives the first season of Barry is: Are you what you do, or are you what you want to do? The HBO half-hour from Bill Hader and Alec Berg stars Hader as a depressed Marine-turned-hitman who finds himself drawn to a San Fernando Valley acting class as a potential route for redemption. Most of the comedy on Barry comes from its contrasts: between Barry’s meek, mumbling personality and the brutality of his work; between cheery, guileless mobsters like Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan) and their criminal enterprise; between self-involved actors and the life-or-death stakes they’re completely oblivious to. Most of the drama, however, comes from Barry’s genuine desire to leave his life as a gun for hire behind, and his maybe not-so-genuine conviction that he’s a good person forced to do some bad-but-not-too-bad things.

Sunday’s “Loud, Fast, and Keep Going,” the seventh and penultimate episode of Barry’s first season, marks the spot where that delusion is finally pushed past its breaking point and both halves of Barry’s double life come to a head. In the cliffhanger that ended last week’s episode, musclebound wild card Taylor (Dale Pavinski) gung-hoed his way into a bloody confrontation with the Bolivian mafia, dragging both Barry and innocent bystander Chris (Chris Marquette) with him. Barry, ever the good soldier, was left to clean up the aftermath. Unbeknownst to his employers, he was also signed up to participate in a Shakespeare showcase that brought an end to his time with self-styled acting guru Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler). As a hitman, Barry’s natural instinct is to repress his emotions, internalizing everything that gets in the way of doing what he has to do. Acting, of course, calls for the opposite, demanding that Barry channel his emotions at the moment he can least afford to be in touch with them. The center that binds Barry’s sense of self together can no longer hold.

Barry has long justified his profession by telling himself that, while all the killing is “destroying him,” as Hader told my colleague Andrew Gruttadaro, the people he’s taking out kind of deserve it. “They’re, like, pieces of shit,” he reassures Gene in the pilot, even as he worries he’ll never be anything more than an exterminator. For the most part, to both Barry’s and the viewer’s relief, he’s been right. It’s not hard to sympathize with a murderous protagonist when the people he’s murdering are mostly drug dealers and anonymous gunmen. There have been moments, like a Bolivian assuring Barry mid-hit that “you don’t have to do this,” that remind us that the lives Barry’s taking, however compromised, are still lives. But there’s nothing that shatters the fragile scaffolding propping up Barry’s conscience, or that tests the bond between antihero and audience, like what Barry’s called on to do in “Loud, Fast, and Keep Going.”

While Taylor and his military buddy Vaughan (Marcus Brown) are immediately killed by Bolivian gunfire, Barry and Chris escape into the desert. A footsoldier discovers Barry—thanks to a text message from his scene partner and crush Sally (Sarah Goldberg), a testament to the devastating consequences of not leaving your phone on silent at all times—and Barry orders a shell-shocked Chris to shoot the Bolivian before he can radio his boss. Chris obeys, but pulling the trigger visibly shatters him. He tells Barry that he needs to come clean about his actions, an unthinking confession that instantly becomes his death sentence. Barry walks away with his hands in his pockets—his signature pose—and calls an Uber to the Shakespeare show. There, he channels all the guilt and trauma of what he’s just done into his single line, addressed to Sally’s Macbeth: “My lord, the queen is dead.” He’s in tears when he says it.

“That was acting, Barry,” Sally gushes after the show. (He’s made her look good in front of a medium-shot agent.) She’s unaware of Barry’s irony, and his tragedy: He’s able to act only when he’s not acting at all. Barry isn’t tapping into some hidden reserve of empathy to look so authentically devastated. He’s imagining Chris’s wife and 10-year-old son getting the call about his death, which Barry staged to pass as a troubled veteran’s suicide, like the expert he is.

Chris is not a psychopath, like Taylor, or an inept gang member, like the Chechens that Barry wipes out in the premiere. He’s just an ex-soldier who thought he was going to have a fun time with his friends. “I was never in the shit,” he sobs to Barry—he was just in logistics. This was his first time pulling the trigger on anyone, including an enemy combatant. He’s not someone Barry can logic himself into believing deserves to die. And he’s not someone whose death the audience can witness without seriously challenging our belief that Barry ever can be more than a murderer, or if he even has the right to.

“I didn’t even want to do it,” Chris blurts out to Barry in what he hasn’t realized are his final moments. “You made me do it.” Chris doesn’t know that he’s parroting Barry’s own excuses; to Barry, most of the blame for his current state lies with his family friend Fuches (Stephen Root), who recruited him and acts as his de facto agent. In his own twisted way, Fuches truly cares about Barry, letting out a strangled sob when Noho Hank erroneously tells him Barry died in the botched mission. Barry, too, seems to want the best for Chris, who represents a better version of himself: someone who responds to the act of killing in a way Barry is no longer capable of—the way a normal person would, and should. (Or, as Chris puts it: “You might might be cool with this shit, but I’m not.”) But neither man’s intentions make them less culpable for what they actually do.

Hader’s performance here is flat-out extraordinary; as arbitrary and inaccurate as awards often are, it’s impossible to watch this episode and not think of an Emmy reel. When Chris first tells Barry he’s going to turn himself in, Barry responds in the quiet, wounded tone we’re used to: “Why’d you have to say that?” Chris keeps talking, and that’s when Barry snaps: “WHY’D YOU HAVE TO SAY THAT?!?!” It’s a terrifying reminder that, for all of Barry’s humor, its title character isn’t a hapless fool—he’s a killer, capable of violence that’s finally about to be directed toward someone we like and respect. For the 30 endless seconds between Chris knowing what’s about to happen and Barry doing it, Hader stares out the window with a kind of furious sorrow. Barry is already haunted by his actions, but that’s not going to stop him from following through with them. “I know you’re not going to do anything crazy, Barry,” Chris unsuccessfully pleads. “I know you’re a good guy.” Barry proves him wrong in more ways than one.

We’re now nearly two decades into the antihero phase of modern television, and Barry appears to have learned from that genre’s worst mistakes. Hader and Berg, the latter of whom directed “Loud, Fast, and Keep Going,” don’t shy away from confronting their viewers with the full extent of Barry’s corruption. (The episode was written by Liz Sarnoff, a veteran of Deadwood and Lost.) They’re also not afraid to confront the possibility that the answer to the show’s central question is that Barry is what he’s done—and by implication, any sense of redemption may well be out of reach. After Sunday, it’s all but impossible to glamorize Barry the way some fans did Walter White, or sympathize with him as a victim making the best out of a bad situation. He’s crossed a line in a way Barry doesn’t even try to play for laughs.

Throughout the first season, Barry’s inner monologue has been punctuated by fantasy sequences imagining a peaceful future with Sally, kids, and a successful career. I’ve often found these cutaways saccharine and unnecessary, and didn’t understand their purpose until Barry experiences one last bout of wishful thinking en route to his performance. In this version of Barry’s imagination, he’s not massively successful, or surrounded by loved ones. He’s just able to deliver his single line perfectly, giving us a glimpse at an alternate universe where Hader is an accomplished Shakespearean actor. It’s not an especially lofty goal, but it’s still one that’s impossible to reach. The more modest Barry’s ambitions, the further he gets from achieving them. He probably never will.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.