One of TV’s original likable scumbags once offered his formula for getting away with (emotional) murder: “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” All people want to do, including television audiences, is forgive and forget; the trick is to give them permission to do so by offering up a shiny new thing to fixate on. Their conscience will thank you for it.
But Barry Berkman is not Don Draper. Adultery and identity theft are one matter, serial, cold-blooded murder quite another. The titular antihero of HBO’s Barry, played by writer-director-comedian Bill Hader, is guilty of crimes as literal as they are spiritual. Juxtaposed with the petty narcissism of his acting classmates or the mock professionalism of his organized crime overlords, the height of the Marine-turned-hitman’s body count is the foundation of his namesake show’s comedy. Barry’s kill tally, and his targets, also provide an alarmingly easy answer to the fundamental question of pretty much every antihero show before it: Is our protagonist a bad person, or just a person who does bad things?
Barry’s first season was impressive in part because it wasted so little time in giving this central query a definitive answer. In the seventh, penultimate episode, Barry escalated from taking out career criminals on his bosses’ orders to killing a nonviolent civilian on the verge of turning himself, and therefore Barry, in for a job gone wrong. Then, in case viewers didn’t get the point, Barry shot the warm, dedicated detective, who’d also become his mentor’s girlfriend, after she found him out—another innocent bystander caught in the crosshairs of his cover-up. To the central irony of an assassin trying to act, Barry added a deeper, sadder one: The harder Barry tries to go straight, the more irredeemable he becomes. Barry thinks he’s entitled to freedom from his old life without facing any of its consequences, and that belief in and of itself makes him a monster—a quiet, gentle, depressed, very deadly monster.
But the strength of Barry’s debut also seemed to spell trouble for its longevity. If Barry came down so hard, so early on the issue of Barry’s integrity, or rather lack thereof, what more ground was there to cover? Would the show descend into nihilism, or be forced to backtrack? The New York Times’s James Poniewozik channeled this sentiment in a piece headlined “On That Barry Finale and Why Some Shows Are So Good, They Need to End.”
“Either Barry is capable of change or he’s not,” Poniewozik wrote. “If he is, that seems like material for one more very good season or two. If he’s not … then the character’s drive (you, and Barry, want him to redeem himself) is at odds with the needs of the plot (you, and the network, want the story to keep going).” Hader and his cocreator Alec Berg, also of Silicon Valley, have taken such worries in stride. “That review was like, ‘Oh, awesome!’” Hader told The New Yorker’s Tad Friend earlier this month. “And then it was like, ‘But it’s actually bad, because we’re doing Season 2 now, so …’” “So tough shit,” Berg added.
I, too, struggled to see a path forward for Barry that retained its delicate balance of humor, pathos, despair, and earnest soul-searching. But that’s also why I don’t currently have an Emmy taking up real estate on my mantel. (Both Hader and his costar Henry Winkler won awards for their performances in Season 1; Barry itself was also nominated for Outstanding Comedy Series.) The show’s sophomore effort, which premieres this Sunday, doesn’t continue to probe the same gray areas around guilt and atonement. It changes the conversation.
In the three episodes, out of an eventual eight, provided to critics, Barry accepts as a given that its central character isn’t a good person. Instead, it poses a new question: How long will it take until he can, or is forced to, admit that to himself? Given that actors stereotypically lack self-awareness, this line of inquiry applies to most of Barry’s cast, not just its eponymous lead. Emotional honesty is the core of good acting, and yet few people are less capable of being honest with themselves than theater types, even the ones who aren’t secret mercenaries.
Barry’s first season ended with a flash-forward, a near future the second-season premiere dutifully fleshes out. Barry is sharing an apartment with two of his classmates and working a day job with another at Lululemon. His unlikely comrade, a genial Chechen mobster named NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), is adjusting to the responsibilities that come with being boss. Barry’s acting teacher, Winkler’s serenely egotistical Gene Cousineau, is shattered by grief, going so far as to consider shutting down the acting class that gives him purpose and a steady stream of adoring disciples.
It’s not a spoiler to say he doesn’t; the show must go on, including the tragicomedy of ditching crime for bad Shakespeare. But the new project Gene seizes on also happens to be the perfect vehicle for Barry’s slightly retooled mission. Rather than rehash monologues out of everything from Macbeth to Magnolia, Cousineau charges his pupils with writing their own material, sourced from the most traumatic moments of their own lives. For Barry, that means his time in Afghanistan, which left him so shattered that a gig as a murderer for hire looked like a life raft. For his girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg), a bona fide working actress still stranded in thankless bit parts, that means the abusive marriage she left to pursue her dreams in Hollywood. For Gene, it prompts one of the funniest lines of the series to date: “LET’S MAKE IT ABOUT OURSELVES FOR ONCE!”
This pivot dovetails nicely with the standard work of a sophomore season: broadening and deepening an ensemble beyond the outlines we came to know in Volume 1. As viewers, we’ve only heard about Barry’s time at war. Now, we get full-blown, unflinching flashbacks in keeping with the show’s skepticism toward a killer who wants to move on from his past without accounting for it. (Jingoistic young men let loose in a foreign country are about as glamorous as mercenaries who strangle drug dealers in a pile of their children’s toys.) Sally’s origin story, too, provides important context for the character and her single-minded drive to succeed. But Gene’s assignment isn’t just about his students’ histories; it’s about how they choose to present those histories, often in a more flattering, less truthful light than the project calls for. Just as Barry won’t let himself reckon with the true meaning of his actions, he can’t bring himself to admit to his peers that he got a rush out of his first kill, or that he’s not the war hero they might have pictured. For her part, Sally learns she may have exaggerated her own defiance, only to shut down any doubts before they start to interfere with her self-image.
Slowly but surely, Barry turns into a show about people who can’t acknowledge the truth about themselves, even when it’s staring them right in the face. (A version of the theme even plays out in the gangster subplot, as NoHo Hank persists in believing he can co-run the mob with his Bolivian BFF, despite pressure from his bosses and a new Burmese rival.) We know Barry’s soul is beyond repair; more importantly, Barry knows we know it, and shapes its plot accordingly. Rather than handicapping the show, the undeniability of Barry’s badness ends up a boon, precisely because he continues to deny it. The dramatic irony continues to build, likely toward its breaking point. But Barry isn’t there just yet.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.