Anchored by a career-best performance from co-creator Bill Hader, Barry is an astonishing high-wire act. (Spoilers ahead!)
I’m done with all of this. Starting…now.
Bill Hader is so good in Barry that it’s hard to watch him now in something as benign as a Pringles commercial. The guy was one of the greatest Saturday Night Live performers of his generation, responsible for “Stefon” and numerous indelible characters, and now I can’t fathom him going back to broad comedy at all. Like Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, Hader has crossed a similar threshold — with the key difference that it’s a role he wrote for himself.
Co-created with Silicon Valley’s Alec Berg, Barry occupies the same nexus of violence, tar-black humor, and poor decision-making that the Coen Brothers have made their bread and butter, but the series never feels like an imitation. That’s partly due to Hader’s monumentally great performance that should get him showered with Emmys, but also to the success of the tightrope walk the pair are attempting. Because Barry Block, née Berkman, is not a good guy. He thinks he is, deep down, and he wants to be, but he murders people for a living. And one could have a conversation about how poorly America treats its vets that Barry once felt like his only option after returning from Afghanistan was to take up the hitman life, but the fact remains that everything he does is his decision.
Early episodes kept any kind of moral reckoning at a remove, not just for Barry, but for us. We like him because we like rubbery comedian Bill Hader. We’re used to antiheroes who have convinced themselves they’re doing the wrong things for the right reasons, like assassinating bad guys (or who he’s told are bad guys) so they don’t end up hurting good guys. The Chechens mobsters of Barry have the same amiability as baddies in movies and TV shows that never engage with real consequences. In the premiere, when Barry stumbled into Cousienau’s acting class while surveilling Ryan Madison, we emitted a knowing chuckle; of course this was going to be a silly show, at its heart, about a man regaining his humanity.
Barry awkwardly delivered a monologue from Glengarry Glen Ross; he fell in love, sort of, with the ebullient Sally; he tried again and again to break his arrangement off with Fuchs. The central quandary was universal: being good at something you hate, vs. being bad at something that actually satisfied you. As an audience, we were ready to forgive Barry’s past transgressions because we like him, and we want him to be happy. It also would have been all too easy to keep the dramatic tension at a sitcom level: would Barry make it to his performance on time? Would he remember his line(s)? Would he patch things up with Sally, etc., etc., all the while staying one nimble step ahead of Moss’s investigation?
Except that that’s not what happened at all. Hader and Berg didn’t make it that easy. Everything has consequences. And as the bodies continued to pile up, each death weighed more heavily as we realized just how far gone Barry had been all along. When he murdered his friend Chris in his own car because he once again felt he had no other choice (Hader’s most extraordinary moment of many), we wondered whether he could be redeemed at all. With the show implying in the season finale that Barry has murdered Detective Moss (though we don’t know for sure), we wonder whether he even should be. “Starting…now,” he repeats to himself, but he doesn’t really believe it. His daydreams, which for a blissful few weeks had become reality, are dissolving around him again. There is still so much further for him to fall.
That’s not to say that Barry isn’t still entertaining, as well. The nimble cast and direction (from Hader, Berg, Maggie Carey, and Atlanta god Hiro Murai) finds the humanity in these oddballs while avoiding fatal tonal whiplash. As Sally, theater vet Sarah Goldberg is easily the breakout; as hard as it is to convincingly act poorly, it’s even more difficult to play mediocre, and the moment in “Loud, Fast, and Keep Going” when a guilt-wracked Barry gives her enough on stage to sell her Macbeth scene is as much a victory for Goldberg’s expertly-modulated performance as it is for Sally. That Barry is going to break her heart again — if not put her in real danger — is inevitable, and I’m dreading it.
Henry Winkler is marvelous as Cousineau, who’s a buffoon, but wouldn’t be a half-decent director if he wasn’t good at reading his actors and telling them what they need to hear. While auditioning for “Man in Back of Line,” Winkler tells us an entire story in a single defeated line reading. Even when the show missteps, like the romance between Cousineau and Moss (Paula Newsome) that never quite gels, the cast is fully committed whether the moment calls for farce or pathos. The acting class is populated with heavy-hitters like The Good Place’s D’arcy Carden and Killing Eve’s Kirby Howell-Baptiste who will hopefully have more room to run next season. And I adored Anthony Carrigan’s NoHo Hank, the most Coen-esque character of the bunch; he’s not cut out for this line of work but is still doing his damnedest to bring positivity and pragmatism to it, and that’s what ultimately allows him to end the season on top.
For Barry, however, the nightmare is just beginning, and it doesn’t seem like he’ll ever wake from it. His intentions aren’t enough. The halting performance he puts forward for Sally isn’t enough. Like all of us, he’s defined by his actions, with the bitterest irony being that the cascading tragedies can be traced back to his inaction — removing Taylor from the picture when he had the chance, or simply leaving his life behind entirely. If acting can be a tool for bringing repressed emotions to the surface, for “dealing with your shit,” as Sally puts it, Barry has a long, long way to go. Part of what makes the series so good is that it’s not afraid to show us the full extent of Barry’s sewage, and doesn’t undercut it with a joke. I’d wager many viewers didn’t fully know what they were signing up for with Barry. But it’s also truly surprising in a way television rarely is, a morality play every bit as tragic as Macbeth.