Barry: An Examination of Morality and the Capacity for Change

ve decided that 2019 is Bill Hader’s year, because he’s amazing and he deserves it.

On top of receiving almost universal praise for his role in the highly-anticipated “It: Chapter Two”, he recently won his second Emmy for “Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series”, his second in a row for the show of his co-creation, “Barry”. Discussion over the former has often led to discussion of the latter, as many have said that there shouldn’t be surprise over Hader’s competence as a serious actor with two seasons of his tragicomedy under his belt.

Barry” first premiered on HBO in March of 2018, a collaboration between Hader and Alec Berg (a writer known primarily for his work on “Seinfeld” and “Silicon Valley”), with a second season quickly following in March of 2019, and a third soon to come. The show follows Hader as the titular character, a “a [former Marine] turned-hitman from Ohio who travels to Los Angeles to kill someone, and then finds himself joining an acting class”, and the conflict grows from there as Barry attempts to keep these two vastly different lives separate.

Like a good portion of the media I engage with these days, I was introduced to the show partially through the power of social media, and partially through my sister’s complete obsession with all things Bill Hader. She had been hyping the show up to me for months before finally sitting me and the rest of our family down to watch it once I was back home for the summer. Spanning only 16 episodes (each roughly 30 minutes long), it took less than a month for us to clear through both seasons.

In light of Bill Hader’s second Emmy win, as well as rewatching it recently, I’m brought back to thinking how phenomenal the show really is. I wish I could watch it for the first time all over again; but because I can’t, I’ve been living vicariously through my friends, as at least three have started watching upon my continued insistence.

(Here is your obligatory spoiler warning for both seasons of “Barry”; I would love to give a spoiler-free review of the show, but so much of what I love involves a lot of elements in the second half of the second season, and I can’t just not talk about all that. So if you have not seen the show, I implore you do so.)

Really, the show rides firmly on Bill Hader’s performance; despite doing some serious work before this, “Barry” was many peoples’ first introduction to him outside of the restrictions of “Saturday Night Live” and similarly associated comedy films.

I recently watched “The Skeleton Twins”, a 2014 drama where Hader portrays a suicidal gay man who struggles to repair the relationship with his twin sister, and in the new context of Barry, it’s an amazing step into the world of serious drama for him. In that film, he’s excellent at dancing the line between comic and tragic, at conveying so much tragedy in simple expressions. That film could be pointed to as introducing the balancing act that “Barry” ultimately perfects.

Bill Hader as Barry is able to achieve a level of emotion that I don’t think anybody was prepared for going into the show. The first few episodes, while undeniably detailed with serious elements, are not inherently dark. It keeps one foot firm on either side of the comedy/tragedy line, never allowing one to overshadow the other.

It is not until, I would argue, the seventh episode that a drastic tonal shift occurs, and the show leans more dark than comic from henceforth. I think about “Chapter Seven: Loud, Fast, And Keep Going” a lot, and how the episode contains some of the strongest acting moments of the first season and of the whole show itself.

For context, the episode follows the aftermath of a bum-rush gone horribly wrong, leaving only Barry and his Marine friend as survivors. Much of the episode continues its back-and-forth between Barry the Actor and Barry the Hitman, but the elements the show had been teasing so much in episodes prior (that being, the true darkness of killing) is finally directly addressed.

Barry, in a desperate effort to protect himself and his new life, ultimately chooses to kill his friend in order to keep him from going to the police about their failed bum-rush. This triggers an emotional breakdown, and the editing cuts between him and his fantasy of what is going to happen to his friend’s wife and child and the anguish they’re going to go through because of his choice. No matter what he does, all he can see is the devastation he’s wrought onto innocent lives.

The peak of the breakdown comes with Barry’s singular line in the class’s production of Macbeth; previously, his delivery in rehearsals had been mocked and berated for lack of emotion. But in the midst of his breakdown, Barry (and, by extension, Hader) comes out and delivers the line with such intensity that everyone within the world of the show, and the audience by extension, is completely stunned.

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In that moment, the first time I was watching the show, I really started to realize that this was something special. I realized that Bill Hader could act his ass off. This scene was the first real proof that this show was going to be more than a dark comedy, that it was going to have a genuine depth and range to it that no one expected it to.

At the end of season one, Barry swears off his life of crime after once again murdering someone to keep his lives separate. This kicks off the conflict of season two, as the woman he had to kill was a policewoman, and further dating Barry’s acting teacher, who is devastated by her disappearance. In this season, Barry is still struggling to keep his violence in his past, but he also begins to realize that his new life isn’t as perfect as he might’ve imagined it to be.

His relationship with Sally I think is perhaps the most emblematic of this. Barry meets Sally through their shared acting class, and they finally become a couple at the end of the first season, leaving us in the second season with a different dynamic and conflict between them. Barry spends most of the first season idolizing Sally, in part because we’re shown he has little to no positive relationships in his life. And so the first woman who shows him kindness is held up to an unattainable standard, and Barry must slowly come to realize that she is as deeply flawed as he is (albeit in extremely different ways, of course).

I personally don’t like Sally, but I do empathize with her. She goes through a thematically similar arc to Barry, in that, in the second season, she also must come to terms with how much she wants to change in comparison to how much she is able to. She’s an abuse victim, and struggling to cope with the emotions and hurt that comes with that.

But because of her and Barry’s very specific personal flaws, they make a terrible couple. Neither are properly emotionally available to each other, and Sally cannot stand to see Barry succeed because she views it as proof that she is failing (red flag). In the finale of season two, she ends up physically striking him before they preform together, and it’s rough to watch; Sally should know, better than anyone, what the impact is of physical abuse, and yet she raises a hand to Barry anyway.

This point is part of the larger theme of the show, that of examining ability versus desire. Back in the first episode of the show, Barry delivers a monologue that ends on these lines:

That internal debate is the thesis of the entire show. Barry wants to change, but whether he wants to or not isn’t the question. The question is whether or not he is capable of that change, whether or not his desire is equal to his ability. Is change something Barry can realistically achieve, or is it something he can only dream of?

Barry, Sally, and a multitude of other supporting characters all work into this theme. Barry struggles with his violence, and fights to see it as his past despite it continuously being a part of his present. Sally fights to separate herself from being seen as a victim, despite not being as strong as she pretends to be, despite not being healed.

The antagonists of the show are all similar in that they want things to conform back to the status quo. They want Barry to continue killing without regard for what it does to him emotionally. But what’s interesting about “Barry” is that it seems to imply that the antagonists are not entirely wrong; the end of the second season takes a very dark approach to its thematic question of change.

In the season two, episode one, Barry enters the frame by emerging from darkness and shadow. And in episode eight, after brutally murdering two gangs in a blind rage, in an effort to murder the man responsible for making him a hitman, the last we see of Barry is him wearily leaving the room, back into the shadows. Where at the start of the season he was finally starting to escape his violence, by the end, he returns to it. And, despite the events preceding it, it isn’t violent; it is a quiet, shameful march into the dark.

In an interview with Terry Gross, Bill Hader said that one of the main questions that was asked in the writer’s room was indeed that question about the capacity to change; “Can you change your nature?”

If you look at the end of “Barry”’s second season, you would probably come away with the answer that no, you can’t. In that same interview, Hader takes it apart further:

“He says, you know, I don’t want to be a violent person. I don’t want [you] to see me as a violent person. And then… he is at the end, you know? And it’s, like, hopefully the feeling in that last shootout is one of disappointment, you know, and Barry of like — come on, man, you know?
…When we’re making it and I’m shooting it, I think, oh, people should be disappointed in Barry and how kind of dark and sad this is, that he can’t fight his nature and that this is his true nature.”

The concept of true nature and how Hader and Berg dissect it is what makes “Barry” one of the most engaging shows I’ve watched in the past many years. It’s such a deeply tragic thing to watch Barry fight so hard to become better, only to ultimately fall back on those self destructive, inherently almost evil tendencies. He wants so badly to change, and yet by the end of the second season, he is resigned to his violence. He can no longer imagine anything better for himself.

But even on that dark thought, I still think the show is just as hopeful as it is depressing. One of my favorite scenes from the second season is between Barry and his acting teacher, Mr. Cousineau (played by Henry Winkler), as the two discuss Barry’s history with violence during his deployment. While not being an explicit discussion about Barry’s continued violence, the implicit connection is evident, and it is powerful.

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Barry”, foremost, is about how our desire to change is often in direct conflict with how much we are truly able to change. That conflict has the ability to be deeply depressing as well as optimistic, and the show examines both angles. While it primarily stresses the darkness so easy to fall back into, it also acknowledges that people aren’t doomed to do so. We can do terrible things, but we are not inherently defined by them.

This show deserves all the Emmys it has been nominated for, and I deeply wish it would win more. Bill Hader, if you couldn’t tell by my constant gushing, is more than deserving of his awards he’s won for his acting in the show. But he also deserves awards for the amazing directing work he’s done with it, and his co-stars deserve equal praise and recognition.

As season three is far into the future, with no real plan yet laid out, I will continue to encourage everyone in my social circle to check out this show in the meantime. It’s one of the best series currently airing, further one of the best shows to have been made in the 2000’s as a whole. The acting in it is award winning for a reason, the writing is tight and impactful everywhere it needs to be, and the direction is practically cinematic. I could and have gone on for ages about what a powerhouse of talent “Barry” is, and it is because of that talent that I can look to the show’s future with nothing but optimism.

Whatever direction Hader and Berg take, it will be beautifully crafted. It will be heartbreaking. It will be as close to perfect as I think television can get.

Barry is currently streaming on HBO, and available for purchase on YouTube, Amazon Prime, Google Play, and Vudu.

20, he/him transsexual. Questions, comments or requests at kredino@gmail.com — Selected works at loganashley.contently.com

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