Much of Barry season 1 was an exercise in managing tonal extremes. Ostensibly a series with a familiar premise — a skilled hitman looking to escape a life of senseless murder — the show was tasked with juggling the sort of comedy audiences have come to expect from former SNL funnyman Bill Hader with a dramatic through line that tracks the sort violence inherent in a story about people who kill other people for money. That violence was typically never played solely for laughs, and in the season’s penultimate episode, ‘Loud, Fast, and Keep Going’, the weight of Barry’s actions — namely, killing his friend, Chris — served as fuel for the nascent actor’s creative process and he experienced a breakthrough.
What might normally be played as a moment of triumph for the main character instead saw him dragged deeper into the soul-crushing muck he’d been wallowing in since returning home from his time in the military. Barry’s breakthrough, the discovery of his process, gaining access to the emotional pain necessary to finally become “an actor”, isn’t a place he wants to revisit anytime soon, but as the season 1 finale, ‘Know Your Truth’, makes clear, Barry’s acts of self-preservation won’t keep him too far from the emotional turbulence that feeds his new line of work.
Barry season 1 wrapped most of its story in ‘Loud, Fast, and Keep Going.’ The show seemingly hit its emotional zenith, leaving much of the actual finale to play out as a denouement. Aside from a few loose ends, like Fuches and the Chechens, Goran (Glenn Fleshler) and NoHo (Anthony Carrigan) in particular, the finale was largely left to its own devices. Which is why, after Goran was dispatched in gory fashion and the ever-affable NoHo quickly filled the void left by the Eastern European Tony Soprano, ‘Know Your Truth’ seemingly shifted into another one of Barry’s gleaming daydreams.
The finale makes a number of callbacks to the rest of the season, chief among them, Barry’s tendency toward wistful woolgathering and his fitful confession that was misinterpreted by Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) in the series premiere. As directed by series co-creator Alec Berg (who had a hell of a night on HBO last night, directing not only the Barry season finale, but also the terrific season 5 finale of Silicon Valley), the sequence capitalized on the season's repeated visits to Barry’s idyllic, imagined future, so that the trip to Gene’s dazzling lake house lulls the viewer into thinking it’s a fake, that any minute now Jon Hamm is going to materialize and ask to make use of Gene’s commode.
But as the sequence progresses, reality -- Barry’s reality -- begins to set in. During an otherwise staid dinner conversation, Gene inadvertently outs Barry and his connection to the Chechens. Janice (Paula Newsome) plays it cool, noticing Barry’s panicked expression without acting on it until later. Janice’s actions seal her fate, though Barry’s not above appealing to her desire to keep living the dream, his dream. After all, as he points out, she’s in a steady relationship with Gene and his lake house has phenomenal Wi-Fi. But Janice isn’t buying it. She can't; she’s not like Barry. What the series finds wickedly, depressingly funny about the situation is that, instead of shattering the illusion, Barry’s encounter with Janice just moves the goalposts. “Starting now” may as well be Barry’s mantra moving forward because the cycle of violence doesn’t seem like it will have an end, so long as he keeps chasing that idyll existence.
The lake house sequence isn’t just an effective way of toying with the audience’s expectations, it’s maybe the most effective example of how well the series manages its tonal shifts and, when the need arises, twists them into something discomfortingly funny. That sense of discomfort extends to Barry himself. Barry trades complexity in its lead character to further the complicated relationship between him and the audience. The show makes no allusions as to what kind of a guy he is, and yet you might be remise in saying you weren’t still rooting for him in some misbegotten way.
If you had questions about how the series might sustain itself in season 2 and, likely, beyond, here’s your answer. Barry isn’t as concerned about one man finding redemption in a new life and with a new passion as it might have seemed when the series began; it’s clear those particular goalposts will remain forever out of the character’s reach. Instead, like the show itself, Barry will have to find a way to balance a life lived in extremes.
Barry season 2 is will premiere in 2019 on HBO.