At the end of season 1, HBO’s Barry made a bold statement by taking its title character, the low-rent Midwestern hitman turned struggling actor played by series co-creator Bill Hader, well past the point of redemption. Taking that particular narrative route off the table through the act of Barry killing Det. Janice Moss (Paula Newsome), the girlfriend of his acting coach Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), was simultaneously a masterstroke in avoiding the cliches of a sub subgenre like hitman stories, but it was also exciting to watch a smart, inventive new series deliberately paint itself into a corner. It was different from the typical season-ending TV cliffhanger in that instead of one specific question waiting to be answered, the future of the entire series was suddenly up for grabs.
With Barry (both the show and the character) having passed a rubicon of sorts, and with absolution pretty much a no go, there’s really only one place to take the audience: deeper down the hole Barry continually seems to be digging for himself. And because this is a half-hour comedy, and not an hour-long “difficult men” drama from 10 years ago, Barry finds itself walking a difficult tightrope. But no matter how deep into the darkest parts of its main character’s heart the show plunges, it never forgets just how many comedic tools it has at its disposal. That much is made evident as Barry continues to seek solace from his darker half in Gene’s acting classes, and by asking season 1 standout NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), a smiley Chechen underling who unexpectedly ascended to the top of the ladder when Barry killed his boss, if he’s evil.
It’s the sort of question another show might’ve had its character ask as a way of explaining to the audience just how not evil he is. But in Barry the audience already knows the answer, and when NoHo responds, “Oh, my god. I mean absolutely. Do I not tell you that enough? You are, like, the most evil guy I know.” It’s not just a gleeful Chechen crime lord misinterpreting a social cue, it’s the truth.
Barry confronts the moral confusion of its central character using a three-pronged approach that sees Barry attempt to channel his inherent darkness through his acting — which has become the only outlet for him — while also being forced to do NoHo’s bidding as a Burmese crime lord attempts to push in on his nascent partnership with the Bolivians who were enemy no. 1 just a season ago. Meanwhile, Detective Loach (John Pirrucello) is hot on Barry’s trail after Janice’s disappearance, and it doesn’t take him long to come to the same conclusion his erstwhile partner did. Det. Loach’s investigation is also the series’ means of bringing Fuches (Stephen Root), Barry’s former manager back into the fold, and given how easily he’s tied to the bloodshed of the first season, it’s a wonder these two have managed to stay under the radar for as long as they have.
When season 2 isn’t building toward another explosive confrontation between Barry and a dogged detective, it’s examining the ways in which the title character is struggling to insulate himself from the morally repugnant things he’s done and will, in all likelihood, continue to do as the season and series progresses. This time around, Hader and co-creator Alec Berg, along with director Hiro Murai, utilize a flashback device to when Barry was a sharpshooter in Afghanistan. The aftermath of his first two kills finds him showered in praise and adoration. Watching this unfold, it’s no wonder Barry seeks a second profession in front of an audience.
What Barry makes incredibly clear in ‘The Show Must Go On, Probably?’ and the next two episodes made available to critics for review, is that there really isn’t any place left for Barry to go but down. And while it would be easy to see him at least partially absolved due to extenuating circumstances, Barry’s made too many choices on his own for that to ever happen. Instead, the show treats its audience to a series of increasingly anxious encounters in which the two sides of Barry’s life threaten to collide again and again. Those situations are even more perilous given the degree to which Barry has moored himself to Gene and his ambitious girlfriend/acting partner Sally (Sarah Goldberg) in an attempt to separate the life he wants from the one he can't seem to escape.
That potential life is slipping from his grasp, though, and the from that growing desperation Barry is able to generate an incredible amount of tension. That the series can balance such a difficult high-wire act while still being an effective comedy is a sensational feat, to be sure. But though Barry deserves a considerable amount of praise for being a worthwhile comedy that’s also as bleak as anything else on television, it deserves even more for steering away from cliches and instead driving straight into the dark heart of what would otherwise have been a sympathetic character.
Barry continues next Sunday with ‘The Power of No’ @10pm on HBO.