There are plenty of reasons to love Barry. The HBO sitcom has really surprised in its freshman season, starting off by pitching itself as a quirky dark sitcom about a hitman who has an existential crisis and decides to try his hand at acting and, well, going places thereafter, over the course of the seven episodes we’ve seen so far. But as we approach this week’s season finale, and coming off of a handful of rousing episodes after the show picked up steam and culminating in the penultimate “Chapter Seven: Loud, Fast, And Keep Going” this past Sunday, I thought it would be fun to take a look at what makes this show tick, and how it’s managed to surprise us by elevating itself to a level I didn’t think possible, even with the pedigree of all the people involved.
In case you haven’t seen it, here’s what been happening on “Barry” so far (and be forewarned, this will contain some spoilers: While on a hit in Los Angeles for the Chechen mob, Barry (Bill Hader, who also co-created the show), a former marine and current hitman, gets roped into attending an acting class alongside his target, Ryan. Barry becomes interested in the class as well as one of the aspiring actresses in it, Sally (Sarah Goldberg), so he decides to start attending. He’s a terrible actor, but his real-life story is so absurd and unbelievable that the teacher, Gene Cousineau (portrayed by the incomparable Henry Winkler), thinks he’s improvising and lets him into the class.
Meanwhile, the Chechens think Barry is screwing them, so they send their own hitman after Barry. Things get messy and Ryan and some Chechens wind up dead, attracting the attention of the (mostly incompetent) police but also roping Barry and his handler Fuches (another incredible character actor in Stephen Root) into Chechen affairs. Fuches and the Chechens convince Barry to stick around and do more jobs for them, but things only get messier when (a) a fellow marine that Barry meets insists on doing these jobs with him and (b) the Bolivians that Barry goes after wind up being much more competent than the Chechens had anticipated.
So, long story short, as the events of the seventh episode unfold, Barry has inadvertently started a gang war and gotten his army buddies killed, all while the police is slowly starting to catch up to him. “Loud, Fast and Keep Going” is a particularly phenomenal episode, because it feels like shit is finally starting to get real for Barry. We’ve seen glimpses of him break through his monotonous exterior in the past, like in that first episode when he admits to Gene that he’s a hitman, and when his fellow actors question his time at war and his PTSD kind of snaps through. In this episode, after the army guy Taylor winds up dead in a failed bum-rushing of the Bolivian drug lord, Barry is forced to kill the other guy that was along for the ride, his buddy Chris. Chris had no idea what he was getting into and did not heed Barry’s call to get out of the car as they were on the way to do the job. In fact, prior to getting the drop on one of the Bolivian hitmen, Chris had never even killed anyone. So when he laments to Barry and tells him that he’d rather serve time and come clean to the police than deal with it on his own, Barry has no choice but to kill his friend.
All of this coincides with the big play that the class is putting on. Sally, who Barry is still enamored with even though he previously pushed her away with his antics and lack of demeanor, has brazenly taken on the role of Macbeth. She has everything riding on this as an agent is there to see her. She needs Barry to deliver a line for her. The whole thing is ridiculous because why does any of this matter, and why would Barry delivering one meaningless line make or break her performance? Barry is fucked up because he can’t get the image of Chris’ wife getting the call that she’s now a widow. He’s never had to kill someone he knew before, and even struggled killing Taylor, the crazy army go who finagled himself into Barry and Fuches’ business and caused this mess in the first place. So Barry channels that into his one line about how the queen is dead, and pushes Sally into giving the performance of her life and earning the agent’s card.
Considering a lot of the show is about gang wars and a hitman realizing that what he’s doing is crazy and fucked, the fact that the emotional crux of the episode is in a bad student rendition of McBeth for the lowest stakes possible is kind of amazing. The show manages to make you care the most about a mediocre actress getting a business card from a low-end Hollywood agent. And they do it by treating this plot more seriously than it has any right to be treated, more seriously than all the other crazy stuff happening on the show.
Because while the stakes may be low, they’re real. If Sally doesn’t get that card, her career is probably over. She’s put everything into the idea of becoming an actress, to the point where we don’t know who that character is without that identity. Getting that card is paramount for her, and the show has managed to set up a conceit where it all hinges on Barry, even though that’s sort of laughable. And Barry is able to pull it off because he’s finally starting to feel something as it pertains to the things that he’s doing, to the lives that he’s ruining. His job is finally starting to hit close to home, he’s finally starting to realize that there are consequences to his actions. He’s falling apart emotionally because he had to kill Chris and because the job went south. So that line delivery, that pressure on him to deliver a line is merely a vessel for what he’s feeling.
I think that the show insists on us clinging to Sally and her journey because, while the stakes are higher for Barry’s hitman business, we know he’s going to come out on top. Maybe some Chechens die, maybe even Fuches days could be numbered, but there’s no “Barry” without Barry. He’s going to survive and get the job done, even if it breaks him. Sally is probably not at risk at being killed, but she may not “survive” in that acting is her only means of survival, so Barry coming through for her is a big fucking deal.
The fact that the show is able to make us feel invested in all of this is a testament to the people behind it. Bill Hader is proving his brilliance behind the scenes (after proving it on screen for years at Saturday Night Live), and he’s doing it with the help of co-creator Alec Berg (one of the best working comedy writer/directors). The directing is top notch too, not only from Berg and Hader but also from two-episode stints from Maggie Carey and Hiro Murai (who is currently having a hell of a moment between this show and his contributions with Donald Glover). This group of directors has contributed to one of the show’s core strengths; the way the show handles its action. The action on “Barry” is on par with some of the best hour-long dramas, and the way it crafts action sequences is something you wouldn’t expect from a sitcom, similarly to how you wouldn’t expect it to deal with the psyche of a hitman and former marine the way that it has.
But it’s also really good at balancing this out with truly funny moments. There’s a perfect dichotomy between the serious stuff in “Barry” and the gut-busting funny stuff. Not only because that funny stuff is really funny, but because of the source as well. Despite being one of the funniest men on the planet, Hader mostly plays Barry straight. As do most of the aspiring actors in his class, including the aforementioned Sarah Goldberg and others like The Good Place’s D’Arcy Carden. They’re just as serious about acting as Hader is about killing. That isn’t to say that they haven’t had room to be funny on the show, but in comparison, those around them are downright quirky. Henry Winkler plays Gene Cousineau like he would Barry Zuckercorn on Arrested Development. Stephen Root has tapped into something hilarious by like eating something in every scene he’s in. The incompetent police characters are great. And, bar none, the two main Chechens on the show, played by Glenn Fleshler and Anthony Carrigan are the most hilarious part of the show. Carrigan’s NoHo Hank in particular is a standout and maybe my favourite new character on TV this year.
And that’s really the key. Hader can tap into dramatic chops hidden under the surface of the guy known for breaking character on SNL and he can delight up in that sense, but he still knows that the format needs to be funny, and that’s where Stephen Root stuffing his face with complementary hotel breakfast or NoHo Hank sending Barry sad Bitmojis comes in. Or, situationally, we can laugh at how the low stakes McBeth play hinges on a dude having a breakdown delivering one meaningless line. That’s hilarious, even if it’s fucked up, and I’m invested in seeing what happens.
All of this makes “Barry” a special show. It’s hilarious, but it can be serious, and it’s certainly complex. The people behind and in front of the camera are phenomenal, and the plot is compelling. With the season finale airing at the end of this week, I highly encourage everyone to catch up on what’s one of the best new shows of 2018.