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When talking about Season 1 of HBO’s Barry, it’d be easy to make a joke about Bill Hader putting his anxieties about what to do after Saturday Night Live into the new show he co-created with Alec Berg. But that’s too oversimplified.
For one thing, Bill Hader knows exactly what he’s doing. And, he put in the necessary work and planning to transition from sketch comedy to HBO dramedy. Which is way more than can be said about his title character Barry Berkman.
Barry isn’t a comedy in the traditional sense, but it doesn’t matter because it’s so damn good at what it does. There’s no laugh track or studio audience, and there are only a few laugh-out-loud moments to be had. The “jokes” in Barry are more about juxtaposing physical comedy with gallows humor, or the timing of line deliveries.
What is Barry about? It’s an existential crisis brought to life in extremes. A hitman wants to change careers and become an actor. Most existential crises feel like they’re life or death to the person in the middle of one, but in Barry’s case it’s literally life or death to anyone who happens to be in Barry’s orbit. Talk about high stakes when all you’re trying to do is figure yourself out.
I was expecting the people in Gene Cousineau’s (Henry Winkler) theater class to be carrying most of the comedy, but they’re so serious about their quest of being discovered that they end up carrying most of the dramatic tension instead. And that’s why Barry sees himself in this group. He wants to be discovered too, as a human being. He has been a career guy since he came back from the war, and the people he works with don’t understand he has needs outside of work.
But this is impossible. His current career is literally about not being discovered, or even noticed. Being a hitman hinges entirely on being anonymous. Acting hinges entirely on being known. That’s the joke of Barry. One of his careers is a Montague and one of them is a Capulet. If the careers mix it up, people die. Just ask Ryan Madison (Tyler Jacob Moore) or Detective Janice Moss (Paula Newsome).
The other foundational joke in Barry is how the actors are not the ones who carry the comedic weight; it’s the hitmen who do. NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) is my pick for standout character as the number two to Chechen mob boss Goran Pazar (Glenn Fleshler). Hank is the most pleasant, happy guy and he promotes positivity constantly, even when the subject matter is arranging hits on people he enjoys. And you can tell he thinks of Barry as a friend. For a hitman, NoHo Hank sure wants everyone to get along.
NoHo Hank and Goran make a most excellent comedy duo. They play off each other well, have a great patter, and their material juxtaposes better comedically than the rest of the show’s material. They want success just like the theater class and just like Barry, and they know they’re this close to making it. They’re moving their organization into prominence and giving their kids great birthday parties. It’s the immigrant story of the American Dream. They’re just rooted in a criminal business. These are the jokes we get in Barry.
Goran and Hank have the benefit of having scenes that aren’t about Barry’s personal growth. They are in the space Barry is trying to leave, so they can fill the space themselves. We have a chance to get to know the two mobsters. The theater group, meanwhile, is made of way more than two people, and they have to scoot together to make room for Barry’s presence and narrative weight. We don’t get to know them very well except for Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg) and Gene because he’s trying to connect with them most often.
The life Barry has as a hitman is real but he’s treating it like a dream he’s waking up from. Barry’s life as an actor is a dream but he’s treating it like it’s real. He thinks it’s as easy as flipping a light switch.
He thinks he just needs to have Gene’s book on acting and he’s done it. But it’s not that easy. It’s not like flipping a light switch. But the trauma he’s experienced in his life makes it difficult to understand. The larger story of Barry will be about Barry learning how to understand this, and then doing the work to pull off his career change and/or accept responsibility for his actions.
Barry is a Marine who served in a war. He came back with PTSD and wasn’t connecting at all with civilian life. It took Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root) to bring him back to a life filled with real people, it’s just unfortunately the life of hitmen. Fuches saw an opportunity when Barry had the perfect outlook on life to be a perfect hit man. It’s a career that makes a lot of money, but you have to be disconnected from humanity to pull it off well. Fuches is a recruiter in this situation way more than a friend, but Barry has so much gratitude toward Fuches because he brought Barry back to humanity. However few the steps toward it is irrelevant because Barry couldn’t even take the first step without someone helping him do it.
Barry already wanted to be done with the hitman life at the beginning of Season 1. It served him well enough to get him through part of his trauma, but his existential crisis was already in motion before the show even started. He just didn’t have the life skills to know how to achieve his needs.
Fuches came to Barry with a career. Easy. He has a meet-cute with theater while on the job. Easy. He’s going to switch careers and have a new girlfriend. Easy. Oh wait, it’s not.
Keeping the old life separate from the new life is Barry’s new job, and he’s not very good at it. All he ends up achieving in Season 1 is being separate from both lives as he learns how to connect with people. And people he knows die.
Here’s where the show’s episode titles—practically chapter titles in Gene’s book on acting—thematically connect to Barry learning how to act the part of being a normal person.
- Make Your Mark
- Use It
- Make The Unsafe Choice
- Commit…To You
- Do Your Job
- Listen With Your Ears, React With Your Face
- Loud, Fast, and Keep Going
- Know Your Truth
But just because Barry has the template doesn’t mean he gets it right every time. You have to live through these chapters. You have to live with these chapters. It’s not easy to know how to act like an actor, or—as Barry needs—like a normal human being. You have to read it. Then understand it. You have to interact with others and put yourself into those interactions. You have to connect.
And even then, Gene is still auditioning just to be in bit parts for commercials. You don’t get famous just by reading the book, just by knowing what to do. You have to do your job. You have to connect like Gene does over time with Detective Moss.
You can’t just have a night with Sally and buy her a laptop the next day and scare off the people she’s talking to. Sally doesn’t take the easy way by skipping steps either. She doesn’t skip steps and sleep with a would-be agent. She does her job, and is later noticed when she’s doing the work. Not because she could be capable. She is capable.
You don’t just sign up for Facebook and connect with Chris (Chris Marquette) because you want to impress a girl by saying you know a person. You have to make sure that Chris is not going to be endangered because there’s a way tie his life back to mobsters. If you really want to change careers, make sure you give your last career an effective form of two-weeks notice so it isn’t going to ruin your new life. Otherwise you could hurt somebody. Or multiple somebodies.
And even with all these mistakes Barry is making, the connections he has begun to make are already helping people in both of his lives.
Sally was given a gift when Barry delivers his one Macbeth line in the middle of his breakdown. Sally used that emotion and was able to put on her best performance in a long time, which gets her noticed by an important member of the audience.
It didn’t matter that Barry was having a breakdown because he killed Chris after knowing full well how much of a life and family he had. Barry went and did his scene with Sally like he said he would. He kept his commitment, and he brought authentic emotion with him. And as a baffled Sally said, “that was so generous.”
She doesn’t understand why Barry gave her generous acting material but she’s thankful. It established a connection that is real enough that they are in a relationship in the final Season 1 scenes.
NoHo Hank was given a gift by Barry as well. Barry killed Goran and his henchmen to save Fuches from being killed. Hank had no interest in whether Fuches lived or died, but he was getting more and more nervous about the coming conflict between the Chechen and Bolivian mobs. With Goran out of the way, Hank can start building bridges between the crime organizations.
NoHo Hank immediately knew he had that kind of opportunity when he saw the corpses of Goran and the crew. He acted like Barry had put a present under a Christmas tree with his name on it.
Barry didn’t care about insuring the longevity of the Chechen mob; he just wanted to give Fuches the gift of a longer life. But like with Sally, Hank now has a gratitude toward Barry.
It’s the same as when Fuches had self-serving reasons when he recruited Barry yet was such a huge help that Barry had enough gratitude to save his life in Chapter 8. And that gratitude is the key to Barry’s evolution.
When Barry can finally be done with thanking Fuches for picking him up from the edge after the war, then Barry can stop feeling accountable for Fuches’ safety and let Fuches be responsible for getting out of his own jams.
And when Barry can leave Fuches to his own devices, Barry will finally be able to close off his connections to his previous career. He won’t let himself be dragged back into it and he could finally build the bridge between his lives.
Until that happens, there’s a reason why that final epilogue at Gene’s barbecue began with the same visual language as Barry’s earlier fantasy sequences. This new actor’s life can’t be all the way real for Barry.
Barry can’t be completely in his new life, even if the police case was solved in that press conference complete with a bow tying everything together. The resolution was too easy, like flipping a light switch. It still feels like a fantasy.
Detective Janice Moss had the same gulf to cross between “truth” and real. The bow-tied resolution of her case never felt right to her, because like Gene she knows you have to do the work to get to the answer. You can’t just connect evidence together if the “why” doesn’t add up.
Janice figured out Barry was the missing piece, the “why” of how her evidence lined up. She bridged the distance between Barry’s two lives and she reached an understanding. And she did her job. She knew that meant bringing Barry in.
But Barry wasn’t ready for the sides to meet. He wants to live his new life as an actor, but he’s still using hitman tactics every time his old life intrudes. He’s still part of both lives whether he wants to admit it or not.
The effects of hearing Ryan Madison’s father’s grief allowed Barry to realize the consequences of his old job, but that doesn’t mean he can let go of his learned behavior just like that. For one thing, that would mean he’s allowing people a chance to turn him in, and that means jail time.
Barry needs to figure out a different way to safely escape into his new life. He’s started to connect, but he hasn’t learned much of anything. And he can’t keep killing people when they find him out. Any scene he shares with Gene and Sally will always partly have the visual vocabulary of a fantasy sequence until he stops treating his old life like a light switch.
Instead of his old life being over “starting now,” maybe Barry can change it up and say, “I’m going to do the work” starting now. Or at least some time in the course of Season 2. Hopefully.