What Will ‘Barry’ Do?
A spoiler-free look at the dark comedy’s main players as the series comes to an end
HBO made its bones as a network by investing in the anti-hero, from Tony Soprano’s angst-ridden mobster to the morally conflicted denizens of Game of Thrones. Paying for the channel meant that viewers could expect to meet characters who weren’t exactly ready for prime time. The success of Bill Hader’s tragicomic series “Barry” is an example of what can happen when you invest in the kind of show that follows its own muse and doesn’t worry about pleasing the audience.
As it wraps up a four-season storyline in its final episode airing May 28, many of its fans are excitedly asking the same bleak, odd, and sneakily funny question online—who’s getting murdered next? The show presents such a rogue’s gallery of central characters whose chances for redemption are flimsy at best that it’s impressive how the dramatic momentum keeps going, with whiplash plot twists and deepening moral degeneracy. Let’s take a spoiler-free look at how “Barry” and Barry got here.
“Barry” has a basic premise. Barry Berkman is a shy Midwestern hitman who comes to sunshiny LA and falls in love with acting, although his manic comedic sensibility isn’t to everyone’s taste. Barry’s awareness of his violent nature came from a traumatic stint in the Army that was paradoxically empowering. He found out in Afghanistan that killing people was the first thing he was ever good at.
Until, that is, he tried acting on for size. If you can see the slightly twisted humor in such a concept, you might also appreciate the seasons-long crazed battle between the two vainglorious nitwits who vie for Barry’s turbulent soul.
The dynamic duo
Bask in the mad glint in the great Stephen Root’s eye as he gleefully plays Monroe Fuches, Barry’s slimy, ruthless, creepily charismatic handler, or the amusingly delusional pomp Henry Winkler gives to Gene Cousineau, the washed-up old hack actor who for a time was Barry’s acting coach. These two pros do a consistently wonderful job of making these slimeballs unexpectedly engaging, albeit for very different reasons.
Fuches and Cousineau are Barry’s version of the alternate masks of comedy and tragedy. Each is ultimately only out for himself, though they certainly differ in their awareness of this rancid selfishness. The show’s humor in many ways pivots entirely on the ways in which these two sleazy schmucks fool themselves over how much power they have, even as they keep failing upwards.
The rest of the crew
This is also the case for NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), the Chechen gangster with alopecia who has drunk too deeply of the resolutely groovy vibes of southern California, to the point of annoying cheerfulness. Hank’s character has had an interesting run as the show progressed, eventually becoming less of a cartoon and more of an actual person with an inner life, though in the later seasons we’ve seen exactly how close to his own personal moral line he’s willing to go, and what he loses when he crosses it. One of the harsh lessons the show delivers is that none of the characters in “Barry” end up getting away with anything. Some ugly part of their personal histories inevitably comes to light.
Sally (Sarah Goldberg), Barry’s romantic foil, is arguably the most sympathetic character on the show. Sally’s story is standard issue, as far as Hollywood tropes go. She also came from a small town in the Midwest to Tinseltown to try and make it as an actress. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out anywhere near the way she wanted them to, sometimes because of her own character flaws and sometimes due to the fickleness of an industry that relentlessly feeds on young blood. We’ve seen what little Sally can rely on to bolster her ever-fragile sense of self. As we approach the end, it’s pathetically clear that she’s put all her eggs in a lonely, forlorn, threadbare basket that doesn’t seem stable enough to keep any of them from breaking.
A sympathetic killer?
As for Barry himself, he’s been to hell and back, except it’s become increasingly clear that he can’t come back all the way—hell is going to follow him wherever he goes. Hader invests Barry with plenty of bone-deep self-loathing, which might or might not be a sufficient reason for us to feel for him.
His motivations and actions aren’t in tandem, which is a pretty common problem, yet over time the remarkable body count his impulsiveness has racked up might have, so to speak, written checks that his conscience just can’t cash. The show’s biggest punchlines have been about how blithely the people around him seem to accept the mayhem, Barry being the exception that proves the rule.
Now that Barry’s faced with a cliffhanger moral dilemma that he can’t escape or ignore, what he chooses to do will finally define who he is. The show’s essential moral question has always revolved around whether brooding Barry is ultimately sympathetic. Will something explain the terrible things he’s done, or will he be merely another delusional monster like the rest?
“Barry” has been at its best when pointing out how operatically its characters fool themselves, sometimes innocently and sometimes not so innocently. In the end, how strongly the show finishes will largely depend on whether Barry will finally reveal who he really is, or if he’s even capable of it.