SPOILERS AHEAD … AND MESSY, MESSY, MESSY LIFE …
If your only guide to life was the one-note, morally-simplified world of much of television or movie programming, you could be forgiven for thinking that this thing called living is a relative walk in the park.
Got a major issue? It’s solved, sitcom-style in 20 minutes? Trenchant family schisms? Give it an episode or two, or maybe even a short-term arc, and hey presto, everyone is talking, hugging and vowing to keep things hunky dory for the foreseeable future and then some.
Nothing wrong with any of it since goodness knows life is hard enough without escapist TV or cinema adding to the angst but there is something deeply satisfying about a show like Barry, with a second season well and truly under its belt, which dares to up the moral complexity all while balancing like some gun-toting demented clown in an extremist circus the good and bad of all our lives.
Although, to be fair, it’s highly unlikely your life is anywhere near as complex as Barry, a onetime US soldier-turned-hitman who decides while on a job in the first episode of season 1, that there might be greater fulfilment in acting.
You’re probably thinking that that is quite the career left turn, and you’d be right, but when Barry stumbles on the acting classes of Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) and meets people like self-involved Sally (Sarah Goldberg), Sasha (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), Natalie (D’Arcy Carden) and Nick (Rightor Doyle), he begins to see a world that offers the kind of fulfilment he didn’t even know was possible.
But as it turns out, in season 2, we discover that going hard for your hitherto-unknown dreams is way more difficult and challenging that offing a target assigned to you by your handler Monrie Fuches (Stephen Root), whose entire life revolves around Barry’s skills and willingness to employ them.
While Barry wants to leave his life of target-precise killing behind them, all too aware of the horrific damage it does to the people who love the person who’s killed, not to mention the injury caused to his own considerably wounded psyche, Fuches, and the Chechen mafia in L.A., led by the all-hilarious-talk-very-little-gangster-action NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) aren’t all that keen on Barry seeing his name up in lights.
In a far more darker season, that still has moments of real hilarity and glowing revelatory irony, Barry struggles, really struggles, to extricate himself from a life that has as many literal skeletons in the closet, including that of Detective Janice Moss (Paula Newsome) whose presence continues to be felt even in death, as it has figurative ones.
Try as he might to leave his old life, and Barry tried very hard in season 2, walking away from multiple hits he’s been given simply because he can’t keep sacrificing the lives of others and the sanctity and sanity of a soul that has taken quite a liking to creating rather than destroying, he is drawn back again and again even as his acting career shows sign of actual, satisfying life.
The sheer brilliance of this season, which quietly pulses with the very real agony and ecstasy of life, particularly one that is in the midst of a messy transition, is how it captures, so hilariously and heartbreakingly, how realising our hopes and dreams if often far easier said than done.
Barry, who draws closer to Cousineau throughout the eight episodes, despite the horrific toll he has taken on the life of his acting coach and father figure by killing his detective girlfriend (Moss) at the end of season 1, desperately wants to leave his former life far behind.
As he discovers a real sense of purpose and relationships that value him for more than we can do them – though in the form of Sally, who is so self-consumed by her own ambition that she thinks nothing of asking her now-boyfriend how his audition has gone before walking off prior to the delivery of an answer, you’d have to wonder if he has progressed much beyond Fuches’ abusive self-interest – he slowly comes alive and it is gloriously touching to watch thanks to a brilliantly-nuanced performance by Hader.
Agonisingly just as he makes a giant leap forward, such as being offered an audition with a well-known director simply by sitting in a seat in the lobby of a talent management agency where he’s waiting for Sally – his good luck infuriates Sally and staggers Cousineau, both of whom have had to work ridiculously hard for their breadcrumbs of acting success – his old seat yanks him back into the mire, where he is forced to train NoHo Hank’s hapless goons or has to kill the leader of a Burmese drug-smuggling gang that masquerade as Buddhist monks.
We’ve all been there in one way or another, but in Barry‘s writ-large world, the existential struggle to grow beyond what you have been comes with death, police oversight (time and again they come close, only to be directed away some luck or happenstance), people so self-involved it’s a wonder they don’t disappear into themselves (or perhaps they do?) and a lingering sense that escape might be all but impossible.
But Barry doesn’t give up, though he quite easily could, hanging onto the promises of his new life with grim, fatalistically-taciturn determination which means that Hader barely cracks a smile all season except when he’s with his inadvertent life coach and surrogate dad Cousineau who is, rather sweetly, and again not without a one-step-forward-three-steps-back dynamic at play, trying to mend his broken relationship with his estranged son Leo (Andrew Leeds).
How he hangs onto the glittering dream of his new life, which is skewered and parodied with mirth-filled delight over and over in a show that knows the ridiculousness of the world it inhabits, questioning if it is any less rapacious in its own way that the life Barry is trying, mostly unsuccessfully, to leave behind, when so much gets in his way is astonishing, especially when it pretty much comes close to falling apart around him in the final bloody episode where all of Barry’s repressed at life’s taunting of undelivered new possibilities comes shooting riotously out of him in a lethal fugue state.
Before this arresting final episode, there are moments of real tenderness such as when Barry, blackmailed into training Ho-Ho Hank’s henchmen, finds himself at the end of profuse thanks for a life-changing moment when Mayrbek (Nikita Bogolyubov), the only star pupil in a blighted class of no-hopers, tells him how much his tutelage in the dark arts of killing has mattered.
Barry isn’t swayed by this at all, he just wants out, but Mayrbek is intensely grateful, which makes his death in the final episode during Barry’s furious killing spree all the more saddening; sure he was inspired to be a savagely-efficient killer and gang boss (taking over from NoHo Hank when the clown-ish Chechen mafia leader fails to manifestly save his men from certain death) but he changes in ways Barry finds elusive and it matters to him, just like it matters to Barry.
The look on his face seconds before Barry kills him is desperately lost and betrayed, a microcosm of the kind of pain Barry feels throughout an astoundingly good, darkly horrific and hilariously light second season when his new-found sense of hope and purpose is sabotaged repeatedly, just like life which never plays to clean cut, easily achieved rules, dragging us back through the mud just when we think salvation is irrevocably at hand.
Barry hasn’t lost out completely – he has grown as an actor, as a person and as a friend in innumerable ways – but he has found out once again to his cost that getting out of Dodge isn’t as easy as it looks and that he’s going to have to undergo a whole lot more hurt before his new life is truly his, assuming, of course, his old one ever withdraws its hooks and sends him on his way, something that looks increasingly unlikely at the end of a second season ripe with possibility and its haunting lack of fulfilment.