Whenever I bring up the show Barry, I am shocked that no one I know is watching it! Since the entire world watched this season of Game of Thrones, I know you all have access to HBO. So what’s the problem? Do you not like thrilling, dark, hilarious antihero stories? It’s Memorial Day weekend—you have the time to binge-watch a show about a fictional veteran.
Barry, created by Bill Hader and Alec Berg (of Seinfeld fame) is the tale of a Marine-turned-hitman-turned-actor trying to escape his life of misdeeds by pursuing a career in the arts. It’s glib to refer to gunning down innocents as “misdeeds,” but the slippery relationship between good and evil is exactly what makes the show great. Barry Berkman (stage name: Barry Block) is the best kind of antihero, because no matter how sinister his actions, we still want him to come out on top. It’s rare that a show can make an audience root for a man to kill a cop, for instance—later, even as we watch Barry in a flashback, overcome with rage, murdering a noncombatant in Afghanistan, somehow we fill with pity instead of disgust. The show has a lot to say about the power of emotion—and its absence.
In summary, Cleveland native Barry Berkman (Bill Hader) becomes a hitman in the employ of Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root—from Office Space!) upon leaving the military. Doing reconnaissance for an ultimately botched hit in LA, Barry stumbles into an acting class, is profoundly moved, and decides to quit the killing business to pursue acting. Disentangling himself from his life beyond the law proves trickier than anticipated—chaos ensues. Season two gets even darker. The show’s writers deftly fold so much into this morality tale—a critique of the narcissism and sexism of show business, a reverence for the power of storytelling, abuse, mental illness, and a scathing indictment of the way the military leaves its veterans.
Barry’s past as a Marine is a vital part of the show, because it makes clear, without ever explicitly stating it, how insidious and vile an organization we socially recognize as “good” and “honorable” can truly be. It’s hardly a secret that bloated military spending is a huge national problem, and that service can often mean the disruption or destruction of the lives of those enlisted, but what the show explores instead is America’s fetish for killing, its bloodlust. In a flashback to his deployment (“The Show Must Go On, Probably?”), the audience gets to watch Barry’s first kill, to see him discover his dark talent and be rewarded for his ability to turn off his emotions and take lives. In a moment that would shatter most people, well-adjusted or otherwise, Barry finds purpose and community. His soldier friends celebrate him when he “[takes] out a sheepfucker from 700 yards.” They rally around him and chant his name, seconds after he shoots three people for their dubious “suspicious activity.” When Barry leaves the Marines after, as acting teacher Gene Cousineau puts it, “Basically, you killed somebody and you got away with it” (“What?!), he claims that he “didn’t think [he] deserved a good life.” Fuches, a family friend, is there to manipulate the shell of a man left by deeply traumatic wartime experiences. The Barry that returns from Afghanistan is emotionless, blank—a trained and effective killer brainwashed to believe that his murderous capability is his only redeeming quality.
Barry’s ability to shut off his emotions entirely and kill make him a great soldier and hitman but later stunt his ability as an actor. It’s no coincidence that the writers chose acting as Barry’s would-be career—a life of robotically acting on orders (in the military and then as Fuches’ employee) has left Barry stagnant, depressed, and hollow. It’s only through inaction, or the purely dramatic rendering of actions, that Barry can tap into his emotions and start to grapple with the evils he has committed. Dramatic acting forces Barry to thoughtfully consider situations and juggle their emotional weight—he can no longer blindly act at the behest of a commander or boss. But the delicately nuanced show doesn’t absolve Barry of his many wrongs—it dances with just how innate Barry’s killing ability is. Barry doesn’t just carelessly point a finger at the military—it points a finger at America itself and the ways in which we encourage and facilitate senseless violence. As audience members, invested in our protagonist, we are complicit in condoning scores of murders, typically at least one per episode. We have become anesthetized to it.
In the second episode of the second season, “The Power of No,” Barry asks Chechen mobster Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan), “Am I evil?” In perhaps the series’ finest moment of comedic delivery, Hank replies, “Oh my god…I mean, absolutely! Do I not tell you that enough? You are like, the most evil guy I know, man!” Barry replies, “You know, I take no pleasure in killing people. You know that, right?” But as Barry attempts to convince Hank, he doesn’t succeed in convincing himself. The show doesn’t provide an answer to the question of whether killers are born or made, but it does leave viewers with the creeping sensation that, under the right circumstances, they too could be Barry.
Both seasons of Barry are currently available to stream on HBO GO.