Throughout the first season of Barry, protagonist Barry Berkman tried to make a mid-career change and failed pretty significantly. In the second season, which begins this Sunday on HBO, he’s still making that attempt and finding it just as challenging to completely let go of his previous gig. Apparently it’s hard to quit and move on when your previous job title is professional hit man.
Actually, it’s extra-hard to stop being a hit man when killing people is something that (a) you’re remarkably good at, and (b) makes you feel good about yourself even though you are aware that it absolutely shouldn’t. That conflict between pride of accomplishment and moral shame becomes even starker during this season, which finds Barry, the trained assassin turned aspiring actor played by series co-creator Bill Hader, even more disturbed by the way his dual lives chafe against each other and continue to place him in precarious situations. In terms of performances and the quality of writing, directing, and editing, Barry is operating at the same high level it was the first time out. The three episodes provided in advance by HBO — directed by Hiro Murai, who handles the first two, and Minkie Spiro, who marshals the third — are as clean and precise as a sniper hit. A sniper hit executed by someone who feels super-guilty about pulling the trigger.
The season-two premiere picks up shortly after season one’s conclusion, with Barry killing Janice (Paula Newsome), the cop who realized Barry was responsible for several murders, and who also happened to be the girlfriend of Barry’s acting teacher, the egocentric Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler, who manages to make even narcissism seem endearing). As the action resumes, Gene is so distraught over Janice’s death that he can’t even bother to guide his students through a production of The Front Page, while Barry, who still isn’t suspected of the crime, wants nothing more than to disappear into the work of bringing a classic newspaper comedy to life. Meanwhile, Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan), the upbeat Chechen crime lord who became an unlikely Barry ally, is enjoying his new partnership with the Bolivian mafia, while Fuches (Stephen Root), Barry’s former boss, is trying to continue serving as a hit-man middleman in Cleveland without a cohort as skilled at doing the dirty work as Barry is. With Janice’s former partner Detective Loach (John Pirruccello) still digging into the circumstances that led to her death, it’s not long before multiple crosshairs, literal and metaphorical, are trained on Barry by people who either need him to do or suspect him of already doing something awful.
It’s possible to watch Barry and get engrossed in its cat-and-mouse games and Coen brothers–esque humor without even noticing how meticulously made it is. But attention really should be paid to that. In the first episode, there’s a moment where Hank’s uncomfortable laughter after watching a Burmese crime lord stab herself in the hand bleeds seamlessly into the sound of anguished opera from the speakers of Gene’s home stereo. In the third, a scene in which Barry tries to train some of Hank’s men to effectively fire at targets — “You’re a regular Annie Oakley,” the Chechens yell at one of their buddies who gets off some decent shots — segues into another where Barry, working his side gig as a sales associate at Lululemon, stares, confused, at the seemingly indistinguishable women’s and men’s apparel. Moments work as a sly commentary on masculinity and the power guns confer without making a fuss about it. Barry constantly skates in this sort of low-key yet purposeful manner from one scenario to another in a way that highlights the degree to which Barry has normalized his shifts from violence to the comparatively mundane pursuit of acting.
The navel-gazing aspects of that pursuit continue to be wryly highlighted as well, especially via Sally (Sarah Goldberg), Barry’s acting classmate and girlfriend who may be the one person more self-involved than Gene. Even the production-design details related to her character — there’s a sign in Barry’s room that she gave him that says, “Break a leg — Sally,” as if she invented that phrase — suggests a lack of self-awareness that Goldberg fully conveys in her performance without sacrificing Sally’s intelligence. Goldberg gives this creature of Los Angeles an underlying depth that initially seems like more than she may deserve. But after Gene announces that everyone in the class must do a dramatic performance based on something upsetting that happened in their own lives — “For once,” Gene says with zero irony, “let’s make it about us!” — the demons that Sally is suppressing start to reveal themselves. There’s some real there there, as Gene might say, and watching Goldberg wrestle with it is a pleasure.
Another pleasure this season is Carrigan, whose role as Noho Hank rises from supporting to major as he becomes the leader of the Chechen branch of an increasingly multiethnic L.A. crime syndicate. He’s become so comfortable with his new lifestyle, which makes being a gangster look like living full-time in the best WeWork ever, that he feels completely the opposite of Barry: He doesn’t want anything to change. He even tries to convince his slippery family, still upset by the murder of previous Chechen boss-man Goran (Glenn Fleshler), which Hank has led them to believe was committed by the Bolivians, that his new partners in crime are just great. “In finishing,” he writes in a ridiculously positive letter to his comrades back home, “let’s be cool about the Bolivians.” Breaking news: Noho Hank’s family is probably not going to be cool about the Bolivians.
While other key characters and performances, most notably Root as the bumbling Fuches and Winkler as a thoroughly at-sea Gene, are fantastic, Barry is ultimately anchored by the man who shares the show’s name. Troubled by flashbacks of the bro-bonding joy that followed his first kill in Afghanistan, he is just as lost and intent on suppressing his real emotions as he was last season. Hader, who won an Emmy last year for his work, is like a walking and talking open wound masked by layers and layers of bandages. There’s a real, guilt-ridden, emotional man underneath all that wound-up mess, but he only bleeds through for a few seconds in rare moments, like a briefly teary conversation with Fuches in episode three that cements my opinion that another Emmy nomination is in Hader’s immediate future.
Barry, like the series that shares his name, is still in a dark place this season. While the wannabe actor might not want to hear this, that’s a place that suits him, and Barry, just perfectly.