tv review

Barry Season Two Saved Its Biggest Surprise for the Very End

Photo: HBO

When HBO first ordered Barry to series, the show sounded like another “man desperately tries to leave unethical business, but keeps getting sucked back in” story, something that had been done plenty of times before. But season one took that idea and ran with it to dark, unexpected places, creating a multifaceted, funny, suspenseful series with a protagonist who seemed perpetually on the verge of experiencing a psychotic break.

Amazingly, season two, which concluded Sunday night on HBO right after a certain other major show’s finale, managed to up what was already a very solid game. It featured an even more nuanced and emotionally limber performance by an already excellent Bill Hader, as well as richer work from the entire cast and the writers. It also addressed one of its central themes — whether it’s possible to live a completely honest life — more directly and across multiple story lines, all of which intersect in the finale, “berkman > block.” Most of all, right up until the very last second, when Henry Winkler’s Gene Cousineau suddenly remembers that Fuches (Stephen Root) whispered that Barry is responsible for his late girlfriend Janice’s death, the second season of Barry surprised its audience, over and over again. In a recent interview, Hader, who directed the finale and, alongside series co-creator Alec Berg, co-wrote it, told me that the writers try to think about Barry as an evolving true-crime story, the kind that might be written about in Vanity Fair. This makes perfect sense given the number of unexpected page-turning twists that emerged over this season. One example: Of all the things I maybe, possibly, expected, a 12-year-old female tae kwon do ninja (see episode five, “ronny/lily”) was not one of them.

I also wasn’t expecting much of what transpired in the finale, including Sally’s last-minute decision to act like a brave badass in her showcase depiction of her abusive marriage; Fuches opting to spare the life of Gene and prove that he can assume the Chechen advisory role Barry once did; and, certainly, the blind rage that drives Barry to enter the temple shared by the Chechen-Bolivian-Burmese mobs and go full John Wick on every single person he encounters.

Lately critics and online commenters have developed a habit of comparing other television to recent Game of Thrones episodes and saying, “See, this is how it should be done.” It’s not really fair, but since Barry airs right after GOT, I am giving myself permission to note how concisely and believably Barry depicts its title character’s descent into madness as compared to the way the epic dragon show handled Daenerys’s meltdown. Via the flashbacks to the kills Barry committed in Afghanistan, Barry has planted the seeds for something like this to happen all season.

Just before he goes medieval on many asses, Barry’s stress is apparent: Fuches hasn’t only outsmarted him, but also contaminated the relationship Barry values most, the one Barry built with Gene. On top of that, by insinuating himself into the Noho Hank situation, Fuches has rendered Barry irrelevant. The episode communicates how all of these factors build to a level of rage within Barry through careful editing, Hader’s rising thirst for vengeance, and smart but subtle visual choices. Watch when Barry is sitting at the bus stop on the phone with Leo and then reading that “Don’t worry about it” text from Hank. Behind him there’s an ad for a farmer’s market, presumably the one where Leo works. In the main action of this scene as well as the background, the show is conveying that Barry has been replaced, both as an assassin/fixer and as the surrogate son of a self-involved but ultimately good-hearted acting coach. (Sally’s “rejection” of Barry in their performance is yet another way in which he’s been rendered useless.) His shooting spree is a shocking, but completely believable gut punch.

It also parallels what happens with Sally on that stage, in front of all those people expecting to see a brutally honest depiction of abuse. By staging the fantasy version of what happened between her and Sam, Sally is cheating and she knows it. “I fucking lied,” she says to her agent afterward, through tears. “I’m not an artist.” She’s doubly upset when she realizes that everyone is wowed by the hopeful, sanitized version of reality she’s just presented. In a context that obviously involves a much lower body count, this mirrors Barry’s experience. He’s celebrated for a skill — killing — that, like Sally’s watered-down acting, goes against everything he aspires to achieve. Barry also knows he’s telling the partial truth about who he really is. Carrying that discrepancy in his head and heart is too much for him, and, at least in the finale, it’s too much for Sally, too.

I love that the writers and Sarah Goldberg, who finds exactly the right balance between Sally’s self-awareness and her utter lack of it, have taken a character that seemed like another vapid Hollywood hopeful and revealed her to be smarter, more damaged, and deeper than that. In a way that neither she nor Barry can understand, they’re perfect for each other. Well, except for the part where she said she’d never again be in a relationship with a violent man.

In season two, Barry makes it clear that we’ve only just begun to get to know these complicated figures. Take Fuches, who in season one and the beginning of season two seemed like a moron pulled straight out of a Coen brothers movie. (Yeah, hand the cops the Coke can with your DNA on it. Good job, buddy.) By the end of this season, he emerges as someone much more manipulative and surprisingly formidable. When he walks toward Cristobal and his crew and begins the process of negotiation without anyone being able to hear him, it seems inevitable that he’s going to screw this up. But then, he doesn’t. He makes a weirdly touching speech about puzzle pieces and somehow wages peace between Cristobal and Noho Hank. The subtext of Fuches’s speech is clearly his relationship with Barry: When Root delivers that mini-monologue, it’s obvious that Fuches is dealing with six or seven or 80 different motivations and emotions, and he telegraphs them all. Root has been great in project after project after project over the past few decades, but he’s truly exceptional here.

That goes for everybody in this cast, including Henry Winkler, who is so broken when he briefly gets arrested and accused in Janice’s murder that it’s almost unbearable to watch his downtrodden face, and Anthony Corrigan as Noho Hank, perhaps the one character who doesn’t change at all this season. Thank God for that: I want Noho Hank to always be such a clueless conspicuous consumer that he will hop on the phone with a retail outlet (Wayfair, I’m assuming) and announce he needs a table for sorting heroin.

The directing of this incredibly suspenseful episode is superb, too, in terms of its broad strokes and its smaller details. For example, Fuches’s puzzle metaphor rears its head again, when Gene stares at the floor of the police station and notices one tiny piece of tile missing, and yet again in that last moment, when Gene slips the last puzzle piece into place about what happened to Janice, the woman who made him want to be a better man.

There are a lot of very good shows on television, but only a few blow me away with the degree of thoughtfulness and craftsmanship that’s on display at every level. Better Call Saul is one of them. Barry is, too. Which makes sense. The former series is about a con man who thinks that maybe he can lead a more upstanding life, but ultimately can’t shake his less-ethical impulses. The latter is about a hit man in the same predicament.

Since Better Call Saul is a Breaking Bad prequel, we know going in that Jimmy McGill will eventually transform into Saul Goodman. But on Barry, right up until this finale, there was still a thread of hope that somehow he could turn things around for himself. After watching Barry blow away multiple dangerous people, then walk down that hallway where the lights briefly flicker, then shut off completely, that seems impossible. Barry Berkman, formerly Barry Block, appears to be lost to the darkness forever.

Then again, this is Barry. Next season, it could surprise me.

Barry Season Two Saved Its Biggest Surprise for the Very End