Bill Hader as Barry & Henry Winkler as Gene Cousineau
Image: Isabella Vosmikova (HBO)
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“Am I evil?” Barry quietly asks Hank. “Am I, like, an evil person?”

While many other antihero/antihero-adjacent shows earnestly explore that question, they often do so while engaging with the perverse allure of living outside the law. But in Barry, the hitman lifestyle never once feels glamorous. Barry kills without pleasure and, subsequently, most of the series’ violence is stark and grim. His dispassionate approach erases any thrill from the job, rendering it a cold, callous act. Barry lives modestly with two roommates despite having plenty of disposable income; the money he makes doesn’t provide him with any comfort or solace. This type of work, as depicted in Barry, could never be described as “enjoyable.” Barry does it because he’s very good at it. It’s probably his calling. But now he wants to stop. He’s eager to be, at best, a mediocre actor who works at Lulu Lemon.

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But is Barry evil? It’s a reasonable question, though one that the series has little interest in answering definitely. Bill Hader and Alec Berg are understandably cagey about whether “evil” is a static or fluid concept in the world of Barry. Can Barry change or was he doomed the first moment he accepted money in exchange for a life? What if it was before that, when he clinically killed three “sheep fuckers” in Afghanistan and shared in celebration with his fellow troops? It will be interesting to see where the series lands on this question or if it addresses whether Barry is a product of external manipulation or a wholly autonomous individual. For right now, he exists in this liminal space between guilt and yearning, haunted by his horrific actions but desperately wanting to be a better man.

True to his reformed ways, Barry doesn’t kill Esther, even when faced with a clean shot. Before he arrives at the monastery in the dead of night, his rote preparation for the hit scans as particularly melancholic. You can almost see the weight on his shoulders as he mechanically places Hank’s bullet into the magazine. It’s clear the life isn’t in him anymore, but Hank’s blackmail puts him in the unfortunate position of returning to the shadows. It took him until he was a few feet away from the target to realize he still couldn’t do it. He barely escapes after accidentally drawing the attention of Esther’s fellow faux Burmese monks. The night ends in a hail of gunfire and a crashed car.

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Barry wants nothing more than to put the past behind him, but in order to be a “good man,” he must choose to live honestly. Yet, in Gene’s class, Barry wants nothing less than to tell his Afghanistan story in the upcoming showcase. Gene instructs the class to write their own stories using moments from their own lives that shape and define them. Barry reasonably doesn’t want his first kill to define his life, so he decides to punt and tell the life-changing story of when he first met Gene, who agrees to the change because of his undue egotism. But after Gene’s estranged son, Leo (Andrew Leeds), rebuffs him because of his lifelong self-absorption, he forces Barry to tell the Afghanistan story. The theater might be, as Leo describes, a shrine to Gene, but Gene will still do his part to push Barry to a place of honesty, even if it comes from a selfish place.

Meanwhile, Sally believes she’s living her most honest life, but she also has repressed some nasty moments from her past. On stage, she explains that her burden amounts to being forced to play weak, bit-player roles in crappy TV shows. After all, she has more to offer than just breakfast! (Her sympathetic agent, Lindsay (Jessy Hodges), loved that line.) The rest of the class has no patience for Sally’s humblebragging and theater-girl arrogance, but Gene can still play her like a fiddle. He just stares at her until she finally opens up about her abusive marriage, accepting that that will be her story.

The sad irony of Sally’s situation couldn’t be clearer: she escaped a violent man only to end up with another one, only this time he perpetrates violence against the world instead of in their home. Barry can only run away from that violence for so long before some kind of reckoning takes place. Sure enough, after he escapes the Burmese mafia, he finds Fuches outside his apartment asking about a dead cop. Barry doesn’t know that Fuches has agreed to cooperate with the LAPD to avoid a guaranteed prison sentence, but he tells him off anyway. Sooner or later, however, Fuches, Detective Loach, and the ghost of Detective Moss will want Barry to answer for his crimes.

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Is Barry evil? The only person who can say conclusively, without any caveats, is Hank: “Oh my God. I mean, absolutely! Do I not tell you that enough? You’re like the most evil guy I know, man!”

Stray observations

  • It’s a great episode for background gags, like the series of posters from Gene Cousineau productions. While Gene Cousineau playing all 12 angry men in 12 Angry Men might be fun, I’m more curious about his ostensible one-man production of Rent.
  • It would be funny enough if Fuches only tried to claim that sex workers have “routes,” but then he follows it up by looking at a picture of Barry and describing him as “gender liquid.” A+ stuff.
  • Esther listening to the Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love” while blankly starting at the wall is the episode’s best joke by far.
  • A small, but appreciated touch: The fake TV shows in Sally’s reel feature actors that could theoretically star in them: Michael Anthony Beach plays the lead in Pompeii’s Burning, Ludwig Manukian plays the District Attorney in The Lead Prosecutors, and Patrick Fabian plays some kind of space captain in Future Space.
  • “What if we didn’t elevate somebody else’s character in somebody’s else story, but we finally wrote our own? What if we made it about ourselves for a change!”

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