Bill Hader as Barry
Image: Aaron Epstein (HBO)
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The first thing you notice is the title card, which appears without a cold open or accompanying fanfare. Then, it’s the complete stranger walking into his house with a six-pack in tow, itching to spark a joint. After that, the judicious camerawork takes hold: the steady right-to-left pans that literally survey the layout of the house, preparing us for every inch of the space. We eventually learn that the stranger in question is Ronny Proxin, and that Barry has come to whisk him out of town instead of killing him at Loach’s request. Stoned but compliant, he retrieves a suitcase from a room dedicated to his impressive Taekwondo career—notices, medals, awards, etc. At this point, it’s kind of easy to tell where this is headed. If the methodical pacing and the noticeably absent score wasn’t enough of a tipoff, then it’s Barry’s hilarious unease he tries to mask with small talk. Ronny isn’t about to leave without a fight. It won’t be pretty.

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But all of that set-up still can’t prepare you for his feral daughter who may or may not be of this world, or the part when she soars through the air like a flying squirrel, or Fuches’ hands super glued to the steering wheel, or the extended Fields Market fight sequence that culminates in a double murder. It’s as much Three Stooges as it is John Wick or the Coen Brothers. It’s unlike anything the series has attempted before and they pull it off with aplomb.

I suppose that “ronny/lily” will be divisive for critics and audiences alike. It’s enough of a departure, formally and tonally, for it to trip up people expecting a more conventional development following last week’s reveal. It pulls at just enough plausibility threads to drive certain people up the wall. Anyone who doesn’t like slapstick or bloody humor will likely be turned off. I’m sympathetic to those concerns to a point, but none of them really pass muster with me. Directed by Bill Hader and written by him and Alec Berg, “ronny/lily” is without a doubt a series highpoint, an impressive feat of comedic filmmaking and fight choreography that won’t likely be topped by anything else on television this year. It might be a self-conscious deviation from the norm (a colleague likened it to “Pine Barrens”), but it never once feels disjointed from the rest of Barry. It doesn’t so much break the series’ rules as it expands some and loosens others for specific ends, rendering the whole world just a little more flexible. “ronny/lily” is a shot of adrenaline to the heart, the type of episode you make to prove that you can make any episode you want.

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Berg and Hader build “ronny/lily” around four major fight sequences—Ronny vs. Barry; Barry vs. Lily; Lily vs. Barry/Fuches; Ronny vs. Barry vs. Loach—but the episode works precisely because of the accumulating details in between that constantly keep the situation unstable. At first, Ronny’s broken windpipe is nothing more than a sound gag; later, it becomes an aural calling card. Barry sustains a grievous stab wound and the resulting blood loss throws the rest of the episode in a woozy register. There’s Lily herself, a wild card for the ages, whose expert martial arts training, ninja-like abilities, and sheer ferocity keep the entire episode on edge from start to finish. “ronny/lily” deftly maneuvers between Stephen Chow-esque action film, outrageous buddy comedy, and body horror (the shot of Barry’s gaping wound is enough to make anyone squeamish), but it never loses the thread because the script’s cause-and-effect escalation grounds even the episode’s most outrageous moments. One catastrophe seamlessly bleeds into another.

It helps that the episode has enough experts behind and in front of the camera to lend the episode some discomfiting realism. Veteran martial artist, stunt performer, and fight choreographer Daniel Bernhardt plays Ronny, and simply put, his proficiency and experience are on full display in every single scene. His understated confidence combined with his characters’ Terminator-like determination/immortality renders him an ace comic asset, but it also makes every punch or head-butt he deliver feel genuine. Stunt coordinator Wade Allen impeccably choreographs each fight so they feel like their own inelegant, off-kilter ballet. They feel dangerously unpredictable, like the worst could happen at any moment.

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Oh yeah, it’s funny. Dear Lord is it funny. Barry’s humor generally springs from a deadpan sensibility. It’s a lot about line delivery and offhand remarks. The show rarely goes as broad as its premise. Yet “ronny/lily” mines laughs from the situation’s inherent absurdity. It lies in the drawn-out nature of the fight scenes, e.g. the three-minute long take of Barry and Ronny fighting across the entire bedroom that plays like the rake gag come to life, or Jesse Giacomaszzi’s animalistic snarl as she hurls herself across the room to tackle Barry, or the shot of her sitting atop her house like a gargoyle. The series has never quite gone for broke like this, but it reaches a comedic apex with the shot of Lily doing her best Laura Palmer impression as Fuches’ blood drips down her mouth. It lives in that sweet spot between horrifying and patently ridiculous.

At the same time, “ronny/lily” also manages to accomplish macro plot work without calling attention to itself. Loach and Ronny are both killed, effectively relieving Barry of the blackmail hanging over his head. But Fuches reenters the season in a big way, making a play for Barry’s mind once again. In between all of this chaos, he tries to worm his way into Barry’s contract work with Hank (“You’re gonna walk away from an army and heroin?! I don’t think so!”) and convince him to murder a child. The episode’s blackout dream sequences, shot by Hader as surreal desert nightmares, confirm that Fuches is the devil with whom Barry made the proverbial deal. While soldiers and civilians collided in embraces, Barry walked purposefully into the arms of an evil mercenary posing as family. By the end of “ronny/lily,” Barry realizes that the devil has still been perched on his shoulder the entire time.

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On some level, Barry has essentially become a sandbox for Bill Hader to showcase his considerable talents and experiment with new ones. It’s not singularly driven, but everything feels of piece with his worldview. Despite the indelible impression he has left as an actor and comedian, never did I think his directorial work would reach the same heights. Though he directed the series’ first three episodes, “ronny/lily” still feels like an unprecedented technical accomplishment. Everything from the camera setups to the simple, yet unshowy formal techniques to the complex staging feels like the work of a guy who finally gets to employ every bit of knowledge he picked up from a life spent on film sets. As a result, he has broke Barry wide open, and left endless possibilities in its wake.

Stray observations

  • I truly believe the episode’s internal logic is fairly airtight, which probably makes me crazy in the eyes of many.
  • Bill Hader small talking his way through every absurd situation is so funny that it’s hard to keep up. My absolute favorite is when he’s trying to calm Ronny in the grocery store: “Ronny, you’re not at 100%, alright? Your throat’s broken. You’re stoned.”
  • Shout out to John Pirruccello, who gives one of the best “Oh, what the fuck?” faces before getting kicked to death.
  • “The Chicago deal is still on the table. I got a guy out there. He’s literally glued to the car.”
  • The song that Ronny listens to in his car is “Castle Of Thoughts” by Bloodrock, a 70s rock group that came out of the Fort Worth music scene. Check out the song below.

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