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Even as it spins its wheels, Barry showcases Bill Hader's excellent performance

Bill Hader and Anthony Carrigan in Barry
Image: Peter Iovino (HBO)
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Personally speaking, reactive performances are generally much more interesting to watch than traditionally active ones. It’s not just the inherent difficulty of expressing internal emotions via external movements, or the subtlety required to pull that off without defaulting to exaggeration, but it’s also a more precise representation of how many people engage with the larger world. As satisfying as melodrama can be, so many of us don’t fall back on outsized passion to express ourselves. It’s often just a shift in expression, whether it’s as big as a facial twitch or as small as a nostril flare. Sometimes that’s all people can muster to get their feelings across, and it can be a particularly rewarding experience to to pick up on those cues to better understand someone’s emotional matrix.

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Though these types of performances are frequently overlooked because they don’t call attention to themselves, Bill Hader has semi-surprisingly garnered quite a bit of acclaim and awards attention for his work on Barry. This can be cynically chocked up to name recognition or a delayed recognition of his excellent work on SNL, but the sentimentalist in me believes that it’s genuine appreciation for watching an actor who made his bones by playing to the cheap seats take a more introspective approach. Barry might be a hitman, but his “active” profession belies his personality, which amounts to a bottle of repressed guilt and rage. Hader communicates every bit of his temperament primarily through minor motions, which allows for his bigger gestures to have maximum impact. There’s nothing like watching him scream, “Fuck off!” after keeping everything close to the chest.

“Past = Present x Future Over Yesterday” is an okay episode that spends too much of its runtime table setting and spinning its wheel without enough compensatory laughs. Barry and Hank quickly bury their would-be feud when Barry agrees to train the Chechens to be assassins. Fuches and Loach continue to conspire to get Barry to admit he killed Moss on tape. Barry and Sally struggle with their personal pieces. Gene tries again to reconcile with his estranged son, who still has little interest in any meaningful relationship with him. It’s not that these are unimportant developments, but you can also definitely feel Barry stalling just long enough to ramp up the tension.

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It’s easy to identify the details that will eventually become important later in the season: the one Chechen in the bumbling team, Mayrbek (Nikita Bogolyubov), who can shoot straight; Loach’s defeated expression as Barry and Fuches tearfully reunite over tape; the half-told Korengal story that will likely be a crucial element of Barry’s backstory. This type of storytelling works best when the plotting buries any foreshadowing, but an eight-episode season order unfortunately necessitates some narrative shortcuts. These would go down smoother with comedy, but with the exception of the Chechen scenes and Henry Winkler exclaiming, “So you thought you’d plagiarize Mel Gibson. I’m Jewish. What the fuck, Barry?”, they’re in short supply this week.

With that said, Barry at its weakest remains a potent showcase for Hader’s talents. His funniest moment this week involves his slow realization that Hank and his partner are trying to snipe him out in his bedroom. (The near imperceptible “pfft” sound the bullets make as they lodge themselves in the dry wall and Barry’s pillows are an excellent touch.) But he really comes alive in Gene’s acting class when he’s forced to play Sally’s ex-husband in a staging of her piece. Director Minkie Spiro lingers on a close-up of his ashamed face as he reads through her piece and expresses discomfort. Hader excels at this kind of pitiful distress and it’s a bit heartbreaking to watch Gene and Sally try to bully him into “accessing his rage” when he wants to do nothing of the sort. Sally tries to push him to that place by publicly shoving and berating him, accompanied by a healthy dollop of verbal abuse from Gene, but it only sends him out the door.

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As much as Sally touts honesty as a primary motivation, she’s also swimming in denial about her failed marriage. Sally misremembers the night she left Sam as a moment of triumph for her, the time that she told him to “choke” on her departure. Obviously, this never happened, and her friend Kate (Alexa Havins) confirms that her exit was a more muted, somber affair: She and Sally just packed a bag while Sam was passed out and left under the cover of night. Sally so desperately needs the truth to positively reflect her strength that her mind invented a camera-ready kiss-off line. It’s much harder to accept that violence and abuse turns even the most headstrong individuals into frightened targets*.

“C’mon, man. You’re in show business. They don’t want honest. They want entertainment!” Fuches tells Barry, and yet the tension between honesty and denial remains a potent one. There’s a telling moment when Barry’s memory and the present day fold into each other: Gene calls out Barry’s plagiarism of the famous Braveheart speech within the remembered space of his time in Afghanistan. It’s effectively surreal to watch Henry Winkler give frustrated direction to Barry outside the Korengal Valley because it illustrates how memory becomes more malleable over time. Barry doesn’t want to remember everything from that time to the letter because it might force him to confront, as Gene puts it, his “inherent darkness.” (“It’s not inherent…” Barry pushes back, to which Gene humorously responds, “Trust me, that is exactly what it is, and it is dark.”) It’s much easier to swipe inspiration from Mel Gibson than to do the work to live within one’s awful truth.

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Then again, maybe all Barry needed to get in touch with his darkness was to see Sam reenter Sally’s life. That terrifying final shot of Bill Hader’s enraged expression communicates more about Barry’s internal life than any “sheep fucker” story ever could.

*Writer’s note [04/15/19, 12:51 ET]: I initially used the phrase “cowering doormats” instead of “frightened targets” to describe Sally’s experience, specifically as an evocative contrast to the preceding phrase “headstrong individuals.” I received an email from someone who expressed that my use of that phrase was insensitive, thoughtless, and judgmental. After the briefest consideration, I concluded that they were right. While I certainly did not mean to imply that the onus of responsibility lies on domestic abuse victims to stand up for themselves, that’s obviously how it came across to some. Any descriptive impulse on my part should take into account the lived experiences of others. My sincerest and deepest apologies for my poor phrasing and I promise to do better in the future.

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Stray observations

  • As great as it would have been if Berg and Hader somehow convinced the real Thomas Friedman to cameo in the series, actor Sam Ingraffia does a pretty good job of playing the famous political commentator. I suppose he wouldn’t have appreciated hearing Anthony Carrigan say, “You’re bad at writing and nobody likes you.”
  • It’s probably not a huge surprise that Sasha takes advantage of Barry’s generosity by getting him to cover her shift so she can play hooky, but after seeing Jermaine punt repayment for groceries in the premiere, I wonder if this kind of behavior will eventually push Barry over the edge. After all, he’s still ostensibly protecting them from danger, even though they don’t know about it.
  • Barry’s apartment has a framed Attack the Block poster in the living room.
  • The funniest joke in the episode is Sally’s friend Kate claiming she doesn’t have time to watch much TV and then proceeds to list off all the shows she finds time to watch.
  • “I built this guy’s mind, you don’t think I can tear it apart? Give me five minutes with him! I’ll have him shitting in my hand!” “…What?”
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About the author

Vikram Murthi

Vikram Murthi is a freelance writer and critic currently based out of Brooklyn.