Bill Hader as Barry
Image: Isabella Vosmikova (HBO)
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“I pray that human beings can change their nature. Because if we can’t, then you and I are in deep trouble.”—Gene Cousineau

“Throw me a line, I’m sinking fast / Clutching at straws, can’t make it”—Roxy Music, “Virginia Plain”

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The best argument Barry has presented so far for people’s capacity to change lies in the differences between the two bookending conversations in “What?!” The first, between Barry and Sally, reeks of self-justification masking as care, a fervid attempt to ignore the truth because confronting it would be too painful. However, the second, between Barry and Gene, demonstrates that honesty and vulnerability, even in a limited capacity, can act as antidotes to past regrets. Obviously the stakes between the two vary greatly, but the central tension remains the same: Is it safer to put the past behind us or is it better to tackle it headfirst, even if it might hurt the people closest to us?

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Barry has mostly succeeded in burying his rage so far below the surface that no one can even perceive it, but it returns with force when Sam (Joe Massingill), Sally’s ex-husband, comes to Los Angeles, clearly to scope out Sally’s scene after hearing about it from mutual friends. Barry’s mind becomes a soundscape of white noise—muffled conversations, whooshing air, and David Wingo’s ominous score flood the sound design as he tries to maintain his composure. He becomes frustrated with Sally’s deferential demeanor around him, especially when she tries to downplay the scene in order to placate Sam. He eventually takes it out on Mayrbek, the lone talent in Hank’s Chechen army, by channeling Fuches’ manipulation tactics. By all accounts, Barry is a hair trigger away from returning to the violent life.

But when Sally tearfully admits to Barry that her scene is a lie she concocted to deflect the truth, that she stayed in the relationship amidst the abuse and never properly told off Sam, Barry tells her to maintain the fiction. Now, on one level, Barry’s advice can be read as sound: the fact Sally that left Sam at all is a courageous act and it amounts to “standing up to him” even if there was no dramatic confrontation. There’s no shame in keeping the full story from the rest of the class if it would be too hard to share in such a setting. But the sinister subtext of Barry’s advice reflects poorly on him. “You know, Star Wars didn’t happen and that’s a rad movie,” he tells Sally quietly, parroting Fuches’ insistence that people want entertainment not honesty. In essence, he convinces Sally to maintain a façade that would protect her from the weight of past traumas as a way to justify his own denial. It’s a way to forge a connection between him and Sally, even though it’s built atop a foundation of dishonesty.

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External forces, however, conspire to bring both Barry and Sally closer to their pasts. Sam shows his true abusive colors immediately after Barry catches him spying on Sally’s rehearsal: he writes off Sally as “dramatic,” threatens legal action, and makes a crude remark all within the span of seconds. Blinded by fury, Barry plans to murder Sam at the same time as Sam invites Sally to her hotel because he has a present for her. Director Liza Johnson shoots the hell out of the tense sequence, cutting between Barry’s unhinged behavior and Sally’s anxious demeanor as she falls for Sam’s plan to get her alone in his hotel room to maintain maximum discomfort. Writer Duffy Boudreau frames the scene between Sam and Sally wonderfully, illustrating how any situation can rapidly escalate when an abuser doesn’t get his way. Sam exploits their history by acting contrite and talking about his sick father, but as soon as Sally insists she’s doing the scene, he browbeats her and makes her feel small. Wingo’s pulsing score peaks at the moment when Sally opens the door to leave right as Barry has his gun pointed at Sam’s head.

Barry plays fast and loose with these sort of close-call moments, and it’s a little bit unbelievable that Barry wouldn’t be spotted by either Sally or Sam in that scene, and yet it’s all worth it for his conversation with Gene. Gene eventually pushes Barry to tell the full Korengal story, in which he murders an innocent villager, in his home, in cold blood, because he erroneously believed that they shot Albert, which eventually forced him to a psychiatric hospital in Germany and a discharge orchestrated by Fuches. Gene initially acts pretty much how you’d expect—shock and awe before insisting that Barry never publicly share that story—but he eventually mellows and speaks honestly with Barry about his failures as a father and how it’s possible to work through past regrets. Winkler shines in this scene, playing a doting, sensitive father to Barry’s scared child, and Hader’s moved expression speaks volumes. It’s a powerful moment that hinges on a terrible irony: Gene promises to help Barry work through his past, which includes the murder of his girlfriend.

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It’s unclear if Barry himself understands the emotional difficulty or the costs and sacrifices of working through one’s personal history. When he excitedly tells Fuches that Gene told him he can “change his nature” and that he can move past his regrets, it feels like false relief. He’s glad that there’s an out at all, but he’s unprepared for what that actually entails. Sure enough, Loach appears from the other room, gun drawn, and tells Barry that his admission of guilt has been recorded. Fuches pleads with Loach to be reasonable, but it seems like Loach has his mind made up. Maybe for Barry to change his nature, he actually has to pay for his crimes and lose everything in the process.

Except that doesn’t happen. It requires a certain leap of dramatic faith to accept Barry’s next plot move because, by all accounts, it’s all over for our sad hitman. He’s on tape admitting that he killed Moss. Loach and Fuches’ tag team cooperation has worked out. The jig is up. And yet, Loach starts to fall apart after he turns the recorder off, but what seems like him having second thoughts about taking revenge on Barry reveals itself to be another moral failure. Loach wants Barry to kill his ex-wife’s new beau in exchange for the recording. Pause. Cue episode title as punchline.

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Barry keeps receiving second chances from the universe, but they only take the form of moral traps. Train Hank’s army and then he can walk away. Kill Ronnie Proxin and the Moss situation goes away. Live a lie only if it’s convenient. Tell the truth, but not the whole truth. Over time, “Starting…now!” has become less of a promise and more of a threat.

Stray observations

  • So many good gags this week, but my favorites were, as follows: 1. The translator who approaches Mayrbek to translate Barry’s outburst only to be shut down by two Chechen soldiers (“We know! We fucking speak English!”); 2. Loach’s abominable handwriting stalling Fuches’ conversation with Barry over the phone; 3. The opening credits interruption; 4. Fuches futilely trying to climb off the hotel balcony only for Barry to show up at the worst possible moment.
  • Barry initially asks Fuches for lesser-known films with speeches that he can swipe since Braveheart is too popular. “Eric recommended Samuel Jackson’s speech in Deep Blue Sea but he gets eaten by a shark halfway through it, so I don’t know if I want to do that one…”
  • We see glimpses of some of the other stories in Gene’s workshop. For Jermaine, the story that defines him involves his father being abducted and replaced by aliens. “I’m having a little trouble with that,” Gene says. “You’re having a little trouble with that?” Jermaine replies. “I’ve had trouble my entire life dealing with that.”
  • Gene informing Barry that he bills private sessions through another loan out after their heart-to-heart talk is priceless.
  • “I think you’re deeply human. You did a terrible thing. But do I think that defines you? No. That’s why I don’t think you should tell this story in front of the class. Also, they will shit themselves. I mean, they’re children.”

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