In the third episode of Season 2 of HBO’s Barry, in a tearful appeal to his protégé, Fuchs spills, “You’re in show business. They don’t want honest. They want entertainment.” These words don’t come from Barry’s trusted acting coach, but the living reminder of Barry’s old life as a hitman. Barry’s two mentors represent his two lives, his duality. As the introductory episodes to this season tell us, the two sides of Barry rarely stay separated.
Season 2 starts with a literal bang in its signature style, able to balance dry humour with the terror of loud kills. It opens on a masked hitman executing some unsuspecting goons with an air of the escalating comedy associated with a botched job. The returning show is off to a hot start, reminding us of its ability to not just balance fear and humour, but play one for the other.
Not long ago, Difficult People, asked: “when did comedies become 30-minute dramas?” But Barry doesn’t lure us with the promise of laughs and then swap in the dramatic, Barry provides hilarity spread across a dramatic backdrop. It doesn’t play drama for laughs but uses the drama to raise the stakes for the gags. In the theme of the opening of the season, it’s the comedy and tragedy, the duality of Barry that is the running theme of the show.
Bill Hader so expertly plays both sides of his character, a stoic and confident professional killer, and a shy and unsure aspiring actor. He wears the masks his character wears, a retired contract killer turned actor, in a way that manages to be believable and relatable, while of course, funny. I honestly couldn’t imagine anyone else delivering the level of warmth through two cold sides of a character the way Hader does. The irony of Barry ‘acting’ in his everyday life while being a shitty actor is not lost, which is a credit to his subtle performance.
Early in the season, we are treated to a “first kill,” scene where Barry is asked by his acting classmates to remember his first kill as a soldier. The duality is on full display here, Barry playing out the tragic events as they would unfold for a sympathetic layperson while remembering the cold and zealous romp of reality; a quick kill followed by another, and the celebrating crowd of soldiers cheering him on. It flips the duality of the character, creating a lighter twist on his spooky life, and a spooky twist on his lighter life. This thread is so beautifully woven throughout the early episodes of the season to bring a visual aid to Barry’s internal turmoil caused by his duality. It is exposition disguised as jokes and drama, a technical feat for even expert screenwriters. This duality gag runs through the show as a vessel to portray the two sides of Barry and blow up his dishonesty.
Dark comedy is at its peak when it is laughing at the virtue of performative grief. So Barry Season 2 is absolutely at the top of the game. This season, like its predecessor, pulls no punches and scrapes the darkest part of a host of tragedies for laughs at the people who experienced them. Its never making fun of the tragic events or their victims, but laughs at the human experience of vanity, as amplified in a Los Angeles acting class.
Organized crime dramas are nothing new, not even to HBO, but this dry comedy remains a refreshing twist on the familiar subject matter. The laughs are genuine, and the drama is earned. If the remainder of the season is at least on par with it’s opening few episodes, this will prove to be a stunning season of television. Season 2 of Barry arrives on HBO March 31st.