Barry has more to offer than ever in its third season, though the deeper we get into the series, the darker it becomes, such that it is difficult to even call this a “comedy” anymore. But episode six, directed by series star and co-creator Bill Hader and written by the most excellently named Duffy Boudreau, has one of the funniest moments of any season yet—the motocross dirt bike chase across Los Angeles. This was originally meant to be a fun “anatomy of a scene” like the chase scene breakdown I did for Point Break, but almost every time I came back to work on this piece over the last few weeks, there was another mass shooting in America. That’s not unusual in the United States, there have already been over 200 mass shootings in 2022, not counting the recent tragic events in Tulsa, Oklahoma. But part of doing these kinds of break-downs is watching and re-watching the same scene over and over, and each time I come back to this chase scene, I am struck anew by the implied collateral damage.
The scene IS incredible. On a much smaller budget and terrestrial scale, it’s doing the same kind of action cinematography as Top Gun: Maverick, and no, that is not hyperbole. Like Maverick, the cameras are positioned to put the audience in the middle of the action, and many of the shots are medium depth, making the viewer part of the chase. There is a good sense of space and clear action choreography so that we always know where Barry (Hader) is in relation to his pursuers, the pissed-off dirt bike gang looking for revenge. And there are terrific comedy beats built in from the jump, such as Barry stopping at a red light while being chased.
That’s a funny beat, perfectly in character for Barry who might be a depressed hitman with a penchant for violence, but he also observes the social niceties (and thinks those cover for the times he does NOT observe the social niceties). But this shot also demonstrates the immediacy of the action work, as we “ride along” with Barry, stuck between him and his pursuers. It builds tension within the scene while maintaining our spatial awareness of the players. But it also means we can clearly see when the dirt bike gang appears to shoot an innocent driver. You can see the driver of the Jeep ahead of Barry slump over after his back window is shot out.
It’s not that I didn’t notice this the first time I saw this scene. In fact, one of the things I appreciated about this sequence from that first viewing is that Barry doesn’t shy away from showing collateral damage. It’s not bloody violence and it’s not the focus of the scene, but as the chase-cum-shootout continues, we see other drivers obviously being shot. But the more I watch this sequence the more these deliberate inclusions stand out. Not only for existing in the first place—most contemporary action cinema goes out of its way to establish there is no collateral damage, whether it’s by setting action within otherwise empty spaces, like rural fields or abandoned buildings, or by showing the protagonists to be such experts that they never hit the wrong target (as in the John Wick movies).
But here, Barry is showing us, albeit bloodlessly, that there are consequences to this chase sequence. Bystanders are being hurt. The drivers stuck in a freeway traffic jam are literal sitting ducks as the dirt bike gang opens fire on Barry. Once again, you can see drivers reacting to the gunfire, though this time, the most obvious casualty after the “handoff” doesn’t work out is one of the bikers.
There is no way that guy is still alive, helmet or no. This is a fantastic action-comedy beat, the combination of the failed handoff and the spectacular wipeout of the biker blends the physical humor of Lucille Ball and Harold Lloyd. But again, that guy was firing an automatic weapon into a sea of sitting ducks, and for sure some people got hurt besides that biker. And it’s just impossible not to think about how this chase scene comes across on the evening news, that as brilliant as this scene is within the context of Barry, within the context of everything else, it’s just another day in America.
Audiences are smart enough to know fantasy from reality. Part of the enduring appeal of action movies is that they provide catharsis in emotionally safe spaces—we can enjoy John Wick on a revenge mission because we understand the inherent impossibility of the situation. It’s the same reason superhero movies have become our primary way of processing the collective trauma of September 11th and twenty years of war. I don’t think Barry is trying to say anything about mass shootings, more that the decision to include visible signs of collateral damage has to do with this series’ attitude toward crime and criminals: that crime isn’t cool, and criminals are to a T terrible at their jobs. The dirt bike gang is just one more group of hapless criminals, failing at their intentions and hurting everyone around them as they do it.
But where this scene really slides sideways, in the current context, is the finale at the used car lot. Again, just a chef’s kiss bit of business, beautifully shot in the twilight, and the salesman’s dialogue is perfect. But it turns into, essentially, “good guy with gun stops bad guy with gun”. And we know that’s bullsh-t.
The scene must end somehow, and law enforcement on Barry is as hapless as the criminals, so I wouldn’t call the show “copaganda”, but this climax does play into the oft-repeated line that the only way to stop bad people is by arming more people. Arm the teachers, arm the nurses now, I guess, arm the guy in the produce aisle, arm the kid at the concessions counter, arm the members of the church choir, maybe if enough people are armed, there won’t be any more tragedies. Except we know that more guns only beget more gun violence and arming everyone isn’t the answer, even if this admittedly very well-done chase scene in Barry uses the “good guy” trope to close out the sequence.
I love this scene, it is incredibly constructed with solid action and comedy beats. But it’s also a stark illustration of everything wrong with America, that this scene is so believable is pretty much the entire problem. It’s a Hall Of Fame chase scene and a horrifying public shootout rolled up into one sequence. As with Top Gun and propaganda, we can think critically about the things we love, and Barry sort of falls into the anti-war movie trap with this sequence. The intention is clear to include collateral damage and show how the violence around Barry is spreading outward and harming so many others, but it’s such a great piece of action cinema it’s easy to lose sight of those ramifications in favor of pure entertainment. But right now, the fantasy is cold comfort. There is no catharsis, only pain.
Check out the full Barry chase scene here: