Game of Thrones concluded this week, and we will discuss its finale for a long, long time. But it’s not the only HBO show that wrapped up on Sunday night—it’s not even the best HBO show that wrapped up this week. The best HBO finale this week belongs to Barry, Bill Hader’s show about a hitman who gets bitten by the acting bug after following a mark into an acting class. Barry concluded its second season with a finale that ratchets up the stakes for Barry Berkman (Hader), and still has the time for a classic Noho Hank moment as he shops for a heroin table—“big on Pinterest, not on Amazon”. The episode typifies what makes Barry so special, which is the confidence to take the show to both extremes, to go from the absurd to brutal in the span of one episode and never jeopardize the audience’s investment in the main character. Duana called Barry “absolutely terrifying” and she’s not wrong. Barry is a dark, dark show.
It’s still a show with an episode featuring a teenaged Tae Kwon Do champion/possible superhuman, though. There isn’t a show out there that takes the leaps Barry does in its second season, and what is most impressive is how cohesive it all is. Barry wanders into some weird and very dark areas, but it is always consistent within its internal logic and various characterizations. The theme this season is truth and lies, as all the main characters struggle with telling the truth versus living a lie, especially if that lie is beneficial in some way. An overarching theme of Barry is whether or not people can change, and by the end of the second season, though Barry says he believes in change, he ends the season at Peak Barry, giving into rage-fueled violence once again.
What makes Barry work so well is the tightness of its plotting and its mastery of tone. Everything ties together, eventually, and there is no wasted space in the narrative. Barry believes in change, but when it counts, he is the same Barry he has always been. Aspiring actress Sally (Sarah Goldberg) wants to get on stage and tell the truth, but in her actual performance she inhabits the role of who she wanted to be when she left her abusive ex, and not who she really was. And, because Barry is never done twisting the knife, Sally’s moment crossing the line results in the kind of attention she always wanted, but at the expense of her dream of becoming a real artist. Sally’s entire arc this season is amazing, from learning about her backstory with her ex, to her struggle to get a foothold in the entertainment industry, even as Barry sails through the process just because he is tall.
Barry swings from high drama to gut-busting laughter, often in the same episode. It’s absurd and heartbreaking, and Sally’s quest to become an actress is just as fraught as Barry’s situation with the Chechnyans or the looming threat of Fuches (Stephen Root). The season finale leaves you with the question of how long this can go on, really, before the consequences start kicking in. But unlike with Game of Thrones, I trust co-creators Hader—who also directs this episode—and Alec Berg to stick the landing. That’s because they have attended every detail so well so far, striking a delicate balance between authentic storytelling and surprising the audience.
There are surprising events on Barry, but they all serve a purpose, to elucidate or illuminate specific things about the characters. And it’s done so well, and the story is contained so carefully, that the writers feel trustworthy because they have taken some big swings over the first two seasons and they have not had a problem yet. That’s what happens when writers prioritize storytelling—audiences actually trust them to tell a story. And Barry is telling one hell of a story, about grief and regret and the ability of humans to change who they are. Barry is a half-hour comedy, but these are heavy topics for a “comedy”. Barry defies categorization, and it also defies expectation. It doesn’t seem possible for a show to be so good, to be simultaneously so funny and ready to murder rival gangs. There is a lot of TV, and you should watch what makes you happy, but there isn’t anything like Barry on TV. You should watch it, if for no other reason than to see morally complicated characters trying and failing to do the right thing. It’s like Game of Thrones, but Barry sticks the landing.
Attached - Bill Hader at Sirius XM last week.