Since its first episode, Barry has balanced incredible humor, violence, and pathos with exceptional aplomb. It takes a universal quandary — the struggle between who we are and who we wish to be — and takes it to absurdist levels in Barry’s (Bill Hader) personal life. An am-dram actor who is also a contract killer could easily be a recurring sketch or even just a film idea, but the way the series smartly explores (in increasingly intricate ways) how that all connects to layers of selfhood and perception is never short of astonishing.
A big reason behind that is the way the show emotionally gut-punches us between the satire and the action. Its Season 2 finale, “berkman/block,” had several of those moments, and they were all in service to Barry’s wobbling sense of self. Throughout the second season, we watched how Gene began to replace Fuches for Barry, a kind of reluctant father-figure who ends up molding Barry’s personality. Barry isn’t a blank slate, but he is highly impressionable, and he has two very different sides to him that produce very different reactions to the world around him depending on who is in his corner. Fuches was interested in Barry’s violent acumen, while Gene saw a softer and more sensitive side. After seeing what the latter could do for him (finding a new, non-lethal purpose, getting a girlfriend, finding a community), it was clear Barry would do anything to keep it. It’s why he killed his friend as well as Janice in the first season, and why he committed the massacre in this season finale. In trying to hold onto his better self, he reverts back to his killer instincts.
That back-and-forth is something that has been constant throughout the series, and is often played for laughs. Occasionally, though, it leads to some of the show’s most horrific emotional moments. In “berkman/block,” Barry rushes to save Gene, who Fuches has set up to take the fall for Janice’s murder. His quick thinking regarding the “debt paid” pin from Hank saved them both, and his elation at having solved the issue led to the devastating line that “[Gene] was right, people can change.” Yet just before that, Barry was supposed to act out that incredibly tricky scene with Sally where he chokes her and has to “sell” it. In an earlier episode, the take that convinced everyone of its power was when he channeled real rage. It was terrifying then, and it was just as terrifying the second time when she slapped him, essentially snapping him back to his Mr. Hyde persona. The red and black of the stage lights as Barry took his position were excruciating. It felt extremely possible that Barry could injure or kill Sally by not controlling his anger in that moment.
And then, as it so often does, Barry pulled the rug out from under us. Sally reverted back to her other self, the one that lies for approval, giving people the truth she wants them to see. And yet, by standing up and taking her power back in that moment, she shocked Barry right off the stage. That moment, which felt to her like a failure, was one that was lauded by the audience and which kept Barry at bay. The persona, not the real person, won out. It’s a thread that Sally’s narrative has been following all season, ending now with a conclusion as dark and heartbreaking as Barry’s.
It’s incredible then that Barry, only moments later, thinks of himself as being changed. And then of course, in another instant, it all flips back again when he sees that Fuches is with Hank. The bloodbath at the warehouse started off without much emotion — Barry killing drug thugs was intense but not surprising. What did hurt was seeing the young Chechnyan man he trained, Mayrbek (Nikita Bogolyubov) — who he had given such purpose to, who worshipped him — post-up to kill him. And then, upon seeing Barry, Mayrbek reveals a small smile of recognition before being murdered. Barry showed no recognition, and is dead-eyed in that moment, coldly stepping past him looking for Fuches. When he cools off and returns to see Mayrbek bleeding out on the floor, he realizes who the man is, but also who he, Barry, is. He walks off into darkness, and is enveloped by it.
What makes everything even worse (because yes, it gets worse!) is that Fuches whispered to Gene “Barry did it.” The show is very good at writing itself out of these kind of seemingly insurmountable reveals, but for Fuches to torpedo this relationship for Barry did feel particularly horrible, because Gene represents Barry’s better nature. To cut off that path towards the light extinguishes a hope that Barry might actually be capable of change. And still, all of the evidence in “berkman/block” points to the contrary.
It’s a testament to Hader’s performance and the series’ writing that we care enough about Barry to want to wrestle with his demons alongside him. He’s back where he was in the Season 1 finale in many ways, and yet, in Season 2 he wasn’t living in a fantasy world anymore. He wasn’t daydreaming about what could be, he was working hard to protect this life he had actually achieved, one which he never thought possible. The reality of it wasn’t how he envisioned it, and yet, the experience of it did change him. The experiences of “berkman/block” will as well, hopefully for the better. Because like Barry, it’s hard to give up on the belief in change. Still, there is so much darkness to face down first.