For anyone questioning the choice Barry made at the end of its first season to see Barry (Bill Hader) secure his future with a very personal murder, the new season delivers a startlingly confident reply. Picking up in the weeks following Janice’s (Paula Newsome) disappearance, Barry sees the unraveling of his plan almost immediately. An inconsolable Gene (Henry Winkler) is ready to shut down production and quit the acting class, and everything Barry hoped to preserve beings to fall apart. He lets slip to his girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg) in one chilling aside about the calculation: “Then it was all for nothing.”
One of the things that made the first season of Bill Hader’s HBO series so exceptional was how it managed to make violent shifts in tone feel completely organic. Every short half-hour episode is a rollercoaster ride of emotions, from the always-hilarious exploits NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) to a suddenly deeply dark exploration of Barry’s first kill. Barry has extraordinary balance, much like its titular character in the way he must also juggle his duel natures of assassin and am-dram actor.
Part of the fallout of Barry’s choice to kill Janice is Gene taking a new approach with his students, which includes them writing their own scripts about a pivotal moment in their lives that defined them (giving him the extremely wry line, “let’s make it about ourselves for once!”) For Barry, it’s that first kill in Afghanistan, which he allows the class to play out with the assumption that it was devastating for him. As we see (and already know), it was anything but. The series is so smart in how it layers in these deeper themes, getting right to the quick about the fictions we all create for ourselves for our pasts, pretending to be the people we want others to think we are. The show expands on this in a few ways (as of the first three episodes available for review), including a deeper look into Sally’s life and how that informs her own duel natures.
Barry is at its most powerful, though, when we see and feel the juxtaposition of Barry’s killer instincts versus the man he wants to be. When he makes those choices, or edits his past, or deals with current threats while having to pretend to be normal, Hader absolutely excels in making whatever Barry decides seem like the only possible path. He imbues his character with so much quiet likability that when he does have a moment of extreme darkness, or reverts back to a more militaristic mode, you are still on his side. And yet, there is never an attempt to shy away from confronting the void within him. “Am I evil?” he asks Hank, who replies enthusiastically. “Do I not tell you this all of the time?!” But that’s not what Barry wants to hear. He doesn’t really know himself or who he really us, and he’s terrified to find out.
Amid this drama, the new season also weaves in a jaunty subplot with Hank and new cartel alliances, including a friendship with Bolivian drug lord and a Burmese crime family trying to muscle in on what Hank believes is his territory — not in terms of drugs, but of friendship, of course. The series continues to adeptly combine contrasting tones and circumstances, like the comedy that manages to come out of this deeply violent business as Hank’s “army” are revealed to mostly be untrained soft-boys who are nevertheless still killers. Everything about the series is so carefully crafted, though, that even its smallest moments are pure joy (most especially when it riffs on cut-rate movies and TV series in the roles Sally and others get). But there is never a danger of superficiality, even when a recurring theme is how Barry is able to achieve this duel life largely because the people around him are so self-absorbed. Because in fact, those selfish qualities are themselves part of the show’s overarching pantomime of perception. When Barry or Sally are forced to confront something real and dark about themselves, they internally begin scrubbing it away and changing it to make it more palatable, hoping that may deceive others into believing their version of truth. That desperately raw humanity is what grounds the series so well.
Barry’s opening scene of the premiere (directed by Hiro Murai) is the perfect setup for all of this: a cacophony of violence punctuated by humor, all wrapped up in simmering dread. Now that The Americans is off the air, Barry has taken its place as the most wonderfully stressful and anxiety-inducing show on TV. It is a world that is both deeply strange and deeply human. Barry himself is an extreme example of the secrets and doubts we have about ourselves that we manipulate in our own memories in the hope of being better. It also goes a step further by asking, through this unlikely avatar, if we can ever really achieve it.
Barry Season 2 premieres Sunday, March 31st on HBO