Barry is a man of many masks, and one of them is "acting student." (Illustration by Julianna Renk, University of California, Berkeley)

Is HBO’s ‘Barry’ the Darkest Antihero in American Television?

The series is on par with ‘The Sopranos’ in its violence, but its insistence on comedy is what makes the show truly unnerving.

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Barry is a man of many masks, and one of them is "acting student." (Illustration by Julianna Renk, University of California, Berkeley)

The series is on par with ‘The Sopranos’ in its violence, but its insistence on comedy is what makes the show truly unnerving.

In 2018, HBO began releasing episodes for the first season of “Barry,” a unique fusion of crime and comedy created, written and directed by 40-year-old comedian Bill Hader, who also plays the main character Barry. Most would recognize Hader from his smaller roles in Seth Rogen comedy blockbusters like “Pineapple Express” or “Superbad.” More recently he has starred in films such as “Trainwreck,” which co-starred Amy Schumer, and he is slated to be cast as the character Richie Tozier in “It: Chapter Two.”

Season 2 of the series debuted on March 31 and continues to grow in viewership. Audiences follow Barry, a Marine veteran turned hitman who is torn between pressures from Chechen and Bolivian crime organizations and his newfound passion for acting. Barry faces the paranoia of being exposed for his killings while being a student at an acting class taught by the outlandish Gene Cousineau, played by Henry Winkler. At the beginning of the series, Barry is contracted to kill a member of the class, but as he surveys his target, acting strikes his interest and he decides to enroll in Cousineau’s class.

The series is undeniably heavy, with grizzly sequences of action and several tragic turns, which spearhead the show’s swift assault on emotions. An unorthodox characteristic of such a heart-throbbing plotline is the strong dose of humor that is apparent throughout the series. “Barry” is undeniably as much of a comedy as it is a drama, but what separates the new HBO series from other shows that have used this strategy is how bleak its sequences of murder can get.

Barry may be the darkest anti-hero television audiences have ever seen. Similar to the serial killer protagonist Dexter from the Showtime series “Dexter,” Barry kills people for a sense of purpose; it is all he has ever known. Both are understood to kill “bad” people — in Dexter’s case other serial killers, in Barry’s case gang members or criminals. However, both shows’ drama and shock value are intensified whenever these protagonists are faced with the decision to kill innocent people, because they either threaten to expose them or represent another form of liability to their secrecy.

For instance, in “Dexter,” character Sergeant James Doakes is wary of Dexter throughout Season 1 and 2, but when he confirms his suspicions near the end of Season 2, he ultimately has to pay for it with his life. The emotional impact of Doakes’ death is intensified by how Dexter had humanized the character leading up to the event. For instance, Dexter’s sister, Debra, has dinner with Doakes and his mother and several sisters in an endearing sequence in Season 1. Unfortunately, Doakes dies from an explosion after he discovers irrefutable evidence of Dexter’s killings, but he is not directly killed by Dexter, and his death is basically off-camera, which lightens the blow.

In contrast, “Barry” tests moral extremes when its killer is forced to murder an innocent to preserve his lie. Near the middle of Season 1, the audience is introduced to Chris, a long-time, wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly type friend of Barry’s who rekindles their relationship through Facebook. Later in the season, Chris is unfortunately looped into one of Barry’s violent ordeals and is forced to kill a man in order to save Barry’s life.

Then, in Episode 7, Chris meets with Barry in a desolate area to hysterically confess his guilt and his desire to come clean. The exchange is concluded by Barry shooting Chris in the head from outside his car window. You see Chris’ body struck lifeless in the driver’s seat, as blood squirts from the wound in his forehead and Barry flees. The scene may be one of the most morally gruesome shots in the history of television because of the innocence of Chris’ situation. He had also talked to Barry about his child in a past episode, so it is hard to forgive Barry for such a selfish and downright evil act.

There were concerns that “Dexter” would be too dark for American viewers when it was first coming out, but “Barry” proves how the boundaries of anti-heroes have been broken wide open in 2019.

What’s more, Barry’s lack of moral integrity is reminiscent of another HBO series, the highly celebrated “The Sopranos.” The show, centering around the life of a ruthless Italian mob boss Tony Soprano, is constantly dripping with bad blood throughout its episodes. However, “Barry” adds comedy to its equation that can come off as flippant jokes after gruesomely violent sequences. The juxtaposition of high-scoring laughs (because Hader undeniably thrives at writing humor for “Barry”) and barbwired kills makes for a twisted concoction that can at times test your tolerance.

Yes, “The Sopranos” is harsh while including funny jokes and dialogue, but Hader’s commitment to making “Barry” as much of a comedy as it is a crime drama adds an extra level of bite to each and every episode. How would audiences in the early 2000s have responded to the moral ambiguity of “The Sopranos” if it were also layered with facetiousness?

One aspect of “Barry” that keeps viewers sympathizing with its anti-hero protagonist, and consequently counteracts his on-screen vices, is his PTSD from serving in Afghanistan, which runs as a major theme in the series. The psychological wound may be what allows audiences to continue watching Barry’s story play out even after terrible sequences like Chris’ death, similar to how Walter White’s lung cancer functions as a moral crutch in the wildly popular “Breaking Bad.” Similarly to Walt, Barry’s inner flaw may not justify his cruel actions to audiences, but it allows them to relate to the protagonist and remain attached to the show anyways.

Although “Barry” is one of the most morally bleak shows I have ever seen, I am a huge fan. I look forward to each new episode because the series is a wildly entertaining mix of suspenseful storytelling, complex characters and boisterous humor. However, the HBO series also represents the increasing darkness American entertainment is growing accustomed to.


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