In 2017, when Bill Hader signed on with HBO to create, write, direct and star as the titular character in a new show, Barry, we were all expecting something along the same lines as the Saturday Night Live alumni; more zany, excessive characters that defined his comedic career. Very few were anticipating an offbeat, but beautifully-poetic dark comedy about a whole range of themes that were hardly to be expected from someone whose crowning glory was the iconic but one-dimensional Stefon on Weekend Update. Hader’s risky endeavor in making Barry nabbed the show multiple Emmy nominations, as well as allowing Hader and veteran co-star Henry Winkler to go home with the gold last year. Now Barry has returned for a second season; just as conflicted as before, and equally as lethal. If the season opener is anything to go by, we can expect the same brilliant blend of comedy and tragedy from the first season, along with the possibility of some surprises along the way.
The season opens just after the Season 1 finale left off – Detective Janice Moss (Paula Newsome) has gone missing, and is presumed dead, likely being a victim of the vicious Chechynan drug syndicate operating out of Los Angeles. Of course, as we know, Janice found her grisly fate not at the hands of some vengeful gangsters, but rather from our troubled anti-hero, forced into violence after she began to uncover his dark history that includes multiple assassinations. Her romantic partner, acting teacher Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) has taken her death badly, and has grown despondent to his craft, the only aspect of his life he was truly passionate about. His absence forces Barry to take control of the group, not because he is particularly adept at it, but because he wants to swiftly move away from Janice’s disappearance, hoping to erase it from the collective memory of all those around him, lest he has to be reminded of his actions that he keeps telling himself were not done out of choice, but out of sheer necessity. But how long can Barry run away from the past?
Bill Hader remains the MVP of the show, and he proves that his attempt at dramatic acting last season was not merely exploratory, but rather his chance to show a very different side to his talents. In Season 2, Barry Berkman is…different. He’s still struggling with his past, but he has grown exponentially in confidence (the catalyst for the episode’s events is Barry attempting to stage the acting class’ production of The Front Page in lieu of Gene, who has removed himself from the directing chair due to his grief. He also now works at Lululemon) and he is finally coming out of his shell, which doesn’t only mean that he is more sociable, but also that he is addressing his actions, albeit internally. In one of the most heart-wrenching moments of the entire show to date, we see Barry provide a play-by-play account of his first kill, which was while he was serving in the military. The blend of Hader’s insecurities as a young soldier in the flashbacks, and his uncomfortable present-day account as a veteran with PTSD, is only made more poignant by the strange blend of deep remorse and soaring pride Barry feels in what he did. Each week, we begin to realize that Barry’s promise of “no more killing” may just be a way for him to overcome the fact that he is a natural-born killer, and as much as he tries to escape from it, it’ll follow him wherever he goes.
Unsurprisingly, Hader’s is not the only performance worth taking note of. Henry Winkler, who triumphantly ascended the podium last September to receive the first Primetime Emmy Award of his storied career, is just as terrific as Gene Cousineau, albeit taking a very different approach. Gene is grieving, and his happy-go-lucky, eccentric persona has been traded in for something far more nihilistic and worrisome, that of a man mourning the loss of the only person he loved just as much as himself (almost unheard of in terms of a narcissist like Gene). Winkler’s work in the first season was tremendous, but it was often overly-simplistic, built from an archetypal character. It seems like his character is undergoing a significant change this season, so we should expect Winkler and the writers to continue taking this character to some new territory.
Anthony Carrigan, who was undoubtedly the show’s secret weapon last season, occupies a larger role in the Season 2 opener, and with his former boss Goran being killed (by Barry no less) towards the end of the previous season, “NoHo” Hank is far more powerful than he was before – and despite remaining as much of an oddball as he was previously, he’s adopted a sinister new side to his personality that is certainly quite disconcerting – and it would appear that the person who used to be Barry’s most loyal ally and biggest defender may just become his most terrifying adversary.
It may be early to judge, but it would appear that Barry is not a show intending to rest on its laurels, and while the same blend of the humorous and the tragic continues to be deftly balanced, there is an atmosphere that this show is only going to gain depth and continue to contribute to the television renaissance we seem to be in. A show that breaks the boundaries between genres – it is simultaneously hilarious in dark, demented humor, and bleak in existential quandaries and nihilistic dread. It is difficult to discern where this season is going to take this story, and this premiere only served to be the setup for arcs that will doubtlessly be explored throughout the season, but if we are to judge only on what we’ve seen here, Barry is going to continue to be unexpected, filled with surprises and as brilliant and intelligent as ever. It isn’t clear where this season is heading, but it certainly seems like wherever it is, it’ll be memorable, and it would appear that we’re in for a killer season of television.