Department of Footnotes to the Banality of Evil: A man is about to be executed, as painfully as possible, in a garage. Chechen gangsters spell out the requirements of the job to a grinning, electric saw-wielding colleague: “Cut him up into manageable pieces. No one likes hauling around 50 kilos of torso. That is back injury waiting to happen. The trash bags are in that cupboard.”
HBO’s Barry, which just wrapped up a brilliant, severely funny first season of eight episodes, all of which are available on demand, advances Quentin Tarantino’s innovation — imagining the trivial discussions of ruthless killers — into the realm of routine suburban-living hassles. Characters are dogged by banal worries like hosting a sleepover party for their children or the cleanliness of a china tea service for visiting police. Meanwhile, the title character, a disillusioned career hitman played by show co-creator and former SNL star Bill Hader, has already undergone a journey recalling Walter White’s in Breaking Bad. Barry has done unspeakable things, but Hader creates a sense that he is at his core a decent guy who simply got stuck on the wrong track. The audience roots both for and against him.
The season begins with Barry, a dejected loner undergoing an existential crisis, on a job in L.A., tracking his prey to an acting class, where Barry is mistaken for an aspiring performer. A flirtation with a fellow pupil, Sally (Sarah Goldberg), turns into a crush and then a romance. As the season goes on, Barry is given to fantasizing about his future peaceful, boring life as Sally’s husband. He longs to stop killing people. Someday, he imagines, he’ll be flipping burgers at a backyard barbecue attended by Jon Hamm. Love has replenished his empty soul.
But actions Barry has previously taken mandate follow-up murders that test his self-rationalizations about being just another guy who does his job. By the last couple of episodes of the first season (season two has already been announced), he is in Walter White territory — unfortunately but indisputably damned. Nothing short of his own violent death will suffice as moral payback, but (depending on how popular the series becomes) that event may be many years in the future. Thanks to Hader’s comic caricature of a face, Barry doesn’t look lethal. But he is one resourceful fellow.
The level of violence on display is gruesome, even as it is deployed to largely ironic effect.
Hader’s co-creator, Alec Berg, is one of the most accomplished TV writer-producers in the business, having previously made huge contributions to Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Silicon Valley. This is his first stint as creator or co-creator, though, and he is evidently stretching in several directions at once. Minus the absurd touches, Barry could be a straight-up thriller about cops on the trail of mobsters. The level of violence on display is gruesome, even as it is deployed to largely ironic effect. Those who get destroyed tend to be so arrogant, vain, or inane that (like Tarantino’s anti-heroes) they seem to deserve it, and their bloody final moments tend to be funny, not horrifying.
That trend persists until Berg and Hader pull off a disturbing change of tone in the last couple of episodes, when Barry realizes — uncharacteristically for a Hollywood assassin — that murder is not something that can be expunged from your conscience. Barry intertwines the insight with scenes in which Barry’s acting class rehearses the “Out, damned spot” scene from Macbeth, which is a little on-the-nose. But given that the cultural imagination associates both Hollywood and gangland with a similar kind of heedless moral lassitude, the incursion of a moral vision from a classic of performance comes off as refreshing and unexpected, though organic to the setting. After Macbeth, Barry can no longer distance himself internally from his own sin.
That unusual sense of moral gravity is made more salient by Berg and Hader’s comedy. I don’t think I’ve seen anything funnier on TV this year than a torture interlude in the second episode. Played by the great character actor Stephen Root, Barry’s boss and mentor, Fuches, is the father figure who gives him pep talks and murder assignments. They’ve both run afoul of the Chechens and find themselves tied to a chair in their garage. Barry insists on quitting the business while the Chechens try to impress on him the urgency of carrying out another hit for them. As one mobster attacks Fuches’ teeth with a metal file, his colleague’s wife, who is hosting a family event in the next room, bursts in to admonish them to keep the torturing sounds low. “My daughter is having sleepover,” one Chechen says sheepishly.
Anthony Carrigan, an actor who suffers from alopecia and is as result unnervingly hairless, lacking even eyebrows, is the series’s big find as the Chechen gangster NoHo Hank, a fellow with an imperfect command of colloquial English and no sense of tradecraft whatsoever. (He sends uncoded texts to Barry with orders like “Kill Paco!”) NoHo Hank’s irrepressibly sunny and childlike disposition is interrupted only intermittently and momentarily by his demands for horrific violence, after which he returns nonchalantly to his game of Candy Crush Saga. He has no hard feelings about being shot in the arm by Barry. Reminiscing agreeably about Barry with Fuches, who thinks he has squared things with the Chechens, he switches gears as chummily as possible. “Welllll, to be honest, Goran is very upset you told him to start war with Bolivians. Who, P.S., are just off-the-charts nice guys! So no matter where you go we will find you and kill you.” Deadpan, disturbing, morally grounded and morbidly hilarious, Barry has proven to be a standout new series, even by HBO’s high standards.