This Insubstantial Pageant

Bill Hader in Barry | HBO
HBO

Do you know the story of the broken man?

This man was very sad. He had a terrible past; it made him do terrible things. One day everything changed. He met a girl; he found passion. He discovered something that made him long for a better life. He came to understand himself and his pain and therefore the pain he caused others. Armed with regret, fortified by hope, he walked into the light.

For much of the first season of Barry, it was possible to watch it as a version of this tale. Barry Berkman (Bill Hader), Marine turned hitman, stumbles broken and lost into an acting class. Despite his lack of talent, the existential injunctions familiar to drama students—find your want, embody conviction, use your pain—burrow into his psyche. Art transforms him; as he accepts the grief he has caused and endured, he repents. Having extricated himself from the underworld, he settles into cozy domestic bliss. Months after his escape, he’s traded shoot-outs with mobsters for running lines by a lake with his girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg) during weekends with their acting teacher, Gene (Henry Winkler), and his girlfriend, Janice (Paula Newsome).

But Janice is a homicide detective: she met Gene investigating the murder of one of his students. Over dinner, a stray comment leads her to the truth about Barry’s past. Barry confronts her, begging for clemency; she stands firm, walking him with his hands up back to the cabin. That’s when we see the gun in the tree. And we remember or realize that we have not just been watching a story about a broken man. We have been watching a story about a murderer.

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In the wake of Janice’s death, Gene decides the class will write and perform scenes from their lives. This is hard for Barry and Sally, two people caught between the selves they want to present and the narratives they cannot shed. Barry wants to write about becoming an actor, framing meeting Gene as his Damascus moment. His classmates, though, are enthralled by his military service. To them, the horror of war is rich material—“So lucky,” mutters one—and Barry has a plum role: the hero, which is what we call a man who killed, but didn’t want to. 

As one of the few with an actual harrowing past, Sally decries her classmates’ “competitive grief.” She’s eager to define herself by her career, venting her frustration at booking gigs like housewife, stepmother, assistant—“Just a bunch of weak women.” This is comfortable ground for Sally, who begins the show even easier than Barry to slot into a familiar role: the shallow actress, the perky social climber. But Barry deftly upends this easy categorization, as Sally reminds us when Gene prods at her distaste for these parts:

Okay, you want me to say that I was married and he was abusive and I stayed in it for years anyway. Is that what you want? That’s what you wanted to hear. What, you think I’m booking all these weak women because I was weak in my marriage? Well, you’re wrong. You’re wrong. I am not weak. I left, okay?

Sally’s past makes it harder to write her off as a typical wannabe starlet, but doesn’t seamlessly reclassify her into the available roles: the victim, the survivor, the battered wife. She refuses to wear her tragic past in any comfortably familiar way. Before and after her disclosure, she’s self-absorbed, ruthless, insecure, peppy, blonde, and—worst of womanly sins—needy as hell. Even here she’s being awful, so desperate to see herself as strong that she rejects empathy for women stuck where she once stood. I fucking love her, which feels important to state given how often Sarah Goldberg gets asked what it’s like to play someone so unlikable on a show about a hit man. I love that her trauma contextualizes her without softening her, that little of what she’s learned from her pain is wise; I love that she’s ridiculous and obnoxious and also hardworking, ambitious, and frequently correct—about her own talent, about Barry’s toxic masculinity, about the misogynist nightmare of an industry in which an agent strings her along, tries to fuck her, and dumps her when she doesn’t bite.

She’s right about Gene, too. After her outburst, he says, “Don’t you think that might be your story?” That’s what you wanted to hear: the woman who was hurt. Browse any list of bestsellers or top podcasts and you’ll see how much people love that one.

Sarah Goldberg in Barry | HBO

There are many reasons Sally inspires such vitriol, but I suspect one of them is her refusal to stay within the bounds of either type, complicating both the dumb girl (whom we don’t like) and the woman who has suffered (whom we do). She disrupts the cultural calculus through which women are granted selective legitimacy by reminding viewers that there are no signifiers universal to those who have known pain. She holds up an uncomfortable mirror to the audience: if callow, irritating Sally was abused, then you may be wrong about the women you assume can be dismissed. People get angry when you remove the comfort of a familiar story. They like it even less when you make them see themselves.

Art has a way of forcing uneasy revelations. Even as Sally and Barry try to slip into the comfortable versions of these roles, reality seeps in, disrupting their easy narratives. The mismatch between what happened and what they want to remember reveals the gap between who they are and who they want to be. It also shows how people are eager to see them, illustrating what we want to believe about men who commit violence and women who experience it.

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Before he kills Janice, Barry pleads: “We want the same thing. We want to be happy. We want love. We want a life. And we’re doing it, Janice. We’re the same.” And Janice responds: “But we’re not. We’re not the same, Barry. ‘Cause I’m a cop. And you’re a fucking murderer.”

There’s a lot of television out there where that binary really is as clean as it sounds here. There’s also scores of shows that deploy Black characters in uniform strategically against the perception that the text glorifies an institution criticized for perpetuating racist harm. Barry isn’t one; Janice isn’t there to provide the police with a halo of upright virtuousness, or she wouldn’t have started sleeping with someone whose class she was investigating. Inevitably, however, the line lands differently from a Black woman than it would from a white man. It’s hard not to feel like in that moment, Janice’s race and gender lend her the distance from the racist, misogynist violence endemic to American policing that allows the weight of the line to fall on the fact that Janice is right: Barry is a fucking murderer.

She’s wrong about cops, though. The police in Barry get everything wrong, weaving faulty assumptions and false connections into a wildly inaccurate narrative of the crimes they’re professing to have solved. When one detective displays a brief flicker of competence, he uses it not in the service of justice but to blackmail Barry into fulfilling his murderous personal vendetta—only to wind up shooting the guy himself. The buffoonery and venality of the police undermine one of the most deeply cherished cultural myths about men and violence: that those legally sanctioned to commit violence can be trusted to wield that power responsibly.

The police on Barry are comically inept; the military is something worse. When Barry tells the story of the first time he killed someone, his classmates reenact the moment: Barry conflicted, shooting solemnly, sobbing to his commanding officer about the tragedy of taking human life. Perhaps even more seductive than the myth that these institutions use only necessary violence is how we like to imagine it always happens: reluctantly, with a heavy heart. Flashbacks reveal reality: Barry took the shot easily, and his fellow Marines whooped and cheered. “Barry killed a sheepfucker!” crows one, highlighting the racist underpinnings of the American empire; when he kills two more men, his team chants his name like frat boys at a keg stand. In the memory, Barry looks as happy as we’ve ever seen him.

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Joe Massingill in Barry | HBO

The night Sally left Sam, he had been drinking. He was jealous; she was annoyed. Soon his hands were around her throat. Her scene for class hinges on what she said next, which she repeats like a mantra as she drafts: “You want to choke me? Well, choke on this. I’m fucking leaving you.” The line looms so large in her origin story that when she calls the friend who helped her leave, Sally’s surprised and disconcerted that the woman remembers something different: they grabbed her stuff and left while he was asleep.

Then Sam shows up.

I used to get these nightmares: life was normal, and suddenly he was there. Suddenly he was there and my body didn’t work; my arms straightjacketed of their own accord, my legs curling up midair. I tried to shout but had no voice, which—“I hate,” writes the poet Louise Glück, “when your own dreams treat you as stupid.” Years since I had seen him I would get these dreams; years between me and someone who never even threatened me physically and still his apparition could trap me in my own mind. How fucking stupid is that?

That’s kind of what it’s like, watching Sally spot Sam in the lot outside the theater. Her fantasies of righteous anger shrivel like salted slugs, replaced by anxious pleasantries and a nervous laugh. They go to dinner; he pays. He’s the picture of unthreatening bearded normalcy, chubby and affable in flannel like someone’s husband who’s working the grill. Barry cannot believe what he is seeing. Later he tries to reconcile the fearless Sally she wrote with the real Sally who asked about Sam’s kid, and her pretense of indomitability crumbles. “I never stood up to him,” she confesses in a rush; “I think I crawled into bed with him afterwards, and I think that I held him—I might have even said I love you, for fuck’s sake.”

Sally built an imaginary self she could tolerate, a shield against her shame and her regret and the reality that no matter how many reasons there are that it wasn’t your fault, it sure fucking felt like a choice when you were living it. “I wrote it like this,” she says, “because if I don’t do it this way, then how do I explain to people that I just, like, ran away?” A story you can tell is a story you can live with. And Sally knows that this is a story people want to be told: the strong woman, the woman who fought back. She knows that people crave a monster, so long as there’s a hero to slay him. The woman holding the nice guy who put his hands around her neck, the woman who still loves the man who nearly killed her—no one wants to see that.

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Sam knows about Sally’s play. He comes to the theater to watch her rehearse. Enraged by what he sees—“She’s a chick, she’s fucking dramatic”—he asks her, pleasant as anything, to come by, and in a show filled with chase scenes, mob wars, and gun fights, no scene matches the tension of Sally reluctantly entering his hotel. He knows the story he’s supposed to tell: the broken man, the man whose dark emotions got the best of him but now repents. It’s a good story. It softens her; she comforts him. But he didn’t come for comfort. He wants to know: “So you won’t do the play, then?” You can see the instant she knows she’s been played.

When she doesn’t concede, Sam shifts. He raises his voice, shouting, “You’re just doing this to get attention.” He uses his physicality to intimidate, slamming the wall next to her face. Sam wants something; he thought kindling old sentimentality and acting humbled and distraught might secure it. When it didn’t, he switched tactics.

One myth of male violence, particularly against women, suggests that violent men find perverse thrills in pain itself, or else can’t help themselves. The reality is more mundane. Sam doesn’t want to hurt Sally. If adolescent nostalgia and a sob story got her to call off the scene, he would have been glad to leave the encounter there—just as Barry would have preferred the world where Janice kept his secrets to the world where she became one. Their motives are consistent; their strategies escalate at the moment another person’s choice makes impossible the desired outcome. Their worldview admits no legitimate actions except those which fulfill one’s wants. This is the logic of abuse: not sadism, but entitlement. Not an inhuman desire to hurt, but a childish refusal to accept the word no.

We want to believe that violence exists as some separate category of human behavior, that cruelty happens for motivations understood only by those who enact it. But what is haunting about Sam’s explosion is not the aberration of his violence but its sheer normalcy. Sam hits women for the same reason anyone does anything: he thinks it will get him what he wants. And he thinks that for the same reason anyone thinks anything: his life has taught him that it’s usually true.

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Stephen Root | HBO

It distorts the soul to live severed from cause and effect, cushioned from the force of your impact on the world. It cultivates the expectation that wanting something ought to make it so, and other people exist as assets or obstacles to one’s desires. Early in the second season Barry once again insists against a Black woman’s protests that he and she are the same. The stakes are lower: the woman is his classmate who got him a retail job, and he’s arguing that the terrible English accent he’s practicing on customers is the same as her speech as an actual Brit. But the architecture of entitlement carries. This is the mentality of someone who has never needed to bear the weight of his own actions; he sees no difference between someone else’s reality and what he’s pretending to be because he has never had to learn that other people are real.

“You never experienced the fallout from your job,” Fuches (Stephen Root), Barry’s operator, tells him. “I’ve been protecting you from that.” This dates back to Barry’s discharge from the military. Seeking revenge for an injured comrade, he killed an innocent man, and Fuches pulled some strings to make the incident disappear. “After that,” Barry says, “I didn’t feel like I deserved a good life.” This is what broke me, he suggests: the guilt of my sin which closed my heart. But fallout is another word for consequences; this kind of protection keeps reality at bay. Accidentally killing someone without cause is horrifying, but evading accountability for it leaves a deeper scar.

This is how Barry can tell Gene about the man he killed and feel blessed by his acceptance. “He understands me,” Barry tells Fuches, who points out that a confession omitting the fact that Barry killed Gene’s girlfriend is perhaps no confession at all. “You’re a violent guy,” he says against Barry’s denial. “I built a world where that’s an asset.” He’s right, but he didn’t have to work that hard. Barry’s violence was an asset to the military until it became a liability. Even Gene finds value in his bloody history, urging him to mine his darkness to legitimize his portrayals of men burdened by duty or wracked by rage. If these men are monsters, their monstrosity was fed by the indulgence of a world that refused to convince them they needed to change. Barry is broken, but not in the way he thinks.

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In the more honest scene Sally writes, Sam’s abuse brings him consuming shame. It feels good to indulge in the motions of repenting—much better than the discomfort necessary for real change. In his own draft, Barry imagines telling Gene, “I’ve never had an adult male role model, so I don’t have the emotional tools to advocate for myself.” The broken man, head bowed in the posture of humility. Humility, from the Latin for earth, soil: for the real thing, you have to dig into the dirt.

Fuches, wounded by Barry’s rejection, frames Gene for Janice’s murder. Barry is furious, but his anger is misdirected. He fails to acknowledge that Fuches would have no leverage if Barry hadn’t killed Janice to begin with, just as Sam refuses to consider that if he didn’t want his ex-wife shit-talking him, maybe he should have thought about that before choking her. As Fuches points out, Barry could save Gene by turning himself in, but that would require giving up Gene’s approval, which Barry identifies with his own redemption. 

“Not so altruistic now, are you?” Fuches taunts. Barry is forced to look at who he is: a murderer and a coward. A man who would kill his mentor’s girlfriend rather than be found out, who would let his mentor go to prison rather than lose his respect. Barry’s rage is a cover for the shame that would demand transformation and therefore must be denied. This is what happens when you hold up a mirror to a person whose capacity for honest reflection has atrophied from disuse. It’s like Sam ranting about how a student-written showcase by a mediocre acting class hundreds of miles from his home has the potential to ruin his life; that’s the story he tells himself to justify how furious he is that Sally made him look at what he did. The scale is different, but the imagined trespass is the same: How dare you show me who I really am?

When Barry does save Gene with a well-placed prop, he’s pleased that he found a nonviolent solution, proving that Gene was right when he said that people can change. But he hasn’t changed. He’s still dodging consequences, thereby avoiding contending with the truth. He won’t accept that redemption might require sacrifice. And so when a chance text updates him on Fuches’ ongoing machinations, he descends on a gang celebration to finish him once and for all, massacring dozens in the process. As the carnage unfolds, it’s clear that in one way all those stories are true. We are watching a broken man, a man discarded and unsupported, a man with no emotional tools. And yet it’s equally clear that none of that matters compared to the bodies littering the floor, the men killed so swiftly they didn’t have time to watch each other die.

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Shaken by her encounter with Sam, Sally finds the courage to craft a stunningly frank piece. “I will never feel more loved than in that moment,” she tells her audience; “I stay for the apology.” She owns her shame and every ugly feeling she wishes she could forget. The class is blown away, and so is her agent who has rented and sold out a real theater for the class’ showcase tomorrow. Sally is ecstatic; she told her truth, and good things happened. And then she chokes.

Sally was ready to tell her story to her classmates and her teacher and the handful of friends and industry types who usually come to their events. The familiarity of the theater, the support of Gene, her long history with these people—even amidst the petty social jockeying, this was a community. She felt safe enough there to risk vulnerability. In front of four hundred strangers, under the pressure of expectations, knowing her agent’s gone out on a limb, she retreats. Instead of the messy, complicated truth of her heart, she gives them righteous anger and cheap thrills: “You don’t own me, you fucking prick! And from now on, I’m going to speak my mind.” Having barely accepted the truth of herself, she couldn’t stand for anyone else to see. Afterwards she cries in the lobby: “I lied!…I’m not an artist.” 

The worst part is—people fucking love it. Of course they do; she showed them the strong woman, monster slain, a story “full of hope and redemption, about a woman taking charge of her life.” They thought she was amazing, breathtaking. Hideously, one woman tells her, “I have a friend who went through a similar situation, she did not have the courage to do what you just did. Truly inspiring.” The last time we see Sally she’s turning to take in the circles of well-wishers and congratulations, shot from above so that the press of bodies looks like waves crashing in, threatening to drown her. Alone and adored, praised for discarding honesty in favor of its simulacrum, rewarded for giving the people the story they want to hear.

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Bill Hader and Henry Winker | HBO

“We are all human,” writes Glück; “we protect ourselves / as well as we can / even to the point of denying / clarity, the point / of self-deception.” Barry is about the lies we tell to live with ourselves, about characters caught between the truth that could transform and the stories that keep them safe. This also describes Barry’s relationship with its audience. In a media landscape crowded with bloodless casualties, where heroes (usually white, mostly men) kill either with self-righteous certainty or dignified reluctance while villains fetishize death for its own sake, Barry deglamorizes violence by showing what it actually is: a tool people use to try to solve problems. Those who enact violence may feel angry, or excited, or agonized, or conflicted, or afraid, or inspired. But all of them feel justified. I’m no pacifist; I think some of them are. But the clean, unmistakable line dividing violence into good and bad is another comfortable fiction. The uncomfortable truth is that every single person sees themselves on the same side of that line. Or as Sam tells Sally and Fuches tells Barry, “Everyone’s the hero of their own story.” If it seems odd that such a profound and damning truth comes from the characters easiest to read as the season’s villains, remember that this is not a story about heroes.

Yet threaded through the brutality is a strain of tenderness. Shaken by the loss of a love that was real, Gene reaches out to his son. It goes poorly. His son lays bare the truth of their estrangement: “That whole theater is just a big shrine to you. Even this is about you.” Then his son changes his mind, returning to him with caution. He’s the one who takes Gene home when the police let him go. In a shattering season, something has been mended. 

His son’s explanation is, “You made an effort,” which is plausible for someone whose father went from silence to showing up twice in a week. But for the viewer, those interactions show us the same bumbling, grandiose, narcissistic Gene we’ve always known; they’re not enough to explain why it feels plausible, even moving, that Gene’s son is there for him in the end, when Gene’s been absent for his son’s entire life.

I had to look for the moment that makes it work. After his son’s rejection, back in the theater, Gene catches Barry rehearsing his scene about their first meeting—the scene Gene let him drop the war for because it fed his ego. He watches Barry practice: “It’s going to be amazing, and I’m going to owe it all to you.” And he tells Barry: “You’re gonna do the story from Afghanistan.” He steps out of the story he wants to hear. His son held up a mirror, and in his grief Gene said: this is me, and I wish it weren’t. He lets his shame hurt enough to change him. And we know that this is not merely the performance of repentance, because his son isn’t there to witness it.

It feels almost deluded to look for grace in a story so explicitly committed to unrelenting honesty about what its characters refuse to see. But if there’s a flickering matchstick light in the darkness, maybe this is it: a man with the courage to see who he is. A man who shows that you can choose who to be—but the person you are is the person you choose to be when the houselights come up and the audience is gone. Offstage, unscripted. Stepping through the stage door, with no one watching, out into the indifferent world.