(Editor’s note: The following review covers the first three episodes of Barry‘s second season.)
The Pitch: It’s been weeks since hitman-turned-aspiring actor Barry Berkman, aka Barry Block (Bill Hader), chose to abandon his life of violence for the thrill of the stage, killing Chechen warlord Goran (Glenn Fleshler) and Detective Janice Moss (Paula Newsome) to tie up the remaining loose ends from his prior occupation. But while he’s ready to move on with his blissfully normal life, the echoes of these decisions still affect those around him — his acting teacher Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) is distraught at his girlfriend Janice’s disappearance, his own partner Sally (Sarah Goldberg) is trying to advance her career beyond weak walk-on roles, and Janice’s old partner Detective Loach (John Pirruccello) continues to track down her killer.
Try as he might to transition into a life of lattes, acting classes, and day shifts at the Lululemon, Barry keeps finding himself pulled back into his former world — whether by Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan) tasking him to take out his new gangland competition, or his old handler Fuches (Stephen Root) coming back into the picture in a moment of desperation.
Art Imitating Life: Alec Berg and Bill Hader’s conception for the first season of Barry was a work of unexpected tonal genius: a dryly funny jab at the self-centered nature of aspiring Hollywood actors, a gritty crime drama, a harrowing psychological portrait of a violent man desperately wanting to become a good person. Season two has a lot to live up to, and the early episodes successfully follow up on the borderline-perfect freshman season while introducing subtle new hurdles for its cast of tortured characters to twist through.
Where season one told the story of an emotionally stunted hitman trying to become an actor, season two sees Actor Barry being dragged back into hitmannery by circumstance and necessity. How we choose to engage with our pasts becomes a central component of Barry‘s overarching narrative, and extends beyond Barry himself; the season’s first few episodes see Barry’s acting class working through an exercise in which everyone brings up their greatest traumas, after Barry tearfully recalls the story of his first kill in the military. Of course, Barry’s actor buddies live lives of quiet desperation, inspiring them to amp up their own personal tragedies — “a lot of doctors giving out bad news,” Gene admits — for maximum pathos. Sally is by no means immune to this need to self-mythologize, her own understanding of how she left her abusive ex-husband being much more dramatic and self-empowering than it may have actually been in the moment. Barry may have a skill set and a knowledge that these pampered thespians lack, but they all share the instinct to selectively remember their histories in the way they’d like.
Haders Back Off: Hader, as Barry, was one of the biggest revelations of last year’s TV season, his gaunt, expressive face and wiry stature proving as suited to gunplay as they are droll comedy. In season two, Hader’s pulled to even greater extremes, bouncing Barry between the euphoria of a more comfortable stage presence and the nagging feeling that he’ll never be able to stop doing the gruesome things he does best. Season two finds more for its lovely supporting cast to do (particularly the Emmy-winning Winkler, who gets a subplot with his son that feels a bit unnecessary early on), but it’s still Hader’s show through and through.
The Gunplay’s The Thing: That is, it’s Hader’s show when it’s not Carrigan’s show, and Barry‘s showrunners smartly expand Noho Hank’s breakout character to even greater prominence in the second season. A montage early in the Hiro Murai-directed premiere episode allows us to catch up with Hank, as he forges a blissful (and, at the very least, homosocial) partnership with Bolivian mob boss Cristobal (Michael Irby) as they share the spoils of the LA drug trade. When Carrigan is on screen, Barry becomes The Noho Hank Show, feat. Bill Hader, and it’s hard to complain about that, Carrigan’s bright-eyed, fast-talking Chechen hustler dashing off with every scene he’s in.
Whether he’s having dreams where he’s guesting on a Charlie Rose-like show and telling off Thomas Friedman (“you know what? You’re bad at writing and nobody likes you”), or donning a ridiculous Bieber-esque wig to visit Barry incognito, it’s impossible not to light up when Noho Hank takes the stage. Whatever other complexities and delights season two holds, we should all be thankful for more Noho Hank.
The Verdict: “Am I, like, an evil person?” Barry asks Noho Hank early in season two. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a more clearly stated superobjective for Hader’s conflicted character, or thesis statement for Barry‘s puckish examinations of personal morality. As Gene’s acting students — not to mention Noho Hank, Fuches and the members of LA’s criminal underworld — clearly demonstrate, there’s no amount of ethical fudging we won’t do to make our transgressions mesh with our self-perception.
Much like Breaking Bad before it, Barry is hard at work showing the lengths to which outwardly-nice people will go to get what they want. When you’re as deadly as Barry, it doesn’t matter how soft-spoken you are, or how much you try to perform niceness; there’s still a monster inside you waiting for the right moment to get out. We can’t wait to see how season 2 brings that monster out of Barry.
Where’s It Playing?: Barry treads the boards and trains his sights Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.