Barry Season 2: A Roundtable Discussion

Barry (Bill Hader) holds a gun in front of a mirror in HBO's Barry
Courtesy of HBO

Recently several members of the 25YL team sat down to discuss Barry’s second season. The roundtable discussion was moderated by Editor in Chief Andrew Grevas, and the panel consisted of Executive Editor Caemeron Crain as well as Editors Bryan O’Donnell, John Bernardy & Steve Wandling.

Andrew: Let’s start big picture. Overall thoughts on Season 2? How did it compare to Season 1 for you?

Bryan: I enjoyed Season 1, but while watching it, I wondered what the show wanted to be. Was it a comedy? Or drama? Season 1 to me felt like it leaned more on the side of dark comedy with a premise that needed some suspension of disbelief. But Season 2 really turned a corner (which probably started in the final moments of Season 1). It was darker and felt like more of a drama, which I think was a great direction for the show. I thought Season 2 was a better season, and Barry is now one of my favorite shows on TV.

Steve: I think that Season 2 only took the idea of the original and made it better, more complicated and nuanced. The audience now roots for this guy who they know is a cold blooded murderer first of all. Is there redemption for a character like Barry Block/Berkman? That redemption that he is looking for, the root at the heart of what drives the character, is it deserved? Can people escape their programming? The second season took a funny premise and really made the audience ask itself hard questions about what exactly they were championing while still being funny without sacrificing any of the action.

John: I second what Bryan said about Season 1, how it vacillated between drama and comedy, but I thought it was Twin Peaks-y like that: it was an existential crisis and a comedy, as equal partners. I thought the show wanted to make you think about the big issues but also give you enough moments of levity that you could go on the show’s ups and downs but still be let off the ride easily enough.
Then “ronny/lily” happened and surrealism tagged in where the comedy usually did and I just kept saying “oh, this show isn’t the kind of show I thought it was.” It’s great, but it’s not the comedy that HBO marketing says it is. It’s an existential character study that is often funny.

Barry Season 1 was all about “how can I change”, and the episode titles are all chapter titles from Gene’s book on acting. Barry doesn’t know how to change, but he learns as he goes. In Season 2 we see that he did make the decision to change, and he does try to put in the work to be a better person. Most of the episode titles are word problems and it’s all about people experimenting how to change and get themselves out of their ruts. Then at the end the lies tend to win the day. So while Barry worked at being a guy who wouldn’t kill, there’s still Fuches to pull Barry backwards into the past.

Caemeron: I started watching Season 1 when Season 2 was halfway over, so my experience may have been different in a significant way. I went right from the last episode of the first season to the first episode of the second without waiting a minute, much less a year.

Everything struck me as fundamentally of a piece. Perhaps the first season didn’t seem quite as dark, but it kind of depends how you take all the military stuff. It was often really funny, sure, but also raised some tough questions about killing during war versus killing back home. Is there really a difference, or are we just rationalizing to say there is? We’d thank Barry for the one kind of service, but look down on the other he performs as a hitman, and so on.

I took it as a black comedy from the beginning, I guess. Maybe it has gotten darker, but for me the darkest moment was still in Season 1, with his marine buddy he’d found on Facebook.

I think Steve was hitting on something important, too. We may want Barry to change, but don’t we at least sometimes root for him to kill? It is often in his interest and so on. I think the show puts us on Barry’s side from the beginning, but what does it mean to be on his side? I think this potentially opens all sorts of interesting questions if we let it.

Andrew: John brought up Episode 5 of Season 2, “ronny/lily”. What were your initial thoughts of the episode and do you see it any differently now that we’ve seen how the rest of the season played out?

Bill Hader in Season 2, Episode 5 of Barry
“ronny/lily” changed the game in Barry. (Courtesy of HBO)

Caemeron: I guess I may disagree with John a little bit, because I thought it was hilarious. Black humor, to be sure, but I was laughing at the surreal stuff. And there were some brilliant things with how it was shot—panning away from the action, the suddenness of when Ronny kicked Loach, etc. It very easily could have seemed unrealistic, but I do think surreal is a better way of describing it. If you look at the way Surrealism is described by someone like Andre Breton, for example, it is this thought of something that is even truer to reality than “realism” because it includes the irrational, dream logic, and so on.

Black humor is right in line with that (Breton even coined the term when he put together a book about it). Things like the fights Barry gets into in this episode would tend to be shot “straight” in other things. But if you think about how it would go in an episode of your standard network drama, e.g., and really think about it, what we take to be “realism” is anything but. It is far more likely in the real world that things would get messy like this.

In terms of looking back on it from the perspective of the end of the season, it really seems to exemplify this tension I was mentioning before. If we focus on what is in his self-interest, Barry should have just killed Ronny, right? It is the fact that he tried to avoid doing so that creates this huge chaotic mess. And the encounter with Lily just ramps that up further. Fuches is right, from the perspective of covering their tracks. So what do we want from Barry, or for him? What would redemption look like? Are we OK with him committing some murder on the path to getting where he is “out of the game”? Do we want him to avoid being caught by the police?

And, this is the breaking point in terms of his relationship with Fuches, so it really does seem central to me, both thematically and plot-wise.

John: What really still gets me about that episode is that it was quite funny, but it had that Lynchian dread underneath the whole time that took away the ability to laugh at much. Like, I was expecting Fuches to accidentally run over the girl with his car. That kind of thing. Maybe it’s the Twin Peaks training but I was expecting things to get worse at a moment’s notice so I was on alert.
I don’t mind that in shows, it’s just not usually in the toolbox of an ensemble comedy. And hadn’t been in Barry either in such a prolonged way.

The content of that episode was consistent with the character growth before and since, and it fit well with where Barry and Fuches were in their relationship. Barry needed a breaking point and he got one there. I knew this then too, but the format of the information delivery was so different the tone was changed for an episode. It’s like I said, it changed my perception of what kind of show Barry was trying to be. It’s not a comedy with serious bits. It’s a serious show with comedic bits. It can’t flip-flop anymore. That’s consistent with Barry’s growth too. He wants to change. He’s actively taking steps to remove Fuches from his life from this point forward. He can’t turn back from “ronny/lily” either.

Stephen Root as Fuches in HBO's Barry
Fuches continues to remain a thorn in Barry’s side. (Courtesy of HBO)

Steve: I thought the episode was brilliant initially and my feelings haven’t really changed on it. I thought that the episode was such a cool turn and darkly hilarious. It felt as if we had kind of lost cabin pressure, but in a good way. I didn’t have any problems with the decisions. It felt really natural to me for the show. I love the nuance of the whole thing which is on clear display here maybe more than any episode. It’s just a total fucking mess and that is just realistic to me. It’s one of those game changers too where everything that follows is informed by the fact that you can’t go back from that.

Caemeron: Andrew, I know you and John Pirruccello were talking about comparisons between this episode and Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return. Do we all think that is an apt comparison? I’m not sure it is quite to that level, personally, since Part 8 just really seemed to break the whole idea of what you could do with an episode of TV. But maybe that is part of the thought in comparing the two?

Andrew: I personally feel there a few episodes of The Sopranos that are a better comparison. In the interview I did mention the Part 8 comparison, which I had heard others mention on social media. My personal opinion is that it’s not the best comparison though.

Caemeron: Yeah, like the Kevin Finnerty stuff? I could see that. And I think I agree. Just because Part 8 doesn’t even feel like an episode of television to me. It’s like a short experimental film that somehow still works as a part of the whole. I still hope to get someone to watch it on its own who has no Twin Peaks knowledge at some point…regardless, “ronny/lily” does feel structurally different from the rest of Barry. I guess that’s what people mean?

Steve: I wanted to make the comparison but then stopped myself for reasons unknown.

John:  I think it’s comparable, on the scale I already described above. It broke what kind of show Barry was, and allowed it to be more.

One thing I’ve forgotten to mention is “ronny/lily”’s placement in the episode order. It’s placed right after the most comedically structured episode in the season.The season seemed to be getting funnier as it went. Episode 4’s title “What?!” is the repeated punchline of a three-beat joke. (It starts with Barry and Gene having a heart to heart conversation and Gene wanting to charge him for a private lesson rate at the end, I forget the second instance right now, and the third was after Loach tells Barry to kill his ex-wife’s new boyfriend instead of arresting him). It seemed like Barry’s story structure was pretty solid. You knew what you were supposed to expect from a Barry. Then the rug gets pulled out and subverted. Even than felt Lynch to me.

Bryan: I wasn’t able to watch “ronny/lily” right after it aired, so I had seen a lot of feedback on it. The feedback appeared to be fairly polarized, so I wanted to go into it with an open mind. I ended up loving the episode. As Season 2 took a turn from Season 1, this episode was the driving force of the change. I also saw comparisons to The Sopranos, particularly “Pine Barrens.” I think that’s a better comparison than Part 8 of The Return. Because nothing can really be compared to Part 8. I did really enjoy that after seeing the comparisons to “Pine Barrens,” in the following week of Barry, we see Fuches wandering around lost in the woods, similar to The Sopranos episode.

I also love the moral dilemma we feel while watching “ronny/lily.” As Caemeron touched on, I found myself conflicted in that I wanted him to survive the encounters with the father and daughter while also not returning to the life of a killer.

Andrew: After “ronny/lily”, I found myself wondering if there was anyway Barry could not kill Fuches. The collision course seemed inevitable and there was an air of sadness for me, that Barry was almost destined to kill again. What happened instead was much more extreme. Barry single-handedly killed more people than could be counted and ended the season literally walking into darkness. Let’s dive into this and the question of whether Barry can actually live a life without killing or not.

Fuches and Gene, in HBO's Barry.
Fuches’ revenge made a victim of Gene. (Courtesy of HBO)

Bryan: First, about that scene near the end of the finale, I found it incredibly sad that Barry killed Mayrbek, with no remorse. Overall I am rooting for Barry escaping the world of being a killer. But if he does, do we still have a compelling show? I think he’ll still be killing as long as Fuches is alive. If Barry kills Fuches next season, will there be anything keeping him in the game of killing? And what will he do now that Gene has gotten wind of Barry killing his girlfriend? I don’t want to see their relationship broken, so I’m hoping Barry can somehow convince Gene that he didn’t do it.

Caemeron: Yeah, I would tend to agree that if Barry isn’t killing people anymore, the show is over. The question to me is more whether the show can get to that ending, or if it even intends to try. I’m not sure about that. On the one hand, I think we do want Barry to escape from this life, but on the other he isn’t really a good actor. The acting class scenes are powerful more for how they give an entry into exploring the truth of the characters. It’s one thing I find brilliant about the show; it is when they are “pretending” that we get the clearest insights into who they are, or what is happening in terms of character development—not just with Barry, but with Sally.

One thing I have thought about is that with what happened to Loach in “ronny/lily” we have basically lost the perspective from inside the police department. We got a little bit as to how they are thinking with the whole Gene thing, sure, but I’m not sure we can say with confidence that Barry is in the clear there at this point. I think it is really intriguing how the show set us up with that perspective inside the police, and then took it away with little fanfare. We don’t know what we don’t know. And what is the aftermath of Barry’s killing spree going to be there? What interests me is that they might not show us from the perspective of the cops. Or maybe they will, I guess; it’s just an interesting narrative possibility I have been pondering.

Let’s say Barry does manage to stop killing. Would that be satisfying? It might actually be really interesting if they have him achieve that goal and make us sit in our dissatisfaction for a bit, pondering whether he has achieved redemption or is just in the clear.

John: I think it could be satisfying, in the same way as it was the first seven episodes of the season. He’ll need to be in situations where he’d be stuck having to make a choice. If he wasn’t so forced by Fuches he would’ve never gone off like he did. I think once Fuches is gone, Barry won’t have that trigger to set him off. He’ll also get smarter about how to do things. He’s already smarter with how to connect with people as a person, so he’ll get smarter with how to get himself out of jams without needing to kill. He made it seven episodes making smarter decisions than killing Moss, even if they were only half baked. And the show was better than last season.

What’ll be interesting to see is how he evolves out of his PTSD rage or if that will always be part of him. One stresser in every theater scene with Sally is, will he snap with her? So far he hasn’t. He walks away every time. He takes it out on something else but never with her.This show is creative enough that Barry and killing isn’t equivalent to the “Moonlighting Curse”. If he stops killing, getting out of it will be the compelling part because it’s not like his past life will ever stop trying to find him.

Caemeron: I guess what I meant is, from a real world perspective he should go to prison, right? But as a viewer I don’t want him to go to prison. So if he were to escape “the life” and elude the police, would that be a happy ending? This is what I think it would be interesting if they made us sit with a bit. People have such a tendency to root for protagonists—parasocial interaction and all of that—there is a really interesting opportunity here where I think they might give us what we think we want for Barry and then force us to keep asking ourselves whether it feels right, if that makes sense.

John: That makes a ton of sense, and I even expect that’ll be an angle they give us for at least a little while. It’s the meatier psychological way to go, and if there’s one thing Barry’s done consistently, it’s going down that path.

Andrew: The supporting cast played a much larger role in Season 2. What stood out to you the most both moment wise and storyline wise this season from the rest of the ensemble?

Caemeron: Is Sally “supporting cast”? Her monologue in Episode 7 was amazing. All of the Emmys to Sarah Goldberg, seriously. That scene broke my heart, and it was all to her reading of those lines, and the back and forth of emotion, the little tangents, and so on. It was incredibly real. And the way it was framed with Barry reading, “Hey, Ike, you shitbird, You wanna little pie?” was just hilarious. But I also think it brought home his disconnect from Sally’s emotions, or perhaps from emotions in general.

Barry and Sally from HBO's Barry
The relationship between Barry & Sally remains one to watch in Season 3. (Courtesy of HBO)

Bryan: I would consider Sally a main character, but she was definitely outstanding this season. I loved the minor characters like Esther, Christobal, and Mayrbek this season, as well as the theater troupe characters. The acting class skits were funny breaks in the action, not overdone and very well executed.

John: Every character was gold this year. I second Esther especially out of Bryan’s mentions but yeah, everyone had moments to shine, even Loach’s new partner. Cristobol’s leg hump thing cracks me up because he really did care about Hank. It’s the little moments that reveal character here.
I really appreciate how the theater class’ scenes were hinted at and told in pieces rather than whole scenes so we had to piece it together (and how that toilet just sitting there at the beginning of the live show was even a payoff).

Out of the secondary main cast everyone had huge weight to carry. Sally’s Episode 7 monologue for sure. Gene’s (private session rate) admission that he considered using a gun on himself. Hank’s reaction to having almost died on the roof. Fuches (while wired) trying to warn Barry off from meeting him—and you know that’ll come back later on.

Caemeron: Since there might not be another opportunity, can I just say that Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan) is my favorite character on this show?

Noho Hank from HBO's Barry
Noho Hank is one of everyone’s favorites. (Courtesy of HBO)

Bryan: Barry would not be Barry without Noho Hank. He kills it.

John: Yes! Hank really pulls the show together. His scenes always make you smile right when you need it. MVP, that guy.

Andrew: Looking ahead to Season 3, do you have any expectations? Any questions or themes you want the show to address or go further into? Any characters you have particular hopes for?

Steve: My expectations are for Barry to murder Fuches if it were a just world and live out his days acting. But I expect the tangled web of deceit to only grow more complicated for Barry and company. The relationship between Barry and the audience will only grow more strained. I don’t know if it will go full Legion but I do think we will purposefully be challenged more than we already have been. I hope that Barry just gets away with it. I don’t think he’s an antihero or anything like that. I kind of wear the black hat anyway but he’s easy to root for and I want him to get away with it, live the life he wants, and stop anyone who gets in his way by any means necessary.

John: I like the idea that it’ll be a strained relationship between Barry and the audience…personally I tend to give him a pass because he’s only recently understood exactly what kind of hell he’s been wreaking on people. It’ll be sad to watch him be better for a while and then make complicated kills as necessary. He’ll need to kill to stay on the good side of the law, but I suspect eventually he’ll be completely out of the hitman life, fairly well adjusted, and he’ll turn himself in. Might even be the last scenes of the show.

Caemeron: I am mostly just looking forward to seeing where they take it, and trust them at this point. I expect the thing with Gene to be resolved by Barry convincing him he shouldn’t trust Fuches in some way, but you never know. Maybe Barry will kill Gene? I don’t want that to happen, but I wouldn’t put it outside of the realm of possibility entirely. So I hope that Gene survives. And I hope for lots of Noho Hank. I kind of don’t think Fuches will die, at least for a while, if only because he is a weasel, so I’ll be interested to see what he does at this point to try and stay alive.

Bryan: I think we will see Barry and Sally’s relationship really strained next season. I hope Barry is able to convince Gene he didn’t kill Moss—luckily I don’t see Gene really believing Fuches over Barry. With a lot of the drug dealers all dead now, we’ll probably see a new “bad guy” next season. Perhaps the guy who came to take Hank’s place, Batir? I think Fuches will find a way to survive for a while before ultimately being killed by Barry.

Steve: I want Barry to kill his girlfriend’s ex-husband. I’m a simple man. And more Anthony Carrigan.

Andrew: Did anyone have any final points they’d like to bring up or discuss?

John: Bill Hader did an interview with WNYC’s “All Of It” where he said he and Alec Berg wrote the story rather serious at first, and they figure out how to put jokes into it later. We’re kind of doing the same formula here leaving the funny stuff for the end: what’s your favorite joke of the season?

Mine is John Pirruccello’s Detective Loach selling those scribbles as actual words for Fuches to say to Barry over the phone.

Caemeron: I already mentioned mine: “Hey, Ike, you shitbird, You wanna little pie?”

Bryan: The part with Loach’s scribbles was hilarious. I also really enjoyed Barry’s “What?!” at the end of the episode of the same name, as well as Gene’s reaction to Barry’s script for his audition.

Andrew: Going out on a humorous note. Feels right. Thanks guys and thanks to everyone who has enjoyed our coverage of Barry Season 2. We will definitely be back for Season 3!

Written by TV Obsessive

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