‘Barry’ 1×02 Review: This Isn’t ‘Cheers’

If Barry’s pilot was anything to go by, we expected a certain structure to episodes, almost like a hit-of-the-week formula where we’d see Barry try to juggle his hitman life with his newly found love of acting. We imagined a gruesome death every week and an emotional dilemma for Barry to work through with the help of his classmates.

And then “Chapter Two: Use It” happened and the show took a slightly different route.

While Barry tries to deal with the mob-related aftermath of murdering two Chechens, he is forced into accepting a new job when Fuches’ life is in danger. And all of this happens while he tries to attend a memorial service for Ryan, his ex-classmate who he had been ordered to kill and hadn’t last minute.

But behind all of that lays the real heart of the story: Barry’s change in priorities, his change in lifestyle, and his psychological turmoils. The episode is about what’s actually going on through his head. And it is a thrilling ride.

THINK ABOUT A TIME WHEN YOU HURT SOMEONE

The episode starts with Barry and Sally in the midst of an acting exercise, and already we see that change in structure that should’ve let us know, right away, that this episode was all about the start of changes. The first time we ever saw Barry was directly after a hit, already making us understand that his life was that: murder. But now, the first time we see him it’s in an acting class, surrounded by people who support him, who like him, who don’t really know he’s a hitman. His priorities have changed.

That’s essentially what the episode sets out to prove: Barry is actively trying to change his life despite how much his hitman —past— life is trying to catch with to him. He adamantly resolves time and time again that he no longer does this, that he is no longer set out to kill people for a living, that he’s found a different motivation. He tries to ignore as much as possible that one of his classmates was brutally killed because of him although the entire episode focuses on his memorial service — one that Barry has to attend.

Bill Hader in “Chapter Two: Use It” from HBO’s “Barry”. Source: HBO.

This comedic plot contrast is cleverly and astutely written. It can be summarized, in fact, in the one very typically comedic scene in which Fuches gets beaten up while Barry, his back turned to him, is speaking on the phone with Sally. The classic format of the gag is immediately recognizable: innocent characters in the foreground go on with a task without knowing that shit is happening behind them. But despite how typical it looks, it’s the perfect metaphor for Barry’s life: as hard as he tries to ignore the violence, it is always happening behind him, close to him, threatening him and the ones he cares about.

Because Barry cares. Although the Pilot showed us a man who is unfazed by violence, who is completely unaffected by the jobs he has to carry out, this second episode proved that he has the capacity, the ability, to feel things. Deep things. But he’s still conflicted. He still has to learn how to handle them.

Every episode is a lesson Barry learns. But it’s not necessarily an acting lesson. Yes, with every episode he’s supposed to get better at portraying emotions, but in reality, he’s learning to deal with everything he’s repressed.

That’s how we get to the heart of the episode. Barry is suddenly forced to face Ryan’s father at his rather weirdly funny memorial service — that features a terrible rap and a mime — and he just cannot deal with it. He even admits it to Sally, unbeknownst to her, when his anxiety kicks in for the first time and he admits that the only reason he was able to carry out his hits was because he’d never had to face the family members of those he’d killed. He had never stopped to think about the repercussions, the consequences of his actions. He’d never stopped to think about the human factor of it all.

He couldn’t afford to think like that if he wanted to continue being good at what he does.

But that doesn’t mean Barry is unaffected. Barry is actually too affected, we’re just getting to see it now, as he learns about it.

Source: Tumblr.

The beautiful complexity of this character lies precisely in this. Barry has to force surprise out of himself when the class learns that Ryan has been gunned down. Which, by the way, provides Henry Winkler’s character with a lovely commentary on gun violence in the US, even if brief. Barry isn’t surprised by the realization that Ryan was murdered —he was there when it happened, it was just another day in his life. But then Ryan stops being a name and a photograph and becomes a person, he becomes someone his classmates loved and cared about, he becomes someone with a father, someone with a life.

And Barry no longer has to fake the emotions that Ryan’s death bring out of him. He truly is shaken up, he truly regrets what happened.

That’s how we know this isn’t a show about a hitman.

It’s a show about Barry.

But to get to that point, that almost rewarding moment for the audience when we get to witness Barry’s change in demeanor, he has to go through quite the violent encounter, which provides us with the weekly dose of violence the show promised in its first episode. Barry and Fuches are captured by the Chechens —who aren’t as evil and intimidating as we might’ve thought they were, as they want us to believe— and Fuches is tortured until Barry agrees to accept what he believes will be one last job.

Except we know it’s not.

But don’t tell him yet. He’ll figure it out eventually.

What’s remarkable about the construction of Barry’s character this episode, though, is shown in this very scene. Barry is uncomfortable except in the most extreme of situations. He can’t keep his nerves in line when he’s about to act out a scene, but he can when his life is threatened. And he is so calm and collected it is still frightening to witness. Even while the Chechens torture Fuches, he still doesn’t accept the job. It’s only when Fuches’ life is threatened that he actually agrees.

At the end of it, he isn’t changed by the violence and the trauma it brings along. He’s changed by people.

I JUST WANTED TO WALK YOU TO YOUR DOOR

Here’s another slight change in storytelling that we sort of did not see coming: Barry and Sally’s relationship direction. If the Pilot hinted at Barry’s growing romantic feelings for Sally, this episode seemed to turn us the other way around. Evidently episode two is way too soon to see these characters together —if that’s what the writers are striving for, and we think they are —, but Sally’s open confession about why they shouldn’t sleep together and Barry’s clarifying statement that he wasn’t thinking about that seem to pull us away from that. Except it’s the fake-out most shows resort to.

We’re never going to get together, it’s a terrible idea, the characters affirm.

And then they do.

We’ll undoubtedly have to wait for that to happen, if it ever does. It will be a complicated relationship, and already we as an audience are wondering if it could ever work out between them if —when— Sally finds out the truth. But if this second episode did anything, it was reinforce the importance of Sally in Barry’s life. She is not only his first and only confidant outside of the hitman world, she’s already postulating herself as a solid pillar in Barry’s new life. And the show’s narrative seems to back up this importance, because the very last scene of the episode threatens Sally’s safety from afar.

Other than Sally, however, Henry Winkler’s character still steals most of the scenes he’s in. He’s brilliant in everything, whether it’s the delivery of a line or the facial expression that accompanies it. And that’s a bold statement, given the fact that Bill Hader’s facial expressions themselves are almost the star of the show. They’re essentially the physical representation of the contradictions in Barry’s emotional state: he is incredibly expressive and yet has trouble understanding what these expressions mean. They are both one of the main sources of comedy on the show and the base of the heartbreak inflicting scenes.

Source: Tumblr.

THIS ISN’T CHEERS

And sure, I could’ve done without the police-centered scenes about the investigation of Ryan’s death, but understandably it was a necessary part of the show’s continuity and it will undoubtedly be an important part of Barry’s storyline. For all it’s worth, they were funnily unprofessional cops and the scenes didn’t feel too boring. They could’ve been used to show us in this episode if Barry did carry out the job he’d been forced to do, but it was important to keep the tension surrounding that decision going on to episode three.

The comedy was still impeccable and it featured a lot of timing-reliant jokes that softened the darkness of it all and ultimately made the episode funnier. But Henry Winkler’s character is wise in a very meta way. He alerts Barry that his acting class isn’t Cheers while simultaneously letting us — the very dumb audience — know that Barry isn’t Cheers either. This is not a show with happy endings. It’s a funny show that won’t end well.

We know that. We should know that.

But because it’s a show about a man, about what it means to feel, to be human, we want Barry to succeed regardless. We want to see him grow, see him mature into the deeply caring person we already know he is.

We want to root for him.

And we will.

Until the very end.

Barry airs Sundays at 10:30/9:30c on HBO.

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