Barry and the Banality of Evil

The dark HBO comedy by Bill Hader and Alec Berg turns even more pensive in Season 2.

“Am I evil?” Barry (Bill Hader) asks in the second episode of Barry's sophomore season. (HBO)

This article contains spoilers through Season 1 of Barry.

How can the central character in Barry, played by Bill Hader with rubberized expressivity and mournful longing, be evil? He’s a gentle, attentive boyfriend. A reliable friend. He agonizes over questions of morality. He works part-time at Lululemon, the ne plus ultra of basic side hustles. Even his name is virtually the most banal, nondescript moniker you could summon. The joke of the HBO series is encapsulated in its title—someone named Barry should be a bowling-league president or a Comcast installation expert, not a stone-cold assassin.

And yet. “Am I evil?” Barry asks Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan) in the second episode of Barry’s sophomore season, which debuted on Sunday. “Am I, like, an evil person?”

“Oh my God, I mean absolutely,” Hank replies, brimming over with enthusiasm and affirmation. “Do I not tell you that enough?”

The first season of Barry, a spectacular dark comedy created by Hader and Alec Berg, was focused mostly on a single, specific question: Can someone who has murdered many, many people decide to turn over a new leaf? Is a person as essentially sympathetic as Barry, with his aching loneliness and yearning for community, a Ferdinand the Bull in hit-man form, doomed by his past or capable of redemption? But at the end of the first season (spoilers ahead), Barry made a decision that tilted the balance irrevocably. Confronted with the knowledge that his mentor’s girlfriend, Janice, a detective investigating several murders, had pieced together that Barry was responsible for them, Barry killed her. Then he got back into bed with his girlfriend, Sally (Sarah Goldberg), and hit the reset button on his conscience, again. “Starting now,” he whispered.

In one scene, Barry seemed to complete itself. Question asked, question answered. The show’s renewal for a second season was both gratifying (it was one of 2018’s most thoughtful and surprising hits) and slightly perplexing—where could it possibly go now? But from the first three episodes made available for review, the series has found a new defining investigation, one that’s almost as compelling: What is evil anyway? How does it actually manifest in a world that’s more preoccupied with “heathered star ruby” yoga pants and organic produce than with higher-stakes questions of life and death?

Evil, Barry seems to suggest, starts with selfishness, and with a tendency to follow Kant’s hypothetical imperative. Barry might claim that he doesn’t want to kill people, that he’d rather be living a quiet life with Sally and working on his individual emotional growth at acting class. But faced with a choice between letting Janice arrest him and taking her life, he chose murder. The ethical calculation was simple: Barry’s self-preservation, in his mind, trumped everything else, even the rights of others to simply go on living.

It might sound improbable, even in this hyper-offbeat age of office comedies about hell and quirky, matryoshka-inspired meditations on the spiritual meaning of life, for a comedy series to interrogate these kinds of bleak ideas about the human capacity for darkness. And in its second season, Barry is sadder, with the gap between its madcap Chechen gangster plots and interludes of moral reckoning proving even more yawning. Luckily, Barry is also a comedy about an acting class, and the potential for mining selfishness for comic gold within such a hotbed of narcissistic ambition seems almost endless, even when the class’s teacher, Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), is beset by grief.

Sally, for instance, is unchanged by her newly committed relationship with Barry. (“I wanna be there for you,” she tells him after he has a huge breakthrough in class. “I do. But tomorrow. Not too early. After yoga.”) Gene, despite being profoundly saddened by Janice’s death, remains as egotistical as ever. After Barry delivers a powerful monologue in class about the first time he killed someone as a marine, all the other actors strive to excavate their own moments of profound pain for personal gain, a development Gene describes as “competitive grief.” Yes, he says, “Barry was blessed with being able to witness the atrocities of war,” and they all can’t be so lucky, but they can still mine their own tragedies for artistic gold. “What if,” Gene says, a revelatory glint in his eye, “we made it about ourselves for a change?”

If it seems a little unfair to compare actors to professional assassins in terms of their impossible self-motivation, well, that’s comedy for you. Barry has always made light of the absurdity of the acting process, something that compares the emotional toll of pretending to be in pain to the cold purity of pain itself. What drew Barry to acting in Season 1 was the way it enabled him to dig up emotions that he’d buried his whole life—to locate his dark and traumatized feelings and use them for something instead of locking them up inside. What Season 2 suggests, though, is that this process hasn’t actually changed him. Hader is as magnetic as ever, his face contorting into sequences of thoughtfulness, anxiety, neediness, fear. The emotions he doesn’t express, though, are more telling. Kindness. Sadness. Sympathy. Love.

What is evil anyway? What’s striking in Barry is how banal it seems to be. “I don’t know why everybody wants me to do this,” Barry says in the new season, “this” being murdering people. “I don’t want to hurt anybody.” And yet he does, and he does it with relative ease. When Gene threatens to cancel a group performance of The Front Page because he’s too heartbroken to go on, Barry’s immediate response isn’t sympathy but frustration. “If we cancel the show, then what was the point?” he blurts out. His intricate moral strategizing—that Janice’s death is excusable because it enables Barry to go on acting, to go on living his life—is being disrupted. Evil doesn’t have to mean committing murder, Barry suggests. It can be as simple as always finding reasons to prioritize yourself over everything else that matters more.