Sunday, June 2, 2019

Barry Season 2 Finale, "berkman>block"

Season one of Barry was very good: as a show about a former marine-turned-hit man who discovers acting, the series made some darkly funny parallels between acting and assassination, and the personalities and psychological hang-ups typically (and sometimes atypically) associated with each profession. Season two is even better: delving into Barry’s past, the show invites us to compare his behavior during his tour of Afghanistan with his behavior in the present, interrogating the extent to which people can change.

Throughout both seasons, Barry is a reluctant assassin; he’s good at it, but doesn’t like it, and worries that it makes him a bad person. Discovering acting is a salve to his wounds, not only because it’s something else he hopes he might be good at, but also because he can escape being himself when he plays roles, perhaps becoming a better person in the process. This sentiment is conveyed clearly in season one through brief, often hilarious idylls, where Barry indulges in his acting process by imagining a successful, fantasy version of himself. Yet his life as an assassin keeps interfering with his attempts to become a better person through acting, sometimes fatally.

At the end of season one, he reluctantly kills a detective, Janet, who has figured out that Barry is a killer. It’s a morally reprehensible murder, because unlike almost all of Barry’s other victims thus far, Janet isn’t involved in any criminal enterprise, be it the mafia or drug cartels, and to make it even worse, Janet has also become the girlfriend of Barry’s acting teacher and surrogate father figure, Gene. Killing Janet isn’t something Barry can so easily distance himself from morally or rationally.

Yet, like any struggling actor in denial over their bleak career prospects, Barry is in denial over the implications of Janet’s murder. Determined to make a fresh start, Barry insists that he’s done with murder after disposing of Janet’s body. Season one ends with him repeating an earlier resolution about putting it all behind him, “Starting now!”

Season two shows Barry trying to act on his resolution while simultaneously showing us more of what led him to become an assassin. In particular, we see an episode from his past that led to his partnership his equally hapless and manipulative handler, Fuches: in Afghanistan, Barry saw one of his marine friends get shot in the face, and Barry flew into a rage, killing an innocent man who he erroneously identified as the shooter. Barry is deeply ashamed of this murder, and it informs his resistance to being an assassin. He hates this part of himself, and is desperate to believe that he can change for the better, and that he can remake his life in the image of the person he wants to be.

As part of his efforts to change, he gets a job as a sales clerk at Lululemon, courtesy of one of his friends in his acting class, and despite the encroachment of people tied to his life as an assassin -- particularly Fuches, but also the delightful Chechen mobster Noho Hank -- he attempts to stick to his resolution not to kill anyone, even when it would be easier, more expedient, and more prudent for him to do so. When Barry is coerced by Fuches and Hank into assassination jobs, Barry goes through the motions of staging the hits, but each time, he backs off at the worst possible moment, alerting his targets to his presence and triggering their justified self-defenses. The results are often unexpected and hilarious, and create major headaches for Barry (particularly his decision not to kill an Olympic Taekwondo medalist, which yields the season's most explosively unpredictable episode). Yet all season long, Barry somehow manages to avoid killing anyone, and convinces himself that it is in fact possible for him to change into a better person.

That is, until the very end of the season finale. In the penultimate episode, Fuches, upset over Barry’s attempts to switch careers and resentful that Barry has found a new father figure in Gene, sabotages Barry by revealing the location of Janet’s body to both Gene and the police. Barry proves that he hasn’t actually changed when he repeats and magnifies the rage he flew into in Afghanistan: he storms into a Burmese monastery (actually a cartel stronghold) where Fuches has brokered peace between three rival gangs (the Burmese, the Bolivians, and the Chechens), and proceeds to murder them all indiscriminately while trying to kill Fuches. It’s as though all of the pent up killing Barry didn’t do throughout the season is unleashed here in a torrent of bullets and blood.

Barry’s willingness to mow down the Chechens is particularly revealing of his inability to change. Barry got to know the Chechens a little when he gave them combat training earlier in the season to make up for failing to kill a target they hired him to assassinate. Despite Barry being mildly irritated over having to train the Chechens, they are wildly enthusiastic about his training and clearly look up to him, particularly one promising pupil, Mayrbeck, who thanks Barry profusely for helping him become a stronger person at the training’s completion. Barry’s rampage at the monastery ends with him tearfully standing over Mayrbeck’s corpse, retrospectively realizing what he’s done, and the season (nearly) ends with Barry disappearing as he walks into a darkened hallway, conveying visually that Barry has not really changed: the darkness swallows him up here, just as it did in Afghanistan.

By itself, Barry’s attempt to answer the question, “Are people capable of change?” would be enough to make it a compelling series, but the show is further enriched by the stories it tells about acting and performance. Both seasons make plenty of funny jokes at actors’ expense, largely through the students in Barry’s acting class, who mostly consist of one-dimensional narcissists completely lacking in self-awareness (often the most successful jokes here involve their obliviousness to Barry’s odd behavior). However, both seasons also demonstrate an interest in acting both as a profession and as a craft, not only through Barry’s attempts to become a better actor, but also through plots involving Barry’s love interest and fellow acting student, Sally.

In season one, Barry seems like a hopeless actor initially, because his attempts to escape from himself through acting yield shallow and wooden performances. The few moments in season one where he demonstrates some promise in his acting class are a direct result of his inability to separate himself from the trauma of his life as an assassin. Season two delves more deeply into what it takes to be a good actor, because Barry becomes more aware that he can use his personal experiences in his acting, and we see him actually deliver a powerful performance by intentionally funneling his traumas into one of his roles for class.

As for Sally, season one saw her excel at her craft, but struggle at her profession: the relationship she thought she was developing with a would-be agent ended with his sexually harassing her, and she’s humiliated when she’s called in to audition for a minor role by a former (much less talented) friend who is now a lead on a new production. Sally meets with more professional success in season two, signing with actual agents who have placed her in very minor roles, but she’s creatively frustrated, even turning down a lead in a television series by a prominent producer because the series is hackneyed trash spun from men's fantasies about what “strong” women do. The role would vastly improve her career, but it doesn’t speak to any of the emotional truths Sally wants to convey through her craft, and which she considers the mark of a true artist. When one of her agents, Lindsay, sees Sally give a performance about her own personal trauma concerning Sally’s inability to stand up to her abusive ex-husband, Lindsay arranges for Sally to deliver it to a theater full of industry professionals who could seriously boost Sally’s career, all while allowing Sally to convey the truth she seeks.

Sally is understandably nervous about exposing her personal trauma on stage. All season long, she’s struggled with what version of her story to tell, initially writing it as a scene where she confronts her abusive ex with a pithy one-liner before changing it later to a more emotionally honest (and thus more "artistic," and certainly more powerful) one about the difficulty of escaping abuse. In the finale, she’s also rightly concerned about her scene partner, Barry, whose presence of mind is clearly lacking (he’s focused on Fuches). These pressures result in Sally improvising during the middle of the performance, changing the scene from being about Sally’s emotional truth -- her inability to stand up for herself -- into a scene where she does the exact opposite, even stealing a bit of Barry’s improvisation from an earlier performance by flipping over a table.

In changing the scene, Sally feels like she’s sacrificed her artistic integrity: gone are the emotional truths she wanted to convey about her life, replaced instead by what Sally feels is a contrived scene about female empowerment. She’s back where she was when she initially tried to tell this story, and she feels like a failure for it. However, in the ultimate irony, her personal failure ends up being a professional success, because her improvisation still connects with her audience. After the show, she receives nothing but praise and accolades from everyone in attendance. They don’t understand her truth, and are unable to see past her somewhat clichéd (and for Sally, unrealistic) version of her past. Only Sally and her agent Lindsay know that it wasn’t the performance that Sally wanted to give, and the somber look they share as everyone crowds around Sally is both sad and touching.

Sally’s struggle with giving a truthful performance also dovetails neatly with Barry’s own creative struggle in the series. In order to become a successful actor, Gene, Sally, and the series more generally subscribe to the philosophy that Barry must act from a place of emotional truth, calling on his real life experiences in order to accomplish anything resembling a good performance. However, this presents a problem for Barry, because Barry would rather escape from himself than act by calling on the parts of himself that he doesn’t like. The latter makes acting less cleansing than he thought it would be. Moreover, parts of his past are so terrible that he has difficulty dwelling on the emotions they arouse. Finally, he can’t expose too much of himself, lest others discover the terrible things he’s done, which would not only destroy his relationships, but would also land him in prison.

And indeed, the season ends with Barry exposed, not by himself, but by Fuches. Gene recovers from the trauma of finding Janet’s body enough to recall what Fuches whispered to him just before Fuches fled the scene: “Barry Berkman did this.” It’s a great touch, because throughout the season, Gene and Barry’s relationship was predicated entirely on Gene’s thesis that at root, Barry is a good person. This presumption comes up explicitly in many of their scenes, both when Barry tells Gene about murdering someone in Afghanistan, and in scenes where Gene tries to coax Barry into choking Sally when Barry is performing as Sally’s ex-husband. Now, however, if Gene believes Fuches, not only will Gene need to scrap this thesis, but his relationship with Barry will be irreparably damaged. I’m confident the writers will come up with some interesting way of writing themselves out of this corner -- they’ve done so repeatedly in the past -- but I wonder how long they can sustain the premise of Gene knowing the truth. Tune in next year to find out!

Other thoughts:

- I really like what Barry does with Sally's character. In the pilot, she seems like she'll be just another manic pixie dream girl, inexplicably drawn to the protagonist despite his lack of charisma, but she quickly becomes much more complex. Her own narcissism and insecurities can often make her mildly toxic (she's so wrapped up in herself that she often comes across as the most oblivious to Barry's poorly-concealed hit man behavior), but the series still makes her sympathetic by showing us all of the crap she struggles with professionally. This crap then in turn can funnel back into some of her behavior around Barry, like her irritation and jealousy over some of the big breaks Barry gets in auditioning for roles late in season two (largely because he's tall). Her monologue to him about her integrity as an artist and his insane luck of landing an audition when he's still so green is one of her standout moments this season -- she cycles through a whole range of emotions in the space of three minutes, and actress Sarah Goldberg sells all of them while also speaking at breakneck speed. Goldberg is excellent in this role.

- Barry might be able to figure out that Sally feels like a failure after her performance, but he is too distracted by his vendetta against Fuches. The rest of the students in Sally's acting class could understand her disappointment, but they are too dense to understand anything about themselves, let alone other people. Indeed, the other students’ obliviousness is evidenced by their own terrible acts, particularly Sasha berating the audience for not understanding her impenetrable scene about seeing a horse as a child. In chastising her audience, Sasha even reveals an episode from her history that would have been a far better fit for Gene’s original assignment (“tell your story”): when she was a child her uncle burned down her house with her mom still inside it.

- D’Arcy Carden doesn’t get nearly as much to do on Barry as she does on The Good Place, but she makes the most of her scenes. Her crippling insecurity and bottomless need for attention are often the most successful jokes relating to Barry’s fellow acting students. In the finale, she enjoys the power trip of having a megaphone during rehearsals so much that she hilariously continues to use it in unnecessary moments, like calling Barry and Sally to the stage for their scene.

- The show often works small character details into the background. For instance, one of Sally’s agents clearly has back problems. He takes his rubber ball seat with him when he leaves a meeting in an earlier episode, and in the finale, he’s deflating a chair cushion when he’s congratulating Sally after the show.

- Another nice agent-related detail: Lindsay’s pre-show jitters. She’s putting a lot on the line by arranging this performance for Sally, and it shows when she gives Sally an unintentionally nervous pep talk, where she fidgets with her program so much that she rips it to shreds, undermining the confidence she claims to have in Sally.

- Fuches has a nice moment in this episode when he’s brokering peace between the Burmese, Bolivians, and Chechens. It begins with a fun joke about sound perspective -- the Bolivian leader, Cristobal, can’t hear Fuches because he’s too far away -- but once Fuches gets in range, his speech is heartfelt. Ostensibly, he’s describing Cristobal and Hank’s (hilariously sweet) relationship, but he’s also talking about himself and Barry, and we see how upset he is to have sabotaged his relationship with Barry so thoroughly. Stephen Root is a lot of fun in this role.

- Poor Gene. I didn’t write much about what he went through in this episode, but overall I like his character. He’s a strange blend of inspired teacher and crass opportunist, depending on the scene.

- Barry and Sally’s performance of Sally’s scene is really well-executed. It’s incredibly suspenseful because we’re concerned Barry is going to screw it up. He’s shown repeatedly that he’s incapable of acting well when he’s distracted by what’s happening in his professional life, and this is certainly one of those times. This suspense is then capped off with the surprise of Sally’s improvisation. It’s almost Hitchcockian.

- Barry’s assault on the Burmese monastery is very much like his assault on the Bolivian stash house from season one, except this time he doesn’t have a partner who ends up doing all the work for him.

- Notable characters still alive after Barry’s assault: Hank (thankfully), Cristobal, Fuches, and a few Chechens, including the poor sap with gunshot wounds in each arm.

- Hank is probably my favorite character on the show. He might be ill-suited to a life of crime, but he’s well-suited to making me laugh, like when he orders a heroin-snorting table early in this episode. By far my favorite thing he’s ever done on the series is his dance after Barry agrees to teach the Chechens how to become effective fighters. Just check out his sweet moves in the accompanying gifs.

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