By Melissa Viger
Barry is a drama and dark comedy about a former Marine turned hitman who discovers a passion for acting. This, in itself, sets Barry apart from most other half-hour shows that are airing right now, but what makes Barry particularly interesting is that it asks a question that most of us can relate to: Is it possible to change in a meaningful way or will old habits and our past always hold us back?
We spend the majority of the character-driven first season watching Barry (Bill Hader) struggle to change for the better, but ultimately resort back to using murder as the solution to his problems. Despite this, he promises himself that even though his progress has gotten off track, he’s going to start again. The season finale leaves us wondering if change will ever be possible for Barry or if it’s all futile.
In the second season (which is currently airing), Barry continues to struggle with whether he can change or not. In the episode “What?!,” Barry confides in his acting coach Gene (Henry Winkler) about his traumatic experience as a Marine in Afghanistan and the mistakes he made while overseas. Barry asks if Gene thinks he is an evil person for killing innocent civilians. Gene reassures him that he doesn’t when he tells him,“I think you’re deeply human. You did a terrible thing. But do I think that defines you? No.” This scene seems to suggest that there is hope for Barry, but a less optimistic scene immediately follows it that makes you question if Barry can truly move past everything he has done.
Excited by the reassurance that he can actually move past his crimes and become a better person, he visits his former-business partner and friend. As it turns out, however, the room is bugged and Barry is recorded confessing many of his crimes. This recording is used as leverage against him to carry out one last hit. Barry tries his hardest to get the intended target to leave the city without killing him, but he ends up dying anyway. Even when tries his hardest to avoid killing and crime, Barry always gets sucked back into this cycle of violence. Creator and actor Bill Hader put it like this in an interview with Esquire: “The whole thing, ultimately, is about hope that things can be better for him. That there’s a better life for this guy, that he can forgive himself,” but there’s always going to be “a spot you can’t get rid of [his past and cycle of violence and crime].”
Barry also explores how we justify falling back into old habits, avoid changing, and defend our bad decisions. Barry frequently justifies his actions in the first season by telling himself that he had no other choice. He kills an old friend who threatens to go to the police and instead of blaming himself for his friend’s death he tries to blame his friend for not following his advice to not get involved. In his eyes, he has no choice but to kill him at this point. He also kills a police woman who has been investigating him, because he doesn’t want to go to prison. He tells her that he doesn’t want to kill her, but he does it anyway because going to prison would mean he has no chance at the better life he has been working so hard to achieve. As the episodes progress it becomes obvious that Barry will never be able to have the perfect life he is dreaming of (regardless of if he is caught or not), but he isn’t ready to admit that yet. Instead, he slips into bed just hours after killing someone and tells himself that he will be a better person “starting now.” This is obviously delusional on his part. In the second season, however, he seems to be slightly more willing to admit some of his mistakes, which one could argue is a positive step forward.
Barry has presented two conflicting potential answers to the question of whether we can move past our worst actions or change in general. I, for one, hope that Gene is right when he says, “I pray that humans beings can change their nature. Because if we can’t, then you and I are in deep trouble.” Fortunately, most of us are not hitmen and don’t have to carry around the baggage of having killed hundreds of people, but the desire to change and be better is a very human thing. Just like Barry, we tell ourselves we’ll start changing at the beginning of the week, the month, or the year. Like Barry, we fool ourselves into thinking that we can change overnight. In reality, change is slow, but it’s possible. So, perhaps against my better judgment, I’ll continue to root for Barry to improve as a person. He’ll probably never be a “good” person, but that doesn’t mean he can’t become a better one.