Discover more from The Bulwark
‘Barry’ and the Importance of Consequences
Plus: A Philip Baker Hall classic assigned!
At the end of the first season of Barry—arguably the best half-hour program currently airing on TV or streaming, and in the conversation for the best show currently airing, period—Bill Hader’s assassin/actor whispers one last line to himself before the camera cuts to black: “Starting now.”
The import of that line—delivered after he just killed a police officer who also happened to be dating his beloved acting coach—was obvious: As a killer who has taken to killing not to make money but to cover his tracks, there’s always going to be one more kill to make. He’s in search of absolution, but absolution can’t come without penance. And Barry Berkman might be a “good guy,” as so many of his friends tell him and as he so desperately wants to believe about himself, but he’s not a good guy.
He’s a bad guy. And bad guys need to be punished.
Barry’s badness is very much the point of the third season of Barry. Struggling with the knowledge that Barry killed his girlfriend, acting coach Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) finds himself tormented by the mass murderer, as Barry hopes to earn forgiveness for himself not by paying the price for committing murder but by getting Cousineau on TV and in movies again. Doing a good deed for Cousineau should balance the cosmic scales, right?
Meanwhile, Barry’s violent tendencies are obvious to those who haven’t met him; young actress Katie (Elsie Harris) recognizes him as abusive after he screams at his girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg) at her workplace.
Throughout the third season, Barry is spiraling. He’s fending off attempts at retribution from the families of those he’s killed. He’s half-heartedly taking assignments off the dark web—yes, to earn some money, but mostly to give himself something to do. He’s screaming at his girlfriend, Sally (Sarah Goldberg), much to the horror of Sally’s costar Katie (Elsie Harris). He wants purpose, but more specifically, he wants purpose that will bring absolution. Hence the effort to get his long-out-of-work acting coach gigs.
“Starting Now” is the title of the third-season finale as well as a line uttered in the episode. Barry Berkman is once again let off the hook by someone he knows, once again given a chance to get his life together without paying any sort of price, once again excused for his numerous crimes. And rather than take advantage of this gift, he immediately—immediately—falls back to his old ways. One more murder. This will be it. The last one he needs to get out of his hole. To make things right.
Just one more and he’ll be done.
But—and this is the key to the show, as well as the point that makes it relevant to our own lives—he’ll never be done if he’s never made to pay any price for what he’s done. In the parlance of our times: he fucked around and didn’t find out, so he’s going to keep fucking around, to the detriment of society. Barry is, at heart, a show about a guy you like and want to see get his act together to the point that you’re willing to repeatedly overlook his gross violations of the social contract on multiple fronts if it’ll help him out.
Spoiler: it won’t help him out. The only thing that will help Barry out is dealing with the consequences of his actions. You have to make him pay a price for what he’s done. And if you can’t stomach the thought of this guy you like paying for some of the pain he’s caused?
Then you’re just as much a part of the problem as he is.
Make sure to read Bill Ryan’s tribute to Philip Baker Hall, one of the great character actors of the last three or four decades.
Lightyear is bad, and it’s bad in ways that render it of less interest to its target demo (namely: kids). I saw it Thursday at a late-afternoon/early evening show, and there was a kid there who was literally dressed in a Buzz Lightyear costume who was, true story, running up and down the aisle about 15 minutes in.
I haven’t seen The Black Phone yet, though I’m looking forward to it. And I’m looking forward to it in part because of the insanely creepy mask that Ethan Hawke wears in it. On BGTH this week I talked to one of the guys who helped design that mask: Jason Baker, over at Callosum Studios.
I didn’t write a proper review of Jurassic World Dominion because, ugh. There are only so many hours in the day. But we did talk about its badness on Across the Movie Aisle this week. So if you want to listen to three people who love Jurassic Park complain about the latest bad sequel to that movie, have at it! On the bonus episode we talked about a good movie, Crimes of the Future. So, you should listen to that if you want to listen to a podcast about a good movie.
Assigned Viewing: Secret Honor (The Criterion Channel)
In his obituary for Philip Baker Hall, Bill Ryan highlighted Secret Honor, a one-man play shot by Robert Altman in which Hall plays Richard Nixon. Here’s Bill:
Hall is utterly mesmerizing: funny, empathetic to the tragedy of the man, and tireless. Tireless, yet exhausted. As the film winds down, as crazed as his Nixon becomes, Hall imbues that mania with a hidden tiredness that makes it feel as though after he yells obscenities at us, he could very well sleep for two days straight.
Check it out on The Criterion Channel tonight.