‘Barry’ returns with a denied cliffhanger and new status quo

The HBO dramedy refuses to directly follow last year’s finale, opting for repeating the series’ core conflict

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HBO's dark comedy "Barry" returned for a second season March 31.

Courtesy Wikipedia

HBO’s comedy-meets-drama series “Barry” was a delightfully innovative subversion of traditional television genres in its first season. In following the exploits of a hardened killer who develops a passion for a theatre class in Los Angeles, the show was able to explore a world of vibrant stereotypes and tropes and parody them in a refreshing new way. At its best, the first season of “Barry” was a commentary on violence, the human desire for connection and expression and people’s frequent failures at both.

With the Sunday premiere of its second season “Barry” is following up a cliffhanger from last year’s finale that saw hitman turned actor Barry Bergman (series creator and star Bill Hader) evade discovery of his true identity from a savvy cop in what appeared to be the cop’s murder. What was not made clear was where things would immediately go next. Would Barry’s acting teacher Gene (a still-funny Henry Winkler) and his girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg) connect the dots and find out that their rising acting class star was an expert assassin with a dark past?

Other HBO features like “Westworld” have designed intriguing premieres out of direct follow-ups to unanswered questions from prior seasons’ finales. “Barry” elects not to do this in the start of its second season, leaving the details of that looming conflict vague as it cold opens to a motel room in Cleveland with an incompetent burglar inelegantly killing two men and failing to unlock a vault. 

It is revealed that Barry’s longtime hit-boss and problematic life mentor Fuches (Stephen Root) is making do without his star assassin by enlisting less-successful criminals to do his dirty work. Cops quickly find Barry’s replacement when he flees the motel room and trace him easily to Fuches, who is immediately arrested.

Audiences are then re-introduced to the aftermath of season one’s events on Barry’s cast of friends from acting class. Officer Janice Moss’ (Paula Newsome) MIA status has deeply shaken Gene, who had a romantic bond with her. His breakdown has left the theatre group hopelessly lost and with no confidence in their ability to put on their next show, despite Barry’s best efforts to act as if everything is normal.

Ironically enough, everyone has an idea of what happened to Moss, and it seems on the outside as if Barry, the show’s star and Moss’ likely murderer, is the least clued into the situation. Gene even asks Barry in one scene how he would feel describing a murder, prompting a tense scene where Barry describes his first kills in Afghanistan — an opportunity the acting class takes advantage of and improvs to while hilariously misinterpreting the protagonist’s true feelings.

Barry’s low profile may seem like the end of his worries of being discovered, but a new foil emerges when cops connect a crime scene’s left-behind tooth — from a torture implement last season — with the now arrested and DNA-swabbed Fuches. Now, Barry’s discovery seems inevitable given the assassin's longtime connection to Fuches. 

As a writing device, the move is thoughtfully executed by using elements of last season, but it comes off as plot artifice given that the show’s premise hinges on Barry precisely not being discovered. It is unlikely that the writers will advance the stakes so soon, although audiences may be surprised in a few weeks if the show’s team really has changed the game within the new season.

A welcome return of the flamboyant Czechan gangster NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) sees the emergence of yet another new conflict when the criminal’s relationship with the Bolivians formed last season becomes more complicated. Manuel (Alejandro Furth), introduces himself as a new villain with the bold show of altering the classic “knife game” to actually stab his hand, leading to uncomfortable laughter from NoHo Hank and Bolivian boss Cristobol (Michael Irby).

The new threat forces NoHo Hank to confide again in Barry, whom he meets in-disguise while Barry is working behind the counter at Lululemon — where he apparently agreed to apply for a job because he thought it was the name of a candy store. NoHo Hank begs Barry to assassinate Manuel to solve his problems as a return for the favor of saving his life last season, but Barry initially refuses. 

“Starting now!” was the protagonist’s memorable ending line last season. His theatrical way of suggesting to himself that his last murder was the beginning of a peaceful, new life. He is not eager to so quickly make himself a hypocrite, but circumstances suggest that Barry will have to return to old habits if he hopes to continue living his double life. By the end of season two’s premiere, Barry is ready to tell NoHo Hank that he will do what it takes. The status quo returns.

Season two of “Barry” does not look to once more capture lightning in a bottle the way season one did with its out-of-left-field core premise that turned an average comedy into a high-stakes crime story. It does, however, appear set to repeat that successful formula with its sharp writing and lovably self-absorbed, larger than life characters with their own moments of depth. With its exaggerated yet believable plot elements and characters, the show taps into the embellishments of comedy while occasionally flexing its writing muscles to become a suddenly serious and nuanced story.

Sally’s character is a narcissistic, talent-obsessed emerging actress who is both funny and at times relatable thanks to her strong character development from last season. NoHo Hank should on the surface be little more than intersection of tropes, speaking in broken English typical of Slavic gangsters in film and acting in extravagant fashion typical of negative portrayals of gay men in media, yet with his affinity for stage-play, passion for gourmet food, and sympathy for Barry, he manages to be one of the series’ strongest characters with a few quirks that elevate him beyond simple stereotype.

“The Show Must Go On, Probably?” returns “Barry” to a successful formula while establishing new conflicts, even if it deliberately neglects to follow up on the promise of new stakes from the end of last season. For fans of convention-breaking comedy, that might seem like a disappointment, but for anyone who enjoyed “Barry” as a well-conceived opportunity for drama and comedy to co-exist in one package, the season’s now firmly-established status quo is good news. This show will go on.

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