The sitcom about a hitman turned actor should have ended in season 1. Except season 2 is even better.

Every week, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for April 28 through May 4 is “ronny/lily,” the fifth episode of the second season of HBO’s Barry.

When Barry ended its first season in spring 2018, I wrote that I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to see the series continue. The ending of that first season — in which Bill Hader’s hitman-turned-actor Barry Berkman (stage name: Barry Block) killed the cop who’d been trailing him all season long — felt like such a perfect capper on a season-long character study. What was Barry going to be about if it wasn’t about Barry?

At the time, I wrote:

But if there’s one thing about the show’s setup that makes me think it could have new ground to explore in seasons to come, it’s the way that it turns Barry into a kind of avatar of the country he once served, spreading death and destruction in contexts both legal and illegal, without really trying to engage with the morality of any of it.

And now, he longs to return to things as normal, without realizing that his worst deeds are always going to haunt him. He believes that everybody can see his intentions written on his face, without realizing that even if they could, nobody would care about his intentions when he’s done real wrong.

And indeed, season two of Barry has leaned into this reality through the character’s backstory. Barry’s working on a stage show that forces him to revisit the time he killed noncombatants in the Afghanistan War, even though they didn’t at all pose a threat to him.

But in “ronny/lily,” an episode of Barry unlike any other, and unlike that of any other show on TV, the series digs ever deeper into what has turned the character into such a raw nerve. If season one was about how Barry feels about being Barry, then season two is about how we in the audience feel about that.

The eternal tension of the antihero drama is externalized and warped back in on itself in “ronny/lily”

Barry thinks that subhead is a bunch of bunk.

The setup for this episode is a classic antihero trope: Barry has been cornered by the cops, but Detective Loach, the cop who has caught him, wants not to bring Barry to justice but to blackmail Barry into carrying out a hit against the man who is sleeping with Loach’s ex-wife. The man is named Ronny, and Barry wants only to scare him away from town for a little while. And then Barry sees all the taekwondo trophies Ronny has.

What follows is an aggressively brutal and strange fight sequence. Barry’s strength as a hitman is twisting bad situations to his advantage, but that’s similarly what those trained in martial arts are taught to do. Thus, Ronny is a better match for Barry than many of his opponents. Barry only just escapes, because early on, he breaks Ronny’s windpipe, leaving the man gasping for breath, even as he all but renders Barry unconscious.

But Ronny finally collapses from the broken windpipe about 10 minutes into the 35-minute episode. Barry’s sure the job is done — but when he leaves, Ronny’s daughter, Lily, enters the house. She looks like she’s about 11, but she also feels a little more like a “feral mongoose” (in Barry’s words) than a little girl. She skitters around the house and eventually the neighborhood, both evading Barry and dealing damage, leaving him with a gaping knife wound in his shoulder that will require stitches.

There’s more to the episode than this — it eventually ends with Ronny killing Loach, then the cops killing Ronny in a supermarket while Barry watches — but you can see how its central tension plays off a longtime trope in antihero shows: Just when the antihero seems cornered, the most unlikely set of circumstances intervene to free him. The best antihero shows do this so slyly, you don’t quite notice how horrible what’s happened is until you really think about it. The worst mostly excuse the protagonist’s bad actions.

But Barry does neither of these things. It wants Barry to escape consequences — but it also wants to direct as much of your attention as possible to what it’s doing. Not only is Barry going to get off without a hitch, but he’s also going to survive a massive fight with a taekwondo champion, then confront a feral beast child, then escape death in the supermarket mostly via dumb luck. The show isn’t winking at the audience. It’s shouting, “You see what we’re doing here?!” at us.

We know that for the show to continue, Barry has to remain a free man. For the show to be interesting, Barry has to be trapped between his former life and the one he’s trying to build in his acting classes. And for the show to maintain its internal stakes, the two lives Barry is living have to constantly be threatening each other. Barry is an effective hitman because he can turn off his emotions. But to be an effective actor, he has to have them turned all the way on.

Season two has focused more and more on how what we want in the audience is very different from what Barry wants, and the more it explores that duality, the more I love it.

“ronny/lily” also examines the ways Barry will never be free of war

Lily prepares to strike.

The more I’ve watched of Barry, the more it seems to me like a grand meta-commentary on 21st century America’s relationship to its own moral compass. Just… y’know… with lots of jokes and surreal flights of fancy. I don’t think it’s a mistake that the show positions Barry as a vet of Afghanistan, a war the US entered with fairly clear objectives (remove the Taliban and find Osama Bin Laden), then steadily found itself less and less able to explain.

Like the country he’s from, Barry would very much love to leave all of the dark and bloody things he’s done in the past, in the name of some vague new beginning. But you can’t really escape the evil things you’ve done, even if you’ve come to realize that they were, indeed, bad. Sooner or later, you have to pay up.

But even beyond this political dimension, Barry is interested in larger questions about why we’re so obsessed with antihero shows in the last 20 years, or why the idea of men who commit terrible acts is so arresting to us where, say, the story of a woman leaving her abusive husband and going to Los Angeles to try to become an actress, then booking a few small parts that pay the bills (more or less the backstory for Barry’s girlfriend, Sally, played by Sarah Goldberg), would not be.

The second season’s argument is that the past is never really gone for anybody — both Sally and Barry’s teacher, Gene (Henry Winkler), are haunted by people they thought they’d left behind. And to be sure, this is true for all of us. We all have regrets we’d love to leave behind. The antihero drama makes those regrets visceral, then forces the antihero to confront them in thrilling fashion. The past steps into the present, where it’s so much easier to beat up.

But about midway through “ronny/lily,” Barry starts to have dreamy flashbacks — prompted by the loss of blood from his shoulder wound — to his return to the US, when the only person waiting for him was Ron Fuches (Stephen Root), his onetime boss and the man who got him into the hitman game.

Whatever demons Barry is trying to exorcise were left overseas, and there’s never been a great way for him to talk about them or even think about them. And the longer he runs away, the more blood he sheds.

The best antihero stories aren’t just vicarious thrill rides, where the antihero does all of the things we wish we could. They’re also moral tales, following antiheroes who have something to lose that we really would rather they don’t. The tension between taking what you want and potentially losing everything drives these shows at their best.

Where Barry changes this up is in the moment we first meet Barry, right before he’s going to walk into an acting class and gain another reason to live. Even if he’s a terrible actor (and he is), he’s not going to kill anybody in that line of work. But in the universe of Barry, you can never escape your worst actions, and you always have more to lose. That makes it sound grim to a fault, but look at that idea another way, and you’ll also see how bleakly funny it is.

Barry airs Sundays at 10 pm Eastern on HBO, or, rather, “Sundays on HBO whenever Game of Thrones ends.” You can watch previous episodes on HBO’s streaming platforms.

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Todd VanDerWerff

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