What the hell kind of hitman is Barry Berkman? If you’re using pop culture as a yardstick, the life of a murderer for hire is supposed to be pretty sweet, aside from all the murder. Consider the titular Bill from Kill Bill, who chastises The Bride for leaving the world of contract killing and describes the assassin’s life as one that entails fabulous wealth and jet setting. In John Wick, hired guns get to enjoy a glamorous underworld of high-end hotels, tailored suits, and an economy fueled by gold coins. Granted, risking a life behind bars and possibly a needle in the arm, should come with a high reward.
In HBO’s new series Barry, there’s nothing “high reward” about the life of the title character (Bill Hader), an ex-military man who is lost and pursuing what he presumes he’s best at. His efficiency apartment is essentially a glorified freshman dorm, complete with Metallica poster hung over his bed. His handler/paternal figure Fuches, (the inimitable Stephen Root) bitches him out for spending an extra day or two in the various bedbug-infested motels he’s put up in while on jobs because of the extra expense. He seems to be dealing with a debilitating bout of depression or existential crisis. When Fuches decides to throw Barry a bone and send him out to sunny Los Angeles to carry out a hit for a low-level, but no less terrifying Chechen crime syndicate, Fuches makes Barry drive from Cleveland to Toronto in the dead of winter for a flight for which his boss probably saved a few hundred bucks. Finally, a contract killer for the working man.
Once he’s out in Los Angeles, Barry meets with the Chechens, played by prolific character actors Glenn Fleshler and Anthony Carrigan, and learns that his mark is Ryan, a personal trainer who slept with the wrong wise guy’s wife. While stalking Ryan to his acting class, Barry stumbles upon an aspiring actress named Sally (Sarah Goldberg), who is sitting on the fire escape running lines for her rendition of the scene from Magnolia where Julianne Moore rips the pharmacist a new one for questioning her prescriptions. Sally is furious with Barry for interrupting her before heading into the class and royally bombing her scene in front of her classmates and sadistic acting teacher Gene Cousineau (the wonderful Henry Winkler) broadcasting a private vulnerable moment with Sally shared with him to front of the class in service of motivating her performance.
In this moment is a hint of awakening for Barry, an ex-Marine who has essentially withdrawn inside himself since returning from Afghanistan before getting recruited by/or manipulated into killing for cash by Fuches. It’s a quiet and restrained performance for Hader, who is known for doing the comedic heavy-lifting during his eight-year stint on Saturday Night Live. Here Hader seems content to let others actors and the occasional sight gag earn the laugh while he concentrates on gradually and deliberately unfurling his character, like in 2014 sibling reunion dramedy The Skeleton Twins. Even his character’s backstory, which would come off like clunky exposition in less adept hands, sounds seamless as a vulnerable Hader unloads what Winkler’s Cousineau assumes is an improvisational monologue.
(Speaking of scene-stealing sight gags: Cousineau’s acting manual, titled Hit Your Mark and Say Your Lines, comes with a photo caption “Delta Burke is a lot of work” alongside a photo of the actress guest-starring on an episode of The Love Boat.)
It’s hard to tell if Barry is experiencing this awakening because he’s genuinely inspired by the craft of acting. Perhaps the formerly isolated career criminal awash in the support from his warm and encouraging classmates, who are a collection of lovable, if not especially talented, hopefuls looking for that big break of getting to play a living human—instead of a corpse—on a CBS crime procedural. Still, that moment when Hader is riding out the post-kill jitters in a diner and bonds with the waitress (SNL’s Melissa Villaseñor) over the audition sides she carries around with her menus before convincing himself that he is indeed an actor is a realization that truly feels earned.
There’s a deck stacked against Hader in the sense that he has to get the audience to root for a hitman, even when he’s depicted killing with detached and brutal efficiency. Of course, he’s killing sub-Christopher Moltisanti wise guys, so the Dexter Morgan maxim of only killing those who “deserve” it can be applied. But the real strength in Hader’s performance is that he grounds the character with a motivation that everyone experienced at one point or another: He’s just another guy stuck in a shitty, dead end job who wants something more out of life.