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HBO’s Barry had a darkly funny, near-perfect first season. Should it quit while it’s ahead?

The Bill Hader vehicle asks if we can ever escape the past. Signs point toward no.

Bill Hader plays a hitman-turned-actor and Henry Winkler his acting coach in Barry.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

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 May 13 through 19 is “Chapter Eight: Know Your Truth,” the first season finale of HBO’s Barry.

Barry is about the great question of our age, or any age, really: Can the past be transcended? And if the answer to that is, “No,” then maybe the next question is, “Can we at least bury it out back?”

The eerie HBO comedy started out a dark storm cloud, with the hint of sun just behind it. But instead of letting the sun shine through, the cloud only grew darker and darker. Its main character, hitman Barry Berkman turned actor Barry Block (played with a kind of searing, forced normalcy by Bill Hader), is a guy who wants to set aside the idea that he’s murdered a bunch of people, because he’s found what he really wants to do, which is act. It’s at once a solemn exploration of the wages of sin and a ridiculous satire of living in Los Angeles.

This is to say the show, as is typical for HBO comedies, is not for everyone. But Hader and his co-creator Alec Berg were unafraid to follow their muse further into the storm. Barry really does seem to want to stop being a killer. But once you’ve killed, you’re always marked by that action. And he’s so good at it. It’s easy to see why he keeps getting pulled back in for “one last job.”

And that tension drives “Know Your Truth” a finale so good that it makes me a little terrified of where the show can possibly go that won’t be repeating itself. Spoilers follow. If you’re planning to watch Barry at some point, proceed with caution.

“Know Your Truth” shows Barry escape might never be possible

For a good portion of the running time of “Know Your Truth,” it seems as if Barry has finally gotten away with it. Others were arrested for his crimes and other crimes he was adjacent to, and the police blame his final massacre (in which he rescued his mentor and friend Fuches, played by the always welcome Stephen Root) on a mob war between Chechens and Bolivians.

Barry can head out to the quietude of the countryside. He can run lines for a play in a hammock with his girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg). He can hang out at his acting teacher Gene’s mountain retreat. (Gene is played hilariously by Henry Winkler, in an Emmy-worthy performance.) He can start thinking about the future, even though Gene’s girlfriend is a police detective named Moss (Paula Newsome), who has been so close to figuring out Barry’s secret all season long, only to never quite crack it. But with others arrested for his crimes, Barry finally has a little leeway.

But a chance comment over dinner leads Moss to realize that Barry Berkman also goes by Barry Block, and vice versa, and her radar pings further at Gene’s mention of a powerful, improvised monologue in which Barry “performed” as a veteran of the Afghanistan war who came home and became a hitman. That night, she digs up evidence of Barry’s secrets on Facebook (of course), only for Barry to interrupt her. There’s a tense standoff, gunshots ring out, and we never see what becomes of Moss.

Barry slowly but surely wins the heart of Sally (Sarah Goldberg).

But the implication is clear. Barry crawls into bed with Sally the next morning and stares up at the ceiling. “Starting now—” he begins, before the screen cuts to black. He keeps saying he’s going to leave behind a life of crime, but a life of crime keeps finding him. No matter how much you might want to escape the past, it always finds you, and your worst deeds always mark you. Barry longs for redemption, but he might be irredeemable.

These are big ideas for a comedy to play around with, but the visual style Hader and Berg developed in the first few episodes underlines them with a kind of bleak hilarity. The characters often stand out in empty, wide frames, which make Los Angeles feel like the loneliest city in the world, a metropolis full of individuals who believe themselves to be its only inhabitant. The moments of violence often occur in ways that simultaneously make clear what’s happening, but also obscure it slightly (like the viewer never getting a clear vision of Barry shooting Moss), imitating the probably doomed compartmentalization Barry engages in.

But even the show’s structure and premise suggest what the series is up to. If you just heard what it was about, you might imagine it to be the same as dozens of other antihero shows out there. It’s only once the ridiculousness of the show’s portrayal of hungry, wannabe actors and those who make money off of them sinks in that you realize it’s a comedy. (My favorite beat in the finale is Sally insisting the only thing an actor needs to do to make something a comedy is perform everything louder and faster.)

Yet I almost wish the last moments of “Know Your Truth” were the last moments of the show, period. We know Barry well enough now to be aware of how blinded he is from who he is, how little he actually knows his truth. “Starting now—” is a promise he’ll never keep to himself. Do we really need to see that unfold, season after season? Or can we just know that failure is inevitable?

In its own way, Barry has something to say about the world we live in

Barry is a character study before it’s anything else, and character studies eventually reach a point where there’s nothing left in the character to study. As much as I’d love to spend more time with Gene, Sally, and the show’s many other amusing characters, I don’t know that the series is going to gain a lot of strength by suddenly giving them more complex storylines and motivations. The series is about Barry in a way that doesn’t give it a ton of wiggle room.

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.

The series even underlines this, in scenes where Barry’s acting class debates the morality of killing, which is “okay” in war, but “messed up” elsewhere. And, yes, legally speaking, that’s true (though the judicial system might dub it worse than “messed up”). But the act of killing a human being bears a similar weight on the soul either way, and Barry didn’t suddenly become messed up when he got home from Afghanistan and couldn’t find anything else to do. He already was messed up, and somebody somewhere forgot about him.

None of that excuses what he does, but it places it in a context that can be hard to look at sometimes. Barry isn’t really about post-traumatic stress disorder and the ways the country fails its veterans when it comes to giving them the psychiatric care they need — but it’s also not not about that.

Sally tells Barry that acting can be a kind of therapy, especially if you don’t have great health insurance. So maybe that’s why he’s so drawn to it, even though he’s not particularly good. That he finally started to find himself by pretending to be somebody else is one of the least surprising things about the series, right alongside the idea that you can never pretend hard enough to wish yourself and your past away. It has a way of rising from the grave.

Barry is available on HBO’s streaming platforms and will return for its second season in 2019.