Last Sunday, as you watched an hour and a half bloody battle with no significant deaths for a second time, or decided to run out of the house directly for a local theater to chase one final piece of essential monoculture with another, a dark half hour comedy on HBO decided to air “ronny/lilly”, the most significant episode of its series, in the middle of its second season.
I’m underselling Barry, an Emmy award winning show about a contract killer attempting to redeem himself through acting, starring former Saturday Night Live anchor Bill Hader, but that’s because I watched it passively for the last two years, largely unimpressed. Barry is a post David Chase, tight, well written and well acted show, but perhaps its minor key or my general anti-hero fatigue had left me somewhat cold to its low stakes, off kilter charms. It struck me as reps in the gym for Hader. When he breaks into feature film directing or a more ambitious effort on HBO or Disney + or parts unknown we’d say “Remember that show Barry? It was so apparent this was coming”.
Well if that trajectory checks this will be the episode we think about. Barry has followed its narratives tightly through these two seasons, as Hader’s protagonist continues to attempt to reform and walk away from the life of a hitman but a series of increasingly wacky and far fetched premises pull him back in. Last night’s latest hurdle seemed set up to follow the same pattern the series has followed. A detective pursuing Barry through much of this season blackmails him into killing the man currently sleeping with the detective’s ex-wife. In the previews for the episode a reluctant Barry tries appealing to the man to walk out of his life and abscond to Chicago to hide out for a while so Barry won’t have to kill him.
With virtually no introduction or set up and no score, what actually follows is one of the most bizarre, brilliant, brutal and hilarious half hours of television I’ve seen in a long time. It shares DNA with Blue Velvet, Fargo, Pulp Fiction, The Raid and the “Pine Barrens” episode of The Sopranos but it isn’t derivative of any of those things. It’s a real time fever dream shot in several long takes that continues to build and escalate to a hilarious, sad and poignant anti-climax. It’s a complete break from the reality of the show, which has asked us to take leaps and suspend disbelief to a lesser degree in the past but always follows a kind of episodic master logic that this particular episode breaks over its knee. It was written and directed by Bill Hader.
Hader is at times irritatingly self effacing and modest. In the post credits, “About the Episode” segment HBO now attaches to all of its shows, Hader simply discusses the technical challenges of shooting specific scenes in the episode. In this, his New Yorker profile and really in any context related to his creative process, he hides behind the work, only willing to discuss his art in the language of blocking scenes and deflecting praise for stunt men and the props department and shit. Which is a shame, because I’d love to hear how it was he came to the decision to derail his series in the best possible way and what certain choices in the episode meant to him. Or perhaps it’s better this way and that peak behind the curtain would just detract from its bonkers magic.
It could be this was just a bizarre midseason outlier before we return to Barry and his trials and tribulations at the acting class or it could be a step towards formally daring, experimental weirdness. We should all be rooting for the latter. It feels as if Hader has stumbled onto his voice, and it’s something special. I implore you, pause your Game of Thrones recap podcast, click over from your open tab speculating on what is coming in Marvel’s Phase 4, and watch this episode immediately.