Following up a wildly successful first season can often cause creative panic, resulting in a disappointing second outing. There's a big difference between making a show in a creative vacuum and having to live up to high expectations. Barry was not only well-reviewed, but it also triumphed at the 2018 Emmys, dominating the comedic acting categories with wins for both Bill Hader and Henry Winkler. Thankfully, there was no sophomore slump for showrunners Hader and Alec Berg, and the series received a whopping 17 nominations (up from 13 for its first season), with both Hader and Winkler defending their titles. As star and co-creator, Hader didn’t rest on his laurels, submitting the most ambitious episode of the second year for writing and directing consideration. He received nominations for both.
“ronny/lily” is a mid-season tonal shift which focuses on Barry’s tumultuous relationship with Fuches (Stephen Root, earning his first-ever Emmy nomination) while they deal with a seemingly otherworldly child. This is the most hyper-realistic outing of the series to date, following Barry as he attempts to decline another assassination job and avoid arrest for a murder he committed. The episode begins with Barry trying to convince Ronny (Daniel Bernhardt) to leave the state so he doesn’t have to kill him. This being Barry, the plan quickly goes awry, and a fight to the death breaks out. It's an incredibly physical sequence that Hader shoots in a single three-minute take. In a profile with The New Yorker that followed Hader as he directed “ronny/lily.” he explained this choice: “I’d rather take a big swing and have a B-plus or even a D-minus moment than just shoot coverage.” In what turns out to be one of the best episodes to date, neither grade is warranted.
By choosing a single take, Hader turns the fight into an endurance test for both the participants and the audience — it should be noted that Barry is also deservedly nominated for Stunt Coordination. Even when it looks like Ronny has been defeated, there's a surprising twist when his daughter Lily (Jessie Giacomazzi) comes home to find Barry bloody and trying to catch his breath. The unexpected turn the episode takes when Lily goes fully feral unleashes a moment so surreal it initially reads like a dream sequence. Truly, she is not of this world.
For a moment Barry turns into a horror movie, as Lily crawls up a tree, a spider monkey reincarnated in the body of a cute blonde child. She later leaps on to the roof of their car and attacks Fuches, biting his face as if she's suddenly a zombie, giving the audience tonal whiplash as it switches from terrifying to hilarious as Fuches can’t get Lily off his face. (His hands are superglued to the wheel after he used it to temporarily close Barry’s stab wound.) Mixing slapstick and farce with disturbing elements is the perfect blend of genres from a show that already juggles a variety of tones. After all, this is a story about a hitman trying to break free of his assassin shackles by becoming an actor. But “ronny/lily” takes the show's absurdity to new heights.
The final Rite-Aid confrontation between Ronny and Barry elevates this already ludicrous situation, as the wheezing sound of Ronny’s broken-windpipe punctuates everything Barry says. Ronny takes out a store employee and a stand of diapers before killing the detective who put a hit out on him, all before getting taken out in a hail of bullets. It's another win for Barry, even if it seems like a huge loss. It will be fitting if Hader gets the Emmy for either directing or writing an episode that is this physically demanding onscreen and off. Alec Berg co-wrote “ronny/lily,” and he's also nominated for directing the penultimate episode of the season. Considering Berg has received 21 nominations (for shows like Silicon Valley, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Seinfeld) with zero wins so far, he has entered Roger Deakins territory in terms of being due his Emmy. What better episode to make amends than this one?
Hader’s acting submission, “The Truth Has a Ring to It,” is the episode immediately following the surreal nightmare of “ronny/lily,” in which Barry grapples with Fuches betrayal. It is far more sedate, but there are still plenty of shining moments as he continues to grapple with the emotional weight of killing Detective Janice Moss (Paula Newsome). In 2018, Hader won for “Loud, Fast, and Keep Going,” where Barry delivers his best acting-class performance, in the aftermath of murdering his friend. Barry is not the best actor, but he does have a wealth of experience to draw upon, which he does again in his onstage rage-fueled interaction with Sally (Sarah Goldberg). It's as if a switch goes off that allows him to access everything he's trying to suppress. How can he ever be a good actor if he can’t access this dark energy?
Good people doing bad things is an overplayed premise of Peak TV, but Barry is desperately trying to see if someone can change their nature, or if he's doomed to repeat his killing cycle. A marriage of comedy and tragedy ensures that Hader’s performance teeters on the brink of the abyss. Fuches pulls him toward the dark, whereas Cousineau (Henry Winkler) represents hope. In “The Truth Has a Ring to It,” Barry thinks he has finally banished the devil on his shoulder from his life. He also delivers his final lesson to NoHo Hank’s (Anthony Carrigan) men. He is free from this life of violence. Or so he thinks.
Hader also, for the record, deserves an Emmy for keeping a straight face as the Chechens dance around him. “Oh, Barry, it’s about to go off,” NoHo Hank states as Hader’s face remains expressionless. This will be the case on Emmy night if he manages an awards hat trick.
Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina.