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Could Barry Actually Be a Surreal Nightmare?

There's mounting evidence that HBO's dark comedy doesn't exist in the natural world.
  • Bill Hader stars  in Barry (HBO)
    Bill Hader stars in Barry (HBO)

    What if Barry is actually a nightmare? What if HBO's dark comedy about a hitman trying to get his life right by taking acting classes to channel his dark military past has been designed to follow a surreal dream logic where sinister forces deform the entire world? For a show this funny, that would be quite a coup. We'd have to revise Verbal Kint's old line to say the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was making us think a hellscape was a comedy.

    That's worth considering as we head toward this weekend's episode, "The Truth Has a Ring to It." After all, the clues have been mounting for quite some time that the show doesn't exist in the natural world. Think about the Season 1 finale, when Barry happens to have that Janice-killing gun taped to a tree. Or earlier this year, when he's able to wander, unimpeded, into the temple and immediately find Esther, sitting alone with her back to him. He stands there like Hamlet behind Claudius, debating whether to kill her, then he wanders into a roomful of silent monk-mobsters who somehow react so slowly that he's able to flee.

    Individually, moments like these don't suggest much of anything, but cumulatively, they give the show an eerie illogic, as though Barry's own competing impulses (violence vs. peace, anger vs. kindness) are manifesting themselves right there in front of him.

    Plus, you've got Barry's recent mental trips to his military past, including that creepy bit at the end of last week's episode, "ronny/lily," where Fuches seems to give Barry the same, viperous look from the SUV that he gave him when they met in the desert. Add in the show's constant stream of theater talk about identity, doubling, performance, and lying, and you've got the ingredients for a story where we should assume reality is flexible.

    That's been even clearer in the last two episodes. Near the end of "What?!" – episode 4 of this season – we see Fuches trying to escape the hotel room where Detective Loach has forced him to wear a wire. Fuches is out on a ledge, and it's clear he's so high up that he can't jump without splattering himself. Then Barry arrives and somehow gets to a balcony next to Fuches without seeming to try. How does he leap through vertical space in a way that Fuches can't. Does he fly?

    Maybe or maybe not. But you know who actually flies? Lily, the feral childbeast. While she's beating the shit out of Barry for (apparently) killing her dad, she flies through the air at him like a crouching tiger, hidden pre-teen. Later, she flees her house by sailing over hedges and fences like it's nothing. And later that night, she climbs a tree and gets to the roof of her house by moving like a spider. Then she crouches up there for what's suggested to be hours until she lands with mercenary precision on the top of Fuches’ car.

    This is all very funny. When Fuches and Barry start screaming after Lily lands on their SUV, this viewer laughed so hard the Apple TV had to be paused. But in an episode that also features the aforementioned leer from Fuches and a close-up of Barry's stitch-popping stab wound, Lily's gravity-warping ferocity feels like something from a nightmare. So does her dad's ability to reanimate like a slasher-movie villain, whether he's been shot, concussed, or had his windpipe broken.

    Which is exciting! This nightmare logic not only gives Barry extra narrative depth, but also invites close viewing. Like Mad Men and The Sopranos, not to mention Twin Peaks, the show rewards our alert attention to the surreal. Every time a little girl flies, we get another reason to savor Barry's terrible, hilarious universe.


    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: Barry, HBO, Bill Hader