HBO’s ‘Barry’ Keeps the Dark Laughs Intact While Exploring Deeper Themes in Season 2

What began as a snappy comedy about a hitman trying to leave the business becomes something different, even deeper, in season two of “Barry.” A big hit for HBO in its inaugural season, garnering an Emmy for lead Bill Hader, “Barry” found a rather brilliant balance of drama and dark humor. While the laughs are still there, the show now begins to expand and explore more about what makes Barry tick.

Picking up from where last season left off, Barry (Hader) is still convinced he wants to stop killing for hire. Instead of whacking people, he’s now clerking at Lululemon. He’s still involved with the acting class which includes his girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg) and is run by Gene (Henry Winkler, who also won an Emmy for his performance last season). Even if Gene is feeling out of it, Barry insists the troupe carry on with their production of “The Front Page.” Of course Barry knows the true fate of Gene’s disappeared girlfriend, Detective Janice (Paula Newsom), but can’t say she took a bullet. The other two players in Barry’s life have been left in a weird limbo. Left without an assassin to represent, Monroe (Stephen Root) is dealing with terrible amateurs who botch jobs. Making it worse, the police are beginning to harass him over Janice’s disappearance, sniffing a trail leading to Barry. Meanwhile Chechen gangster Noho Hank (Anthony Carrigan) is having it tough in the organized crime world. He’s allied with Bolivian gangster Cristobal (Michael Irby), which has inspired much of the wrath of his former partners, but finds himself threatened by a new Burmese group moving in to cut deals with Cristobal. Naturally, Noho goes to Barry for help. But Barry is undergoing a new internal crisis as he revisits his combat experiences in Afghanistan, forcing him to look at himself as he still tries to change his life.

The power of memory and conscience seems to be a big theme driving season two of “Barry.” That mind sound a bit odd for fans who adored the first season, but the trademark humor is still here. The writing uses violence in an unabashed way to provoke a laugh. When we first catch up with Monroe, he’s hold up in a hotel with a client, waiting for an amateur hitman to report back. When the cops surround the place the hitman is blasted away and the client decides to end it all by jumping out a window. In another scene Barry has to tiptoe behind Sally so she won’t suspect a sniper just tried to assassinate him in the other room. Every cliché we’ve seen over the years of hitmen and assassins is polished for satirical punches. But this season there is a toning down because the focus shifts beyond the premise and more towards the backgrounds of the characters.

When Gene asks Barry to deliver a one-man performance based on his memories from Afghanistan, this triggers flashbacks to his first kill as a soldier. We start to trace his time as a soldier to his career choice as a gun for fire. The first three episodes of the season give an idea of how we’ll get to know a lot more about Barry by the end. Not only do we get memories of his first taking of a life, but also the first time he saved someone during a firefight. Barry starts becoming more than just a punch line or gag. The same goes for Sally, who is struggling to get better roles as an actress (there is a hilarious scene where we see her reel), and is encouraged by Gene to explore her own past as well. This brings her face to face with the abusive relationship she escaped, and when she phones a friend to get the details right, she realizes her own memory might be less clear than she would like to admit. Sally remembers being strong and telling off her ex, but the friend remembers it differently.

But “Barry” doesn’t become pure psychoanalysis. As much as Barry would like to leave the guns behind he just can’t. When he fails to help Noho whack a Burmese competitor, he tries to make up for it by promising Noho he will train his men to become efficient killing machines. Noho salivates at the prospect, because with a well-equipped army, he can just take it all over. What follows are some slapstick scenes in the desert where Barry tries to show a gang of Chechens how to properly use their weapons. Noho of course gets impatient and wonders if they’ll be ready…in a few hours.

Dark and funny are a delicate balance to pull off convincingly, but “Barry” again proves it’s that rare show that knows how to do it. He’s just a nice guy trying to find the right path after making some bad choices. Maybe most of us haven’t made unwise career choices like being paid killers, but we’ve all felt the need to change course once in a while. “Barry” gets that, while taking down a few bodies along the way.

Barry” season two premieres March 31 and airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.