How Barry Became the Anti-Breaking Bad

10 minute read

Ever since Barry premiered, just over five years ago, critics have been likening it to one particular touchstone of cable’s golden age: Breaking Bad. According to an early Decider headline, “Barry Is the Breaking Bad of the Los Angeles Acting Class Scene.” By the end of the show’s first season, the Washington Post had declared that it was “perhaps the pithiest distillation of [Breaking Bad’s] ethos.” And the Guardian observed: “Everything’s a dry, deadpan half-hour dramedy now, and that includes the show that might just be the new Breaking Bad.”

The comparison is understandable. Both Breaking Bad and Barry, whose fourth and final season premieres April 16 on HBO, are prestige tragicomedies that cast actors previously best known for their humorous roles as violent men who lead double lives—one in straight society and another as a fearsome member of the criminal underworld. Both shows explore notions of goodness and evil. Yet, as Barry has progressed, its argument about what defines a person has begun to seem like an inversion of Breaking Bad’s worldview. In Breaking Bad, who a person is determines what they’re capable of doing. But for Barry, what we do makes us who we are.

Creator Vince Gilligan famously said that his pitch for Breaking Bad was: “You take Mr. Chips and you turn him into Scarface.” The idea was that a diagnosis of terminal cancer, and the financial ruin his death would mean for his family, would catalyze mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) transformation into a violent, cutthroat meth mogul. It didn’t matter that Walt had led a small, safe life for his first 50 years; that he loved his pregnant wife (Anna Gunn); or that he cared tenderly for a son (RJ Mitte) with cerebral palsy. Convinced of his own scientific genius, beaten down by decades’ worth of slights, and fixated on dying a winner, he accesses a well of evil that had always existed at the very core of his being. The true Walt looks a lot like his black-hatted, criminal-underworld alter ego, Heisenberg.

Walter White Breaking Bad bryan cranston
Bryan Cranston in Breaking BadUrsula Coyote—Sony Pictures Televison/AMC

Barry Berkman, a.k.a. Barry Block, played by Barry co-creator Bill Hader, is already a prolific hitman when the series opens. A Midwestern former Marine who discovered his preternatural talent for killing in Afghanistan, where it won him the respect of his fellow soldiers, he was recruited as a contract killer by a trusted surrogate father, Fuches (Stephen Root). But in his day-to-day life, he’s not a malicious guy. He justifies his misdeeds by convincing himself that everyone he murders is a mobster or a cheater or an otherwise bad person, and he dreams of leaving Fuches to start a normal life. An assignment that takes him to a Los Angeles acting class promises a way out: If Barry can, with help from his beloved teacher Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), act like a better person, maybe he can become one. “I know there’s more to me than that,” i.e. killing, Barry tells Mr. Cousineau in a confession that his audience mistakes for a dramatic monologue. “I don’t know, maybe there’s not. Maybe this is all I’m good at.”

In the seasons that follow, Barry—who is not an especially talented actor—enjoys the company of his fellow thespians, falls in love with classmate Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg), briefly takes a day job at Lululemon, and even gets a bit of an acting career going. Unfortunately, getting away with the murders he’s already committed and extricating himself from Fuches and a Chechen gang (whose magnanimous leader NoHo Hank, played by Anthony Carrigan, wants to be his best friend) proves difficult. Barry has to keep killing in order to stop his past from catching up with him. He crosses all of the moral lines he’s drawn for himself. He gets fellow Marines killed, and personally takes out an old comrade-in-arms who knew too much. In the first season finale, he guns down Gene’s girlfriend, Detective Janice Moss (Paula Newsome), who is about to arrest him. “I’m a good person,” he insists, until he realizes she can’t be talked out of it and shoots her. Season 2 ends with Barry going on a killing spree in a former monastery, icing dozens of mobsters in an attempt to destroy Fuches for framing Gene for Janice’s murder.

Barry became, in large part, a show about discrepancies between intentions and actions. The second season explored the stories characters tell themselves about who they are. Inspired by Barry’s emotional account of the first time he killed a man, in Afghanistan, Gene has his students perform scenes based on their own formative moments. But Barry keeps insisting that, at his core, he’s not really a killer; he’s the guy who saved a wounded friend’s life or the guy who met Mr. Cousineau and became whole. Sally writes about leaving her abusive husband, and learns that she didn’t stand up for herself the way she’d forced herself to remember. Barry offers some self-serving encouragement: “You should be able to be the person that you say you are.” Gene is fooling himself, too, into thinking that he can become a good father to his adult son after decades of neglect. “I pray that human beings can change their nature,” Gene tells Barry.

Henry Winkler, right, and Andrew Leeds in Barry Season 4Merrick Morton—HBO

Season 3 circled around the idea that apologies and regrets, however sincere, are worthless without real changes in behavior. Gene’s eloquent apology means nothing to a theater-director ex-girlfriend (Laura San Giacomo) whose career he ruined back in the ’80s; finally, he hires her to direct his MasterClass. For his part, Barry can’t understand why, after a heartfelt apology of his own, Gene can’t forgive him for killing Janice. He isn’t just a nice guy with a dirty job and some unaddressed anger problems; he has internalized a disregard for human life. Sure, Barry feels guilt. A vision of a beach populated by his many victims haunts him. Yet, when given the choice, he always opts to kill instead of sacrificing the life he’s claimed for himself. Barry doesn’t genuinely want to be a good person. He just wants to be able to fool himself into believing he is.

“I know evil, Barry, and you’re not evil,” says Alan (James Hiroyuki Liao), the man whose life he really did save in the Marines. It’s true: Barry is no cackling supervillain, nihilistically causing pain and wreaking destruction. But do his intentions matter, in the final accounting? Regardless of who he was before joining the Marines and meeting Fuches, he’s been warped by experience. You can see it when a streaming executive preemptively cancels the show Sally poured her heart into and Barry offers to dismantle the woman’s psyche through mind games and surveillance. Which is why our protagonist’s Cousineau-facilitated arrest at the home of Janice’s terrifying father (Robert Wisdom), in the final moments of season 3, feels like a relief.

If Walter White’s character arc is a straight line from virtuous to the precise brand of evil that Alan, an FBI agent, probably has in mind, then that of Barry Berkman (is the shared alliteration a coincidence?) is a circle. No matter where each season takes him, he comes back around to being a bad guy trying, but not hard enough, to become a good guy. Whereas Walt is defined by an inner ugliness that lay dormant for half a century—one that allows him to do awful things without losing sleep—Barry clings to his benign intentions and unassuming personality so that he doesn’t have to accept the obvious conclusion: that he’s defined by his deeds. In that sense, he’s a response to all antiheroes, from Don Draper and Tony Soprano to Olivia Pope and Villanelle. Do ambivalence or remorse over the grievous wrongs you won’t stop committing make you a compelling candidate for redemption? Of course not, say Hader and co-creator Alec Berg.

Sarah Goldberg in Barry Season 4Merrick Morton—HBO

Even Barry is finally beginning to reach the conclusion that he’s beyond help. In an early scene from season 4—an extremely dark one even by this show’s standards—he embraces his inner villain to an extent that would make Walt proud. Newly incarcerated, he has, for reasons obvious to everyone but himself, tried and failed to make amends with the two people he cares about most, Sally and Gene. Then a prison guard who’s starstruck by Barry (lest we forget, he booked a role on the popular legal procedural Law of Humanity) finds him alone in the bathroom, yelling, cursing, slapping himself in the face, and punching the wall until his fist bleeds.

“I know they say you did a bad thing,” the guard says. “But I’m sure you’re not a bad guy. I mean, heck, you were in the Marines, man. That’s pretty special. You were also on TV.” He adds: “When I was feeling low, my mom always used to say: ‘Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.’” This character is the archetypal bad fan—a term coined by the critic Emily Nussbaum to describe a subset of Breaking Bad viewers who willfully misread the show’s themes. Despite heaps of evidence to the contrary, such fans continued to see Walter White as a “kick-ass genius” and his poor wife, Skyler, as an obstacle holding him back from greatness.

But Barry is, at least for now, sick of forcing himself to believe his own propaganda. “I’m a cop killer,” he rages at the guard. “If I saw you walking down the street I’d f-ckin’ kill you. I’d kill your f-ckin’ kids, I’d kill your f-ckin’ wife, and I’d kill your f-ckin’ mom.” As villainous rants go, this isn’t “I am the one who knocks.” It’s not eloquent or kick-ass or genius. Barry’s breakdown is no triumph. And when it’s over, he gets beaten badly enough that you would never mistake his violence for power.

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