I love HBO’s Barry. It’s premise of a hired psychopath killer turned rising star is filled with all the ruthlessness, drama, and comedy that a story with a logline this crazy promises to have. And one of the major themes prevalent throughout the series and explored to an even greater extent in season 3 has been just how many more similarities there are between the actor and the hired killer than there are differences. At first glance this might be a daring comparison but it really doesn’t take an overly keen eye to recognize the overlap of these two professions. Both can be ruthless, both can be self obsessed and narcissistic, and both involve a level of performance.
The idea of performance is something that pervades the lives of all the characters in the show, both on the screen or stage and off. It touches actors with Hollywood aspirations like Sally and psychopath killers with troubled pasts like Barry all the same. And what we key into rather quickly is how much these characters perform not only for theater spectators or television watchers, but to one another as well, as unwitting and unwilling audience members manipulated by the forces of violence and evil that dominate both the acting industry and the crime industry alike. AndIt’s this version of performance that has become critical to their daily lives. Whether it’s performance that works to hide the reality of a character’s true dangerous nature, or their infidelity, or their internal feelings about a situation, or even their gratefulness towards not being killed, whilst hiding dubious ulterior motives at the same time. The performance of friendship or letting bygones be bygones serves as a tactic of self preservation, in a war torn fictionalized version of Los Angeles where if it’s not the Chechen Mob who wants you dead it's the court of public opinion, intently concerned with your spot in the limelight and how that light reflects of you and your actions as you aspire for the glitz and glam of hollywood fame that so often results in crashing and burning.
Sally and Gene take part in this level of performance, more than maybe any other characters in the show. Imbued with levels of narcissism, envy, and self-loathing they aren’t really as good at hiding as they think they are. Oddly enough, when it comes to “performance” Barry, the titular character, is actually really bad at it. Cousineau notes after his first class just how terrible of an actor he truly is. Stiff and unconvincing. The reality is that Barry’s best performances come when he’s not acting at all, but when he tells the truth
[Monologue to Cousineau]
It’s this notion of truth that the characters in Barry both wrestle with and evade all entirely. On stage you must reveal a semblance of truth otherwise the audience won't buy your performance. It’s that willingness to be vulnerable in this way to strangers that motivated these people to take up acting in the first place. Off the stage however we slip into our comfortable lies with ease, whether it's to gain an advantage or control over the outcomes and expectations of the relationships we want to maintain and the people we don’t want to be disappointed in us. For Barry, his offstage life is his truth. One he’s desperately trying to unyolk himself from. His life of hired killing has become an inseparable part of his inner nature, one of violence and horror, and it’s continually reinforced by people like Fuches and with his new relationships to egotistical hollywood maniacs whose self obsession in so many deeply distraught and distressing ways mirrors his own.
I think that’s what makes these professions so similar to me. Both acting and hired killing require a level of self obsession at their very core. A level of self preservation. Sally is self obsessed with her story, the idea of a young girl from joplin missouri who makes it to the top of a Hollywood machine that’s as ruthless as Barry is, Gene is obsessed with reviving his own career after several scandals and being ostracized by his peers. Self obsession fuels their individual pursuits in the same way Barry’s own self obsession fuels his lack of empathy for his victims, conceptualized in his mind as a paycheck rather than people. But unlike Sally and Gene whose performance of self in the public space of acting is carefully crafted and curated for an audience that knows what it wants. Barry’s unadulterated self is messy and violent and cruel, and it’s a level of violence cruelty that infuses everyone around him, unlocking the worst in the people he cares the most about. Gene and Sally’s proximity to Barry and his violence awakens something inside them, pointing not only to how deep violent tendencies can fester and be awoken within all of us, but also pointing to a more inherent salacious ruthlessness that’s required for one to become an actor in the first place.
Prestige TV is filled with stories about violent men resistant to change. From Tony Soprano, to Don Draper, to Walter White and Barry is an extension of this. They all share faults, the same proclivities, the same all-consuming and inescapable ruthlessness, and they all performed to the innocent people around them. Performed as fathers, as husbands, as upstanding members of society, as it’s through that performance, through guarding their true inner nature that they were able to destroy so many lives forever, making it expressingly clear to me why so often killers…..make the best actors.
Mind Theater is a solo effort produced and written by me, Ayo Akingbade. For updates on the show as well as my other content follow mindtheaterpod on twitter, IG, and tiktok. If you wanna show monetary support. The ko-fi link is in the shownotes. Thanks for listening, I’ll catch ya next time.