Image Credit: British Sky Broadcasting
During the weekend which saw the release of Avengers: Endgame and ‘The Battle of Winterfell’, I wasn’t expecting the best action sequence to be in a thirty-minute episode of a comedy. Starring and created by SNL alumni Bill Hader, Barry follows a hitman who, when sent to LA, decides to give up his violent profession and become an actor. Trouble is he’s in too deep with the criminal world and struggles to leave his past behind him. Also, he’s a really bad actor. A peculiar mix of Hollywood satire, slapstick violence and a tragic character study creates a fantastic pitch-black comedy often managing to be hilarious, horrifying and heart-rending in its swift half-hour instalments.
One episode was particularly impressive, howe. Episode five of the second season, titled ‘ronny/lily’ is a stand-out which Hader directs as well as stars in and co-writes. Though the narrative contributes to the overarching story, the episode is self-contained, acting more like a short film, isolated from the rest of the many sub-plots. In doing so, it manages to crystallise the central themes of the show into a thirty-minute package.
Unsurprisingly for a show following a hitman, violence is at the centre of this episode, as it is for most of the show. To cover up past crimes, Barry is blackmailed to take out a hit on a stranger, and the entire episode follows the hit as everything quickly falls apart. Violence has become at the core of most pop culture entertainment – cities being demolished on camera and superpowered entities throwing each other hundreds of meters have become almost a tedious sight. Blows feel weightless as violence has been reduced to pure spectacle – what you add to the third act of your film when the world is in danger.
The violence is awkward, sloppy and chaotic – the line between slapstick comedy and body horror is blurred as windpipes break and wounds reopen, leaving you to wince and laugh in equal measure. Eschewing the frantic, fast-paced editing commonly found in action scenes, the camera is instead slow and pondering with long shots that barely keep up with the action on screen. This, as well as the distinct lack of soundtrack, ramps up the tension of the fight as we are forced to watch every awkward violent moment with no promise of escape. The events of the episode escalate into the increasingly bizarre, yet the internal logic of the episode remains airtight. The violence is also incredibly comedic, it is an episode with a ‘feral mongoose child’ after all.
Directors like the Coen Brothers, Shane Black and Martin McDonagh similarly strike this tonal balance between comedy and tragedy. Violence is made to be distinctly awkward and uncomfortable in their works, such as the ‘leg in the woodchipper’ scene from the Coen’s Fargo, which raises a laugh with its incongruity, but is suitably distressing so as to make the audience question their laughing.
Barry doesn’t want to be violent, and he tries, in vain, to explain the situation and avoid any exchange of blows. Violence in Barry is intrinsically tied to the character of our titular anti-hero. He wishes to leave his violent past behind him and find redemption, but his efforts to move forward only seem to send him careening back into the world of violence he finds himself embroiled in. Each punch is a step back towards the past, and person, he is trying to escape from.
By intertwining the action and violence with character development the stakes feel so much higher. The tension not only arises from who will win the fight but whether Barry can emerge from the action and still claw his way back to redemption. The stakes aren’t the end of the world, but a single character’s happiness and future. Can a person ever truly escape their past? Is there a point where one can be pushed beyond redemption? Can a person ever really change who they are? This show manages to ask all these questions in thirty minutes, while also making you cry laughing.