Stories are most compelling when characters are realistic. Nobody is perfect, so when humanity’s latent flaws are accurately expressed in a character, audiences are more likely to become invested than stories based on unrealistic stereotypes.
Some of television’s most acclaimed shows have thrived on moral ambiguity. AMC’s “Breaking Bad” is based around the initially charismatic, likable Walter White—portrayed by Bryan Cranston—but eventually tracks his descent into villainy. The constant implied question of each season is: “how many bad things can this character do before the audience stops rooting for him?”
Likewise, “Game of Thrones” has capitalized on the dramatic tension apparent in morally complicated, and thus realistic, characters. Unlike Walter White of “Breaking Bad,” “Game of Thrones” provides audiences with a morally bad character who redeems himself throughout the course of the show.
Jaime Lannister—portrayed by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau—is immediately characterized as incestuous, traitorous and arrogant, which makes him one of the show’s assumed villains from its outset. However, like in real life, characters of masterful dramas don’t fall into moral binaries. Jaime proves himself to be honorable, loyal and eventually one of the show’s more likable characters.
Enter HBO’s original comedy “Barry,” in which writer and star Bill Hader introduces the latest in TV’s proud tradition of likable scumbags with the show’s titular character, Barry Berkman. “Barry” separates itself from its contemporaries with the way it forgoes the drama inherent in moral ambiguity and answers the question of its main character’s morality by season one’s conclusion.
While other shows tease out rising or falling character arcs across seasons, Hader’s passion project gave its central query an easy answer by the seventh episode. Barry, the former marine-turned-hitman-turned-actor, is a selfish, cold-blooded killer.
This early confirmation is a refreshing subversion of this typical character arc. “Barry” is a show that hinges on dramatic irony: Barry tries to redeem himself from doing a bad thing by doing more of that same bad thing. Instead of going straight, Barry’s actions turn him into an even more irredeemable monster.
Where does this leave the show as it enters its second season? Premiering on Sunday March 31, season two of the impressive dark comedy remains compelling because of the way that it changes its driving question. Rather than continuing to explore whether Barry is a bad person, the show confirms Barry’s terrible traits and remains compelling by putting the character in denial.
By season two’s premiere the audience is well aware of how Barry lacks a moral compass, but Barry refuses to admit that to himself. Because he lacks self-awareness, Barry continues to try and vindicate himself without realizing the way his actions are becoming more and more immoral.
The show’s sophomore season seems poised to further flesh out Barry and the supporting cast around him. While Barry is the most obvious example, other members of his acting class are similarly disillusioned, which makes for amusing juxtaposition as Barry’s issues are far worse than any of his peers.
“Barry” knows that it made a statement on its character’s morality early and it has pivoted accordingly. Its second season seems primed to build towards a breaking point where Barry the character is forced to face his actions’ emotional toll.