After concluding its debut season last night, HBO’s Barry showed us what the world looks like to a true outsider. When Barry first premiered eight weeks earlier, it was inevitable that it would draw comparisons to Dexter, which ran on Showtime from 2006 to 2013. After all, they’re both shows about killers, and not in the ‘cops work to track down killers every week’ kind of way. No, more in the ‘both Dexter Morgan (Michael C. Hall) and Barry Berkman (Bill Hader) themselves regularly commit brutal murders throughout their respective shows’ kind of way.
Naturally, this character flaw creates a challenge from a storytelling perspective, given that we’re supposed to identify and sympathize with them. Sure, TV is dotted with examples of antihero archetypes that kill, (The Sopranos and Breaking Bad just off the top), both Barry and Dexter choose to cast their eponymous characters in a constant struggle toward normalcy — or at least their assumed version of it. Their motives for killing may differ, but the way both characters are cast them as outsiders shows their similarities are deeper than their penchant for murder. And it goes way beyond their tendency to wear army-green henley shirts when killing.
Dexter kills because he has to, driven by his self-ascribed ‘Dark Passenger,’ but rations out his killings through both methodology and morality. A code given to him by his adopted father, Harry (James Remar) that assured Dexter’s compulsion to kill would be limited to other murderers who ‘deserve’ it. Barry, however, kills because he doesn’t know what else to do. After his stint as a wartime Marine, he’s brought into life as a hitman by Fuches (Stephen Root), an old family friend. Like Dexter, Barry rationalizes his killing that it only happens to bad people. Fuches tells him the people he kills also deserve it, and Barry chooses to believe him.
This is also where Barry’s story starts to differentiate itself. Dexter’s ultimate goal isn’t to be rid of his desire to kill, but to find a way to incorporate it into his daily routine. Dexter’s only at his best when he’s performing ritualistic murders. Alternately, Barry’s discontent with the hollowed-out shell of a life he leads thanks to contract killing. He’s looking for a way out, he just doesn’t know to where. He finds it early one after stumbling upon an acting class in North Hollywood. There he not only finds purpose in performing but develops normal, human feelings for Sally (Sarah Goldberg), his budding-actor classmate.
Okay, mostly normal, human feelings. Sure, his genuine ignorance about social norms causes him to screw up quite a few things out of the gate with Sally, but its Barry’s indulgent fantasies about a Rockwellian paradise the two of them inhabit together that starts to make things weird. On the other hand, Dexter, a self-ascribed outsider, has no trouble interacting with the general public. Really, Dexter’s most frequent problems had to do with the scheduling and logistics of his fairly elaborate murder rituals so as not to interfere with his 9-to-5. Though he shares Barry’s penchant for fantasy, Dexter’s manifests itself mostly when he regularly hallucinates his dead cop father critiquing his overall performance as a serial killer. So, there’s clearly some issues there. That is, in addition to him being a bloodthirsty maniac.
So, while Barry struggles to understand how to fit into a world he longs to be a part of, Dexter’s free to participate, and prides himself on his ability to do so. Much like he prides himself on being an outsider, and the fact he’s carved out a way to project the image of a by-the-numbers life while secretly lurking in the shadows on his own time.
Ultimately, it’s the deeply embedded sociopathy that makes these two characters more alike one another than not. While Dexter has his rituals, he’s also got his instinct for self-preservation, and will act on that instinct without hesitation — without his elaborate, plastic-covered kill room. Barry shares this instinct, as was never more evident in season one’s penultimate episode, “Loud, Fast, And Keep Going.” After his old Marine buddy, Chris (Chris Marquette) tags along on a job that Barry’d let get out of hand, the two manage to escape. But in the aftermath, Chris floats the idea of going to the police, which seals his fate. Barry kills him, then stages his death to look like a suicide.
It was a sobering moment in a show that thrives on dark comedy. Suddenly, Barry, with all his quirks and well-to-do intentions are forgotten about, and we see him for what he is: a merciless killer. It might have been enough to turn the audience against him, had it not been for the overwhelming amount of grief Barry deals with afterward. He’s in anguish over his actions, complete with an elaborate fantasy sequence that plays over and over again in his head. It’s the kind of guilt that Dexter was never able to find for his victims. The closest he came was with Rita (Julie Benz), his wife who was murdered by his rival/mentor The Trinity Killer (John Lithgow). Even though it wasn’t by Dexter’s hand, he knew he was ultimately responsible for her death.
Unlike Dexter, which ran for eight seasons (!) and spent the latter half of its life veering increasingly into the realm of unwatchable TV, culminating in a finale that was basically self-parody, Barry is only now figuring out where it will go for its sophomore season, other than the promise that it will be “even darker” than the first. It certainly ends season one by showing this is possible. First by having a likely fatal gunfight go down off-screen, then by having Barry crawl back into bed, before telling himself “Starting NOW!” before closing his eyes.
While Dexter thrived on being an outsider, and the game he makes out of his own mock-assimilation, Barry wants something more. He wants to be happy, he wants a purpose in life, and more than anything, he wants to achieve a kind of normalcy that’s escaped him his whole life. Despite him finding his perfect version of it, it seems his past will always come up and prevent that from happening.
Will Barry ever be free of the burden of his life as a skilled, morally ambiguous contract killer? Will he find happiness doing community theater and start to rebuild his life framed by normalcy, and come out of his shell and become a part of society? It’s impossible to say at this point, but considering that Dexter went off to live life as a fucking lumberjack, Barry’s ending couldn’t possibly be any worse.