The end of Barry is pretty brilliant. As much as it may seem the show wasn’t developing any kind of overarching theme, the finale makes a point, that, yes, Barry was more than just a dark comedy with interesting characters—it had something to say. The meaning of which is as relevant as it is provocative.
This thematic point first comes up in the final conversation between NoHo Hank and Fuches.
Fuches: You’re very lucky Barry fell into your lap like this.
Hank: Seizing on luck is part of my profession.
F: You’re a businessman, not some lowlife killer. You got all this through hard work, seizing on luck, and as a tribute to the love of your life…who was murdered by your enemies. [A pause. Exchanged looks.] Denial. It’s tough. I used to think I was a soldier, ignoring the fact that I’d never fought in a battle in my whole life. I was a poser. Yeah. And I fancied myself a mentor, fostering other men’s natural abilities. But it wasn’t until I was in prison and I got beaten to within an inch of my life, day after day, that I finally dropped the bulls**t and just accepted who I am. A man with no heart.
H: I am nothing like you, Fuches. You’re weak, manipulative, pathetic little man.
F: [Tears in his eyes] New deal. I walk away right now. You’ll never hear from me again. All you have to do is admit that you killed Cristobal. Admit that you f**ked up. Admit that you were scared. That you hate yourself. That there’s some days you don’t think you deserve to live, and the only thing that’ll make you forget is by being someone else.
H: [Sobbing] He was the love of my life.
F: I know.
H: It wasn’t supposed to happen.
F: It never is.
H: I just wanted to be safe.
F: We all do.
H: [Recomposed] You know what? You are a f**king liar. The deal is off. Go f**k yourself.
This conversation immediately follows Sally explaining to her son who she and Barry really are. The two are hostages in the backroom at Hank’s compound, waiting for Fuches to get there. Here’s that conversation.
John: Mom, please tell me what’s going on.
Sally: We don’t move around a lot because of my special job. It’s because we’re fugitives. Do you know what that means? It means people who are hiding from the police. Your dad, well, he escaped prison and I ran away with him.
J: Why was he in prison?
S: Because he killed a lot of people.
J: Because he was a soldier.
S: No. Because he was a murderer. [Turns to look at John] And I’m a murderer, too. I killed a man. And I deserve whatever happens to me. But you don’t. You…you’re a good kid. You always do the right thing. I know I never really told you that before. But. You’re a good person. But I’m not. [Sobbing]. I’m a bad mother. [John runs to her and they embrace] I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’m sorry, John.
So Barry and Sally have this son they been lying to for his entire life. John didn’t even know their real names. They created entirely different identities and origin stories and were essentially acting for the last 8 years. This conversation is the first time Sally has been herself around John. The denial is over. Like Fuches, Sally’s at a low point that has abolished her self-deception. She’s being honest. With John. But also with herself. When she says, out loud, that she’s a bad mother, it’s climactic and cathartic for her because she’s never let herself admit it. But we saw it. The last two episodes made it so obvious Sally was a terrible, terrible mother. But because she was lying to everyone else about everything else, she could lie to herself, too. Until now.
In the first 15 minutes, we have two main characters experience similar moments of confronting their lies and admitting things out loud. They both cry. That’s the power of the truth. It gets back to everything that we heard in Season 1 about acting and the difference between someone saying lines versus finding “truth” in their character. The power was in the truth. That’s what made the fictional stuff feel real. That what makes good acting. Truth distilled. Over the course of the show, we move away from the concept of being an actor but the show still explores what it means for these characters to act. And how as they begin to live in denial, away from the truth of how they’re feeling, they begin to live more hollow, empty lives.
Which brings us to Barry. Our main character. Someone who has been in deep, deep denial. Sally tells him he needs to turn himself in, and his first response is, “Yeah. I don’t think that’s what God wants for me. I went in there tonight prepared to die, and, for some reason, He spared me. Honey, I’ve been redeemed.” To which Sally says, “The only way to be redeemed is by taking responsibility for what you did. And the only way to do that is by turning yourself in.” Barry rejects that. Sally leaves and takes John with her. She no longer wants to live that lie.
Barry, to his credit, eventually comes around. At Cousineau’s, Gene’s friend, Tom, says, “Listen. Maybe it’s a good thing that you came now, Barry. You know, Gene is in a desperate situation. Gene’s going to go to jail. He’s being accused of all the things that you did. You’re the only one who can save him, Barry. This is an opportunity to do the right thing.” Those words get through to Barry. He knows it’s true. He’s finally done lying to himself. “You should call the cops. I’m gonna turn myself—” but then Gene opens fire.
The Mask Collector
We pick up years later. We see Sally’s the theater director for John’s high school. John’s in high school. He goes over to a friend’s house and they watch a movie. Before it starts, we hear the friend ask, more than once, “You ready for this?”
“This” ends up being the movie about Barry and Gene Cousineau, The Mask Collector. When we last heard about the film, Gene was going to be the hero. It wouldn’t be an accurate depiction of events, but it seemed like it might get the gist of things right. We get a decently long sequence that skips through the movie’s beginning, middle, and end. And we slowly realize that, now, Gene is the villain. Barry is the hero. A veteran with talent but manipulated by a monstrous acting teacher who framed Barry, threatened his family, then killed him. We’re told Gene’s serving life in prison. And that “PFC Barry Berkman was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery with full honors.”
After the movie ends, we see John. Tears in his eyes, he smiles.
We know the movie got everything wrong. Gene was a doofus. Almost completely inept. Not some criminal mastermind. We know Barry was a murderer and crazy. He was the villain. But the truth has a funny way of getting twisted. Not just between individuals. But in the media. And then it takes on a life of its own. Evolving in novel and surprising ways. Hollywood is part of this. Hollywood mythologizes the story, immortalizes a version of it that becomes, to many people, the truth. Even though it’s a lie.
So John and probably millions of other people have this false construction of Barry. They view him as the good guy. He wasn’t. And this is where we come full circle—John knows better. He was at the shootout between Fuches and Hank. He knows it was nothing like what happened in the movie. If it got that wrong. Why should he believe it got anything else right? Because he’s a kid who doesn’t want to think badly about the dad he loved. And you have Hollywood telling you that he wasn’t a bad guy. So it’s easy to accept. To deny your memories and truth and believe something other than the truth.
Through the finale, Barry challenges the viewer in two ways.
First, it asks us to consider the ways in which we lie to ourselves. That doesn’t have to be in a huge, dramatic way that Sally and Hank have lied. But the more local and realistic denials. Like maybe you’re not as good of a friend as you tell yourself you are. Maybe you’re more selfish than you think. Maybe you complain that it’s your boss that’s holding you back but you know that, really, you are kind of lazy and don’t work as hard as you should, that you’re scared for more responsibility, and that you stay at the job you’re at because you’re afraid to bet on yourself. Or that you have a bad relationship with food. That you’re not great with money. To be clear, all of us have flaws and low points. Realizing this, admitting this, doesn’t make you a bad person or a failure or anything like that. In fact, admitting it, recognizing it, is the best way to begin to deal with it and improve and grow and find that redemption that escaped Barry, Gene, and others. Remember, there’s power in truth.
Second. Barry asks us to think about the role of media in our perception of the world. We tend to take media at face value. If a news is reporting on something, they must have the facts? If a movie is made about something, it has to be mostly accurate, right?
People often point to The Social Network as one of the best movies based on a true story. Social Network has this powerful ending where Mark Zuckerberg asks this woman out and she says no. He then sits on his laptop, looking at the profile picture of his college ex, refreshing the page, hoping she accepts his friend request. The irony being that this guy who created a way for people to connect is incapable of connection. The final shot is this portrait of an isolated, lonely individual who may never have a real and deep human relationship. It’s poetic and provocative and Oscar-nominated.
Except. In real life? Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, met at Harvard. They were dating in 2003. Zuck founded Facebook in 2004. They were together through the entire period covered by The Social Network. But does the movie even mention her? No. It’s so concerned with portraying this poetic concept of what and who it thinks Mark Zuckerberg should be that it presents a false image of who he actually is. That’s not to say he’s some wonderful, heroic, perfect person. Just that whoever he is, it’s not the guy in the movie. He could be worse. He could be better. He could be just as awful in a different way. But he’s not what Aaron Sorkin wrote.
The same thing happened with Moneyball (also by Sorkin). It portrays the Oakland Athletics’ manager Art Howe as this bullheaded, negative guy who wouldn’t get on board with Billy Beane’s “moneyball” players because they weren’t the guys Art Howe liked or wanted. Specifically, it shows Howe refusing to play Scott Hatteberg. In reality? Howe was pretty beloved. And Hatteberg was a starter from the very beginning of the season. Howe himself said this: “Almost every scene in that movie with me involved was a total lie. And it really hurt my reputation. Probably hurt my chances to get more opportunities to manage…I never got another managing job after that.” A few years later, he told another reporter, “I can’t say that I didn’t let it bother me for a while. But I’m not gonna let it run my life or ruin my life. The people who count know what I’m like. And I even think [Philip Seymour] Hoffman made a comment in some magazine after the movie was over. He said that he knew that that wasn’t me, but that’s the way they wanted him to portray me. So, what can I say?”
One last quote from Howe. “Now, any time I see ‘Based on a true story,’ I know it’s very loosely based on a true story.”
That’s what we see in Barry. How many times have we been John? Convinced that what’s in a movie, what’s in a TV show, what’s in a news story, is the truth? Or more or less true? How many false perceptions of people and events do we have?
That leads to a larger question. Does it matter? Or what’s the impact of these false perceptions? It’s complicated. On the one hand, John gets to think highly of a father whom he loved but never got to know. Is that so bad? But what about when it means millions of other people think Barry was a hero? What if it’s not Barry but the events of World War II? Or of the Civil Rights Movement? The movie Argo completely rewrote the events of the Canadian Caper and downplayed the role of Canada in saving American diplomats during the Iranian Revolution in 1979. What happens when movie after movie changes history and the perception of history?
The 2010s are defined by the rise of misinformation spread through social media and news organizations. It’s resulted in a massive fracturing of the American psyche and a growing tribalism as everyone recedes further into their echo chambers. Each side vilifies the other and lionizes their own. They create perceptions of people and events that are often exaggerated and absurd. And many of us don’t question it. Or we only question the other side. We accept what we want to accept and we deny what we want to deny.
Barry points out the irony of acting being about truth but movies being so full of lies. Then tells us that, whether we realize it or not, we’re all actors in movies. We all collect masks, wear them, and forgot they’re there.
It’s a huge, bold thing to point out. And makes Barry an incredibly thoughtful and powerful statement about the human condition. Especially in the 21st century. You can enjoy the show without worrying about any of these deeper implications. But they’re there for those who want to think and reflect and, even, maybe, grow.