The good guy with a gun has always been a staple of television. But since the antihero craze beginning in the late 1990s, a parade of bad guys with guns has been marching across our small screens, characters whose bad deeds, we’re told, don't necessarily make them bad people. In fact, such deeds might make them pretty appealing to the guy watching from his couch covered in Cheetos dust.
This cliche is starting to show signs of strain. When I spoke to Bill Hader before the premiere of his HBO dark comedy Barry, which ended its first season earlier this month, he mentioned that after screening a few episodes for some friends, he and co-creator Alec Berg asked if anyone had notes. (Hader plays the title character, a Marine-turned-hitman aching to live a normal life.) One man mentioned that he found Sally, a gung-ho aspiring actress played by Sarah Goldberg, “unlikable” and “mean.” “Emily Heller, one of our writers, went, ‘Barry kills people!’ “ Hader told me. “It’s the Breaking Bad thing.”
Like The Americans, now ending its six-season run on FX, Barry is a corrective to “the Breaking Bad thing” — that thing where the viewer is encouraged to root for a sociopathic asshole who leaves a trail of bodies in his wake. Why are audiences so quick to make excuses for murderers? Well, because we like them; often they’re the heroes of our favorite shows, and writers usually take care to make them pretty awesome despite all the carnage these men drag into our homes week after week, like a cat dropping a mangled bird on your doorstep. True, I left you a bloody carcass to clean up. But I’m your beloved pet!
On Barry and The Americans, violence takes a steep toll on those who perpetuate it — as painful as that may be for fans who root for figures like The Americans’ Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), Russian spies posing as Americans in Cold War-era Washington, D.C. We’ve spent so much time with these characters, watched their anguish faces in detailed close-up. These shows don’t assure viewers, as Breaking Bad did, that interesting men who kill can be redeemed — or that we can rest easy in our fascination with them.
Both series unfold from the perspective of the “bad guys,” and both juxtapose a life of crime with the mundane everyday — for Barry, the world of desperately aspiring Los Angeles actors, and for The Americans, the Jennings’ domestic life; up until the end of Season 3, their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) has no idea who her parents really are, and their son Henry (Keidrich Sellati) still doesn’t. The shows use the trappings of their genres — dark comedy and spy thriller — to lure viewers into what seems sure to be a rip-roaring thrill ride. It’s only once the ride has begun do we realize, Oh shit, I’m about to throw up.
Both show’s sense of dread — of mounting crises and looming consequences — builds over time. In Barry’s series premiere, the hitman lead trails his latest target to an acting class, and there experiences a revelation: This is where Barry actually belongs. Begging the instructor, Gene (Henry Winkler), to let him take the class, Barry delivers what Gene takes to be an improvised monologue about a military man who turns to a life of crime. He tells Gene that the people he kills are “bad people.” But this fiction that Barry holds onto gets shattered when our murderer participates in a memorial service for Ryan (Tyler Jacob Moore), the acting student he kills at the behest of a Chechen mobster. When Ryan’s father speaks at the memorial, Barry is shook; he’s never had to face the reality that his victims have families who will mourn them when they’re gone.
The lie that has allowed Barry to keep doing his job — that he only kills bad guys — is fully exposed in the penultimate episode, when Barry kills an old military buddy, Chris (Chris Marquette), after Chris accompanies him on a job that goes haywire and then insists on going to the police. Barry shoots him in the head, places the gun in Chris’ hand, and heads off to a Shakespeare recital, where he delivers his one line through stunningly believable tears: “The queen, my lord, is dead.” Spurred on by Barry’s realistic reading, his scene partner, Sally, gives a superb performance, and later tells him that whatever he did to get to that place is his “process” — and he should do that every time. The scene acts as damning commentary on the place of violence in popular culture, suggesting the casualness with which horribly brutal acts are treated as fodder for entertainment.
On The Americans, Philip bears the brunt of the trauma that a life of murderous spy craft begets. The sensitive soul to Elizabeth’s steely ideologue, Philip, from the series’ start, has been the one to question their mission, which began when they were paired up as young KGB agents and sent to the States to pose as Americans living the ho-hum life of travel agents. The sixth (and final) season occurs several years after the end of the fifth, years during which Elizabeth has kept up her covert work but Philip has chosen to step back and devote himself largely to the travel agency.
On the face of it, Elizabeth is the badass bitch who kicks ass and takes names, while Philip goes square dancing with his colleagues after work. But Philip, whose anguish Rhys beautifully transmits, is the moral center of The Americans. His strength is in recognizing and confronting the reality of their jobs, not blindly persisting with this cosplay on behalf of a country neither of them really remembers. He’s the perennial bubble-burster, the one who shows that the kick-ass life of a spy is anathema to being human; that it kills you inside.
To that effect, the violence on The Americans is excruciating. The show isn’t a bloodbath, but there are scenes of carnage from across its six seasons that are so torturous to watch I remember them vividly years later: A man is tied to a chair and set on fire, the flames building as he screams; one of Philip and Elizabeth’s fellows spies is strangled to death in a hotel room and must be smuggled out, so they break her bones in order to fit her into a suitcase — and we hear every crack. In the current season, Philip and Elizabeth have to make a body unidentifiable; in a dank parking garage, Philip breaks the glass cover of a fire ax and wordlessly chops off the woman’s hands and head. When he brings the ax down on her neck, we hear the sickly squish; director Stefan Schwartz forces us to see the gruesome result in close-up as Philip labors to pry out the ax only to bring it down again. After each motion, he looks at his wife, as if to say, Is this what you want from me? Am I man enough now?
The hook of both The Americans and Barry is that these criminals aren’t so different from you and me. They have aspirations; they love their children; they’re good people, deep down, despite their dirty deeds. But it’s a testament to the moral temerity of these series that they don’t end with a round of “Kumbaya” around the campfire. In the season finale of Barry, it seems as if the title character has gotten what he wants — the detective trying to solve Ryan’s murder pins it on someone else, and he ends up with Sally, the girl of his dreams. But that same detective, Janice (Paula Newsome), is now dating Gene, and when the two couples share a weekend at Gene’s lake house, Paula grows suspicious when she learns Barry is using a stage name. When she confronts him, he tries to talk her down: “We want the same thing,” he pleads. “We want to be happy, we want to love, we want a life.” Janice is unconvinced. "We're not the same," she says. "Because I'm a cop. And you're a fucking murderer." At the end of The Americans, too, both Philip and Elizabeth must reckon with the fact that the things they've done can't be separated from who they are.
Graphic violence is so pervasive on TV, and so often framed as a titillating thrill, it’s startling for a series to suggest that bloody murder isn’t sick but sickening. It feels appropriate that Barry and The Americans are airing at a time when the world, or at least those who run it, have lost faith in the value of diplomacy, and America’s longest war drags on with no end in sight — and with no discernible “wins” to speak of. On these shows, violence is something that degrades everyone whose lives it touches. As viewers, we’re not totally exempt from that filthy caress; we’ve been there the whole time, egging those villains on, reclining in the comfort of our peaceful homes, soothing ourselves with the idea that it’s only a TV show.