(Religion Unplugged) — Bill Hader’s phenomenal four-season show “Barry” has concluded its final season on Max. And the show — always one that dealt deeply with ideas of sin and redemption — chose to end in a deeply religious and Christian fashion, which only made its themes and social commentary stronger.
The plot of Barry is fairly simple: A hitman named Barry (Bill Hader) during a job finds himself falling in love with acting (and a local actress, Sally Reed) at a Hollywood acting school run be Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), so he decides to leave his old life behind to pursue acting. But his past keeps catching up with him, forcing him to keep killing to retain his new life.
Barry has always been about the titular antihero trying to find redemption from his evil past by escaping its consequences. But each time he has had to keep killing to avoid the consequences. He left being a hitman to be an actor but had to kill to hide his past murders — first by killing the cop (and his mentor Gene Cousineau’s girlfriend) Janice, then by doing a favor to a fellow criminal to avoid retaliation from him.
All the while, Barry insists, “I’m a good person. I’m a good person.” Even as he continues to do horrible things to preserve his identity.
This season leans into that theme even harder. Barry is in prison for his crimes, but he tries to get out of it by taking a plea deal with the FBI. But that gets the FBI killed and him blamed for it. He then runs away with his girlfriend, Sally Reed, and they have a child together in hiding. But then Gene Cusenau is consulting on a movie about him, which Barry is afraid will put them in danger of being discovered. So he tries to kill him. That gets Sally and his son kidnapped. So he has to rescue them. When they’re safe, he finds that if he doesn’t turn himself in, Gene Cousineau will be blamed for his crimes.
When Barry escapes from jail and builds a new life with Sally Reed and their son, he and Sally are portrayed as deeply religious people. They talk about God frequently, watch preachers on TV and online, and raise their son to believe in God too.
This jump to explicitly talking about religion is jarring but fitting. When he tried to leave being a hitman for being an actor, his treatment of it was pretty close to religious. He left his old life and identity behind to gain mentorship and acceptance by a wise man (his acting teacher) who heard his confessions and guided him to channel himself into a productive member of a loving community. When that failed, it’s only natural he would go for the next step up, which is a true religious conversion.
Barry’s leap to religion as a sign that he’s a “new man” reflects the attraction that Christianity has had for people with bad pasts, particularly men. Leon Podels writes in “The Church Impotent” that men in particular are attracted to how American revival culture’s emphasis on “conversion” from the “old man” to the “new man” reflects the nearly universal “initiation culture” men have had throughout history, which creates a separation between boyhood and manhood. You become a new person and therefore, through an act of will — in this case accepting Christ — you have transcended the weaknesses of your previous life.
But of course, Barry is not really a new man because the minute he is confronted with the fact that he might be exposed, his first impulse is to kill him to cover up his sins.
The late Tim Keller often spoke of this problem in many sermons. Often we — even Christians — try to be better people through “religion,” that is, by following the rules. And therefore God will give us what we want (in Barry’s case, freedom from the consequences of his violence). But following the rules will only get you so far. Your heart has to be changed, or you’ll fold under pressure.
This leads Barry to one of the best moments of religious satire of the past few years. When he’s going off to kill Gene Cousineau, he keeps listening to various preachers with podcasts and sermons. Each one preaches a message against killing. So he keeps changing to a different pastor till he finds one who says that killing is OK.
This scene perfectly skewers the ways that the postmodern world has changed religion ala Charles Taylor’s “A Secular Age” and Gillis Lipovetsky’s “Hypermodern Times.” In a world where there is no centralized religious or secular authority, you can choose your religion like you choose your streaming service, which means you can choose a religion to suit your preferences rather than conforming yourself to the religion.
After this plan blows up in his face, but everything seems to work out regardless, Barry once again attributes that to God, saying that he’s forgiven and he doesn’t need to pay for his crimes. But it’s at this point that Sally Reed puts things to Barry explicitly, knowing that if he doesn’t turn himself in, Gene Cousineau will be jailed: “being redeemed means taking responsibility for what you’ve done.”
This gets at the heart of one of the biggest debates happening right now about the Christian doctrine of forgiveness, which Keller once again laid out in his book “Forgive.” According to the Christian doctrine of forgiveness, forgiveness does not just mean to internally let go of bitterness against the other person but, in a very real way, to let go of demanding they suffer consequences for their actions. Jesus relieved us from punishment of our sins, so we must do so for others. And yet, young people are rightly cynical about this, because they have seen how it has been used to relieve predators of consequences and pressure wives to go back to abusive husbands. The book doesn’t really answer that question. Tim Keller says “of course” forgiveness doesn’t always require removal of consequences (like jail or divorce), but he doesn’t exactly explain when and why they don’t require the removal of consequences.
This question comes to mind watching “Barry.” Most of the reason Barry has to kill is to protect his new identity. Well, what if the police just let him go? What would have been the harm? So many fewer people would have died and Barry would have gotten the happy life they wanted.
In many ways, Barry is a twisted parody of Les Miserables. To Barry, he’s Jean Valjean — a good man who deserves a good life — and everything would be fine if people just stopped trying to make him pay for his crimes.
William Lane Craig’s books “Atonement and The Death of Christ” hints at an answer to that question. As William Lane Craig points out, there are some parts of earthly justice that we do, not because it precisely reflects God’s justice but because we are fallen human creatures.
Thus some of the kinds of forgiveness that God does for us through Jesus are kinds that Jesus can do and we can’t. Jesus can know if our hearts are full of repentance, and honesty, we can’t. Therefore, we can’t build a criminal justice system around letting people off the hook because we don’t know who’s truly repented. If we let people off the hook for repentance, vile people would just game the system by lying and by appealing to the biases of those in power, thereby creating a system of true injustice.
This is why Barry can’t just have a new life and start over without paying for what he’s done — not because he needs to be punished for what he’s done in the past but because not doing so continues to perpetuate harm in the future.
And that is the Christian hope: that if you do accept your status as sinner and publicly acknowledge what you’ve done, then you do find the redemption and acceptance that you crave.
In a strange and tragic way, the show “Barry” shows how final redemption comes only when you accept responsibility and and the consequences of your sins. The show is a tragedy, so there is no happy ending here — only the happy ending of the thief on the cross, who has no time to change his life around but to whom Jesus said, “Today you shall be with me in paradise.”
The entire series “Barry” is available right now on the Max streaming service.
By Joseph Holmes is an award-nominated filmmaker and culture critic living in New York City. He is co-host of the podcast “The Overthinkers” and its companion website theoverthinkersjournal.com, where he discusses art, culture and faith with his fellow overthinkers. His other work and contact info can be found at his website josephhomesstudios.com.