Like Avengers: Endgame, this week’s Game of Thrones was the long-awaited culmination of a decade-long build-up to a decisive battle. We could argue all day about which one was better, even though the clear answer is Game of Thrones. Say what you will about “The Long Night,” at least it wasn’t three hours long. But I digress. Among the cultural products featuring decisive battles this week, Barry was notably the best.
I accepted that the current Game of Thrones would be more like Game of Thrones fan-fiction than the first four seasons about a season ago. Without getting too deep into the minutiae of the episode (where the hell has Ghost been for two seasons? what was Bran even doing with those crows? who actually died?) — or that it was too dark, which has been true of Game of Thrones since episode one — the most basic criticism of “The Long Night” is probably the truest: that a show that was once predicated on doing the unexpected wrapped this storyline in a somewhat predictable fashion.
I don’t mean predictable in the sense that we knew exactly how the story would play out, beat for beat, or who would kill The Night King, just that the outcome was essentially a remix of elements that already existed in the story without introducing new ones. “The Long Night” didn’t expand Game of Thrones’ universe of possibilities. Maybe that’s a petty criticism, but this was a show that consistently blew our minds with new revelations — the knowledge that shadows could kill people, that The Mountain could crush skulls with his hands, that it would kill off the main character at a moment’s notice, that Arya would do sex, etc. (Last week’s episode was notably the best in a few years; the non-battle episodes of Game of Thrones are almost always better.)
I might’ve told myself I was expecting too much of this show, if Barry hadn’t come on right afterwards and accomplished exactly the things we used to expect from Game of Thrones. If you haven’t been paying attention, Barry has been far and away the best show on television since this season began, but this most recent episode raised the bar even higher. Bill Hader’s Barry, who in the previous episode had finally been cornered by the cop chasing him, instead of being killed or arrested, had instead been given a get-out-of-jail-free assignment: kill the cop’s wife’s new lover, and get a clean slate.
In last night’s episode, directed by Hader, Barry goes to the lover’s apartment, tries to give him the option of teaming up, only to discover that the guy is a taekwondo champion with no intention of negotiating and/or going down without a fight. Like “The Long Night,” the battle that ensued more or less took up the remainder of the episode.
Despite being a comedy show, Barry‘s action was staged and choreographed better than just about any movie or show I can remember, action or otherwise. The characters’ abilities are clearly and succinctly established — one is a taekwondo champion who has just smoked a huge spliff, the other an ex-military assassin who doesn’t especially want to fight — and the ensuing action follows from that. It was realistic but stylized, the fight organized into smaller battles like sentences in a paragraph. And — get this — the whole thing was shot in broad daylight with a clear sense of spatial geography throughout.
Inasmuch as you can compare a one-on-one fight with two giant CGI battles, Barry‘s was far more clear, coherent, and exciting than either Avengers: Endgame or Game of Thrones, and faced the added challenge of being funny.
And that was just where it succeeded on a technical level. Halfway through, it upped the ante with not just a new character — the taekwondo lover’s pre-pubescent daughter — but a new kind of character. She flew around the kitchen like an Ang Lee character, hissed at Barry, stabbed him in the shoulder, and perched on the roof of a house “like a gargoyle,” in the words of Fuches, played by the consistently wonderful Stephen Root. She was an agent of pure chaos, the kind of character you occasionally see in a Coen Brothers movie (Randall Tex Cobb in Raising Arizona, “the devil” in O Brother Where Art Thou, etc).
It wasn’t just a solid episode, it took everything we thought we knew about the reality of Barry and upended it, and only made us more invested in the show. It played just like a Game of Thrones episode used to, and the fact that it aired the same night as a historic Game of Thrones episode only made that point clearer.
Maybe it’s unfair to compare a show just coming into its own to one working under the strain of a decade of previous episodes and fan expectations, but Barry is the best thing on television right now.