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I can’t stop thinking about Stephen Root. I can’t seem to get him off my mind. In idle moments he swims in front of my eyes: his rectangular face covered in only some beard, his beady eyes conveying panic or doom or glee (because of the panic and doom he has instilled in others). The reason I can’t stop thinking about him is because he seems to be on every show I’m watching at the moment.
He was in last week’s Succession, playing a conservative Republican donor who does things like organise “Future Freedom Summits” to figure out which right-wing edgelord will run the US next, and eulogises racist old men who profited off conspiracy theories. He was also in the season return of Barry that aired that same day, playing series regular Monroe Fuches, who groomed the titular Barry (Bill Hader) into being a hitman for hire after he was discharged from the Marines. The night before, I had seen him in season one of Perry Mason playing Maynard Barnes, a manipulative district attorney in 1930s Los Angeles who outrages John Lithgow so consistently that Lithgow makes constipated faces every time they’re together on screen.
Stephen Root is everywhere, including Barry.Credit: HBO via AP
If you don’t know Stephen Root’s name, then you’ll know his face. (You might also recognise him from True Blood, Boardwalk Empire or Justified.) He’s one of those guys who pops up in things and makes you say, “Oh that guy!” You’re always happy to see that guy. That guy is excellent! I loved that last thing he was in! That guy is almost always a tortured (but charismatic) difficult man – or appearing in a prestige show about them.
If you’ve been watching TV for the last two or three decades, then you’re well acquainted with this trope. For a while there, it seemed like for a show to be considered artistic it needed to follow the agonies of a morally grey man who was both the hero and the villain of the piece. Arguably it all started with Tony Soprano in 1999, the murderous, duplicitous and vulnerable Mafia boss, who cheated and stole, but also really liked fluffy ducks. It was the rise of the TV antihero, which required a more complex type of storytelling that elevated the platform. It was suddenly OK for your TV lead to be a criminal who hurt innocent people and for showrunners to ask you to identify with ethically repugnant men and their ethically repugnant pastimes. The Sopranos made way for Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Deadwood, True Detective and so many other discontented middle-aged men. Journalist and TV critic Brett Martin wrote a book about this era in 2013 literally called Difficult Men.
Those shows were – and still are – amazing, but looking back, the trope did get a bit repetitive. It feels like current showrunners are sort of aware of this. Of course, you don’t have to look far for difficult men on screen right now – the success of The Bear and Succession prove that. But that isn’t all those shows are. And some of the shows are using the trope to challenge audiences as to why we love these anti-heroes so much.
HBO is currently airing the fourth and final season of the aforementioned Barry, with star Bill Hader directing every one of the last eight episodes. For those who haven’t yet been tempted by the menacing pictures of Hader as you scroll Binge, Barry is about a veteran who deals with his PTSD from the war in Afghanistan by becoming an assassin – until he decides to give it all up and become an actor. Surprise, surprise, it doesn’t work out that well! Barry tries to give up the hitman life, but his reputation – and his nature – keep drawing him back in.
If you know Bill Hader from Saturday Night Live, Superbad or Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the idea of him playing a deranged and grizzled serial killer probably seems silly. The good news is that the show is very funny … in between scenes of graphic ultraviolence. Hader is a film buff and it shows, an episode can reference Scorsese, Kurosawa and the French New Wave all in the space of 23 minutes. But it’s also too absurd to be considered a straight drama. Barry can show a sweetly quirky scene about the rules of friendship between men and then end the scene with a brutal gang murder without skipping a beat.
Barry isn’t the kind of difficult man we’re used to. He’s certainly tormented and is often terrifying – but he’s actually the bad guy. He’s not cool or glamorous. He’s not an anti-hero who is giving us glimpses of redemption. This story adds more nuance to something familiar and challenges the audience to relate to the characters who suffer at the hands of these difficult men. Do we really think he should get away with his crimes? What does it say about us if we do? (The confusion is real – according to Google, a frequently searched question about the show is “Is Barry a good guy or a bad guy?”.) How is a bad man like this made? And what the hell will happen to Stephen Root next?
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