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Justice and guilt - from Oresteia to HBO's Barry

Still Puzzling Over the Barry Series Finale? An Ancient Tragedy Might Be Able To Help


When the series finale of Bill Hader’s masterful HBO series Barry aired this summer, viewers were left echoing the eponymous protagonist’s final word: wow. Over the course of its run, the series metamorphosed from an intelligent dark comedy about a dispirited hitman into a tragic commentary on the far-ranging consequences of his violent actions on those around him. In the midst of the series’ steadily darkening tone, the tensions and questions at the core of the show’s ethos consistently revolved around the nature of justice, retribution, and absolution—who are the arbiters of justice? How can one find absolution—through religion, reparations, or gestures of forgiveness? Is vengeance the only means of achieving justice?

The show’s steady investigation of these themes makes its ending all the more jarring. For three seasons, the series saw Barry’s violent work as a hitman steadily seep from the compartmentalized world that he had created into the life he shared with others. All the while, Barry’s means of evading responsibility for his heinous actions became ever more elaborate, and often included committing more heinous actions—not the least of which being murdering Janice, the girlfriend of his beloved acting coach, Gene. Yet, just as Barry decides to “do the right thing” by turning himself in (as Gene’s talent agent Tom urges him), Gene emerges, Chekhov’s gun in hand, and shoots him.

It is the stuff of Greek tragedy—and indeed, the moral issues that undergird the show’s action find resonance in an array of Greek tragedies. But the most compelling echo to Barry’s investigations about the nature of justice is found in Aeschylus’ Oresteia.

First performed in the fifth century B.C.E., the Oresteia trilogy begins with an act of revenge—Agamemnon, having just returned from the Trojan war, is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra as retribution for the death of their daughter Iphegenia. As his fleet set out for Troy years earlier, Agamemnon killed Iphegenia as a human sacrifice to the goddess Artemis. His act of murder set off a chain reaction of revenge killings—Clytemnestra kills her husband and Cassandra, whom he captured and enslaved at Troy, and as a result, her son Orestes kills her and her lover Aegisthus (at the behest of Apollo) to avenge his father.

After committing matricide, however, Orestes is pursued and taunted by the Furies (euphemistically known as the Eumenides, or ‘the Kindly Ones’). Seeking to escape their torment, Orestes flees to Athens to seek help from the goddess Athena, who stages a trial by jury to determine Orestes’ guilt. Faced with a hung jury, Athena casts the deciding vote in favor of Orestes.

The play served as a foundational myth of Athenian democracy, tracing the locus of justice from a system of familial revenge to one of democratic litigation. The cycle of vengeance and retribution, as demonstrated in the trilogy’s three-part arc, could only be broken through a third-party system instigated by divine intervention, thus making the state rather than the individual the arbiter of justice and restitution.

In some ways, this is a message that Barry likewise seems to lead its audience toward—seeking justice through revenge always brings about tragic consequences. The show’s third season explores this concept in earnest, as the families of Barry’s victims independently hunt him down, intent on killing him themselves. In one instance, Julie (the widow of one of Barry’s hits) accidentally shoots her son Kyle while waiting outside of Barry’s apartment with a gun. Another tragic episode saw Ryan Madison’s father commit suicide in his own attempt to kill Barry and avenge his son’s death. An affiliate of another hit is brutally killed by Sally after coming to Barry’s apartment and strangling her when she tried to save Barry. Even Gene, the only individual to actually secure the revenge he desired through Barry’s death, experiences a tragic twist of fate as a result of his actions: without Barry to prove his innocence, he will spend his life in prison for Janice’s murder instead.

All of these events find their resonance in Sally’s final words to Barry: “The only way to be redeemed is by taking responsibility for what you did.”

However, while a democratic system of justice and punishment is more favorable than an endless cycle of revenge killings, within a patriarchal society, a system of trial by jury often does not lead to perfect justice. Despite killing his mother, Orestes is absolved by Athena on the grounds that: “No mother gave me birth—that’s why in everything but marriage I support the man with all my heart, a true child of my father Zeus. Thus, that woman’s death I won’t consider more significant” (936-40). Despite the play’s valorization of this new means of litigation, it fundamentally and systematically privileges male citizens at the cost of vulnerable women such as Cassandra and Clytemnestra. As Emily Wilson notes: “Orestes is acquitted not because it is ethically right, but because legislative and political institutions are thought to depend on the subordination of female to male, and of moral right and wrong to the making of expedient speeches and the passing of laws for what Plato would later call the ‘advantage of the stronger,’ rather than justice in any ethical sense.”

While Barry does not face a jury, he is posthumously evaluated by an audience of his peers in the form of a biopic. Though the format is a creative rather than legal one, the film comes to represent the public absolution that Barry is given after his death. Rather than telling the story of a compulsive killer, more concerned about dodging accountability than protecting the lives of those most dear to him, the film version of Barry’s life mythologizes him as a tragic hero, the veteran whose good nature triumphed over Gene’s villainy.

While the Athenian audience of the Oresteia may have viewed the play as an answer to questions about the nature of justice, modern readers of the play and viewers of Barry are generally left with more questions than answers. Though separated by thousands of years and vast cultural and typological differences, both Orestes’ trial and Barry’s representation in film demonstrate the ways in which patriarchal societies so often bend over backwards to construct fictions that absolve men—particularly men who have wronged women. In either case, the material should lead us from metaphysical questions about the nature of justice to practical questions about its manifestation—or lack thereof—within our own context.

Emily is a copy editor at an education technology company and an incoming doctoral student at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Her interests include the ancient novel and its reception, gender and queer theory, and psychoanalysis, and she is passionate about diverse and emerging approaches to the Classics.

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