I Was Busy Thinkin’ ‘bout (Sad) Boys: On Bill Hader and Barry and Me
I was obsessed with this one guy in high school. I’m open to the possibility that he might read this essay – he tended to stalk my social media, or his friends did, or however my personal info got “magically” sent his way. Up until a few years ago, we were still involved with one another. My friends who read this will be rolling their eyes. I was ridiculous, I know. I hate to look back on who I was at that time. I was already in my twenties and still hung up on a high school boyfriend; fling; fuck buddy. But I was infatuated with him, and this persisted into college, and it persisted long after it should have already ended but, eventually, it did end. I vague-posted about him on my Tumblr a little over two years ago, back when I still had one. He messaged me on Facebook in response and accused me of slander and of still being obsessed with him. I explained that I had a boyfriend, and told him to have a blessed day.
I’m getting off topic. There was a boy, and he was very sad. I don’t mean to sound glib when I describe him, but without exposing any details about his personal life I’ll only say he was a deeply unhappy person when I knew him. But he’s not the main focus of this essay. In fact, most of the guys I’ve been with have tended to be deeply unhappy people. I’m not sure why, and I haven’t ever thought too hard about it before. I don’t really like to assume too much about things I don’t quite understand enough myself, and I feel hesitant to deign to offer my perspective when some of these men from my past are people that I like and still keep in contact with. I’ve always just seen it as a tidbit I’d reveal to a therapist one day, and they’d explain to me why I tend to be attracted to these types of men, or why they seem to naturally gravitate towards me, and I’d say “ok” and it would keep me up that night.
So, it’s sort of made sense to me that I’m naturally drawn to a guy like Barry Berkman, the emotionally damaged hitman who decides to leave murder behind him to become an actor instead. Barry is the lead and titular character of SNL alum Bill Hader’s HBO series, Barry, which Hader co-created, co-writes, directs, and stars in as Barry himself. But there’s an especially taught magnetic pull to Barry; an acute sexual aura that seems oddly intense for an actor I’m quite familiar with but have never really held up as a sex symbol, in a role that’s uncanny but not unfathomable. As I’ve discovered in the past few months, however, through various interactions on Twitter, a lot of us are drawn to Barry. He’s the sexy sad boy who does crime.
But before Barry, there was Mark Renton, and Tyler Durden/The Narrator, and Donnie Darko, and Richie Tenenbaum; James McAvoy’s character Bruce Robertson in the film Filth, and Adam Scott in The Vicious Kind, and Rust Cole from True Detective, and Mr. Orange covered in blood and screaming in Reservoir Dogs; and nearly every one of the sad, misunderstood lead male characters in the British series Misfits. Before staring at my laptop screen well past the witching hour on a work night and dreaming that Barry Berkman could be my boyfriend, I was juggling what felt like an eternity’s worth of attractions for every sad, tortured and/or morally questionable man in every piece of media I consumed in my adolescence. This isn’t a new concept – girls like bad guys, right?
But it all seemed to spill over from fictional stereotype into my personal life, into the real world. “You can’t just date normal guys, can you Brianna?” I had a friend once say to me, facetiously, in our high school cafeteria. I’ve not been with very many people; I get swept up in my emotions and settle into long-term commitments with ease – too easily – despite how fervently I always tell myself that I won’t once I break off another relationship. I form bonds with people quickly, and I nurture them when they manifest. I like when I connect with someone beneath the surface level, I like learning the deepest, darkest parts of another person; I like the feeling of being wanted, and of wanting back. I’m an emotional person by nature, although I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.
There seem to be a plethora of reasons why one might attract dark, brooding, sad people, or be attracted to them in turn. These reasons range from what The Telegraph describes as a “primitive desire to find a mate who appears mentally strong, confident, and physically attractive,” to not liking yourself or having low self-esteem, to a desire to “save” someone, to finding unhappiness and vulnerability to be a form of passion; to being unhappy yourself. Or maybe it’s that I love too much, and “when a woman who loves too much meets a stable, caring, together man, she will get a subconscious vibe that she is not able to love him. Love for her is fixing. Love is a project.”
I’ll admit, as a teenager I did derive a bit of an ego-boost from believing I could save a guy, while I languished over the lyrics to songs by Bright Eyes and Brand New, and mistook the intensity of my own teenage emotions to be some form of “wise-beyond-my-years” bullshit. There was a kind of passion I derived from embracing the throes of emotional instability. Why be with a happy person when the highs and lows of a sad one are just so much more…enthralling?
I never intentionally sought these guys out, though – not even in TV and movies. But each time it happened, I said to myself, “Of course that guy’s the one I’m attracted to. Of course he’s sad. They’re always sad, aren’t they?” And with Barry Berkman, it just feels so palpable. If I’d had Barry during my high school years, I might have collapsed under the sheer weight of my own attraction to him, and somehow being played by Bill Hader just makes him that much more enticing. But Bill Hader being hot is nothing terribly new, and a simple Google search of “Bill Hader is hot” turns up articles, blog posts, and earnest Reddit threads for us to confirm with each other that, yes, Bill Hader is hot. We’re allowed to find Bill Hader hot now. To be fair, however, Bill Hader has always been hot – it’s just a lot clearer now that he’s playing the sad murder man.
Barry Berkman is a former-Marine returned from Afghanistan, pursuing a career in what he once believed to be the only thing he’d ever be good at: killing people. He’s employed by a man named Monroe Fuches (Stephen Root), a seemingly bumbling but actually quite conniving and spiteful old family friend of Barry’s, who acts as Barry’s middle point between hit jobs. Fuches tells Barry who his next contractor is, and Barry travels to the contractor to complete the job. In the series’ pilot, while working in LA on behalf of the Chechen mob leader Goran Pazar (Glenn Fleshler) and right-hand man NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), Barry meets his newest hit and accidentally finds himself on a stage alongside him, performing in front of an entire acting class. His hit is an aspiring actor, and Barry has suddenly discovered what feels like an escape route out of contract killing.
The show follows Barry as he tries to run from a past ever-intent on hunting him down and make it out on the other side. For Barry, the other side is a totally unextraordinary life spent being a “good person,” surrounded by people who love him. He yearns for the simplicity of normalcy, of feeling real love and acceptance despite how much he might feel he doesn’t deserve it. And as Barry quickly discovers, outrunning the life of a hitman for that of an actor is no simple task. Threads are left undone in his last official job for the Chechen mob, and Fuches isn’t so willing to let such a highly-skilled assassin as Barry slip from his hands. Just when it seems like Barry has finally reached a point of total contentment, someone or something in the recesses of his maligned former life reminds him that that life isn’t all that former, and his lesser instincts constantly threaten to overtake the good nature he badly wants to have for himself.
Barry is an inherently tragic character. He is burdened with a bleak past, still tortured relentlessly by the trauma begotten from his time in the Marines while he wrestles with what it means to be good versus evil. Barry is the story of a man who once thought that his only purpose in life was to hurt other people, and this chance at a new life that acting gives him, to both escape and confront the nightmares he endured and inflicted upon others, is a means of emotional catharsis as much as it is a possible path to redemption. Acting allows Barry to not only become a new person in his art and in real life, but to form meaningful connections with others – the other acting students, his colleague-turned-girlfriend Sally (Sarah Goldberg), his acting teacher Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler), and with himself. Above all, there has been no one Barry has hated more or wanted more distance from than himself.
Self-loathing – another thing my suitors have tended to have in common, but it’s a trait that I share with them as well. Perhaps that article on Huffpost Life is right, and the reason why I somehow gravitate towards sad men is because I don’t like myself enough, despite being what I would consider a fairly happy, content person… usually. According to Psychology Today, it has been found that when men express shame it is perceived as sexy, serving “as a sincere communication of past mistakes while simultaneously inspiring hope that the expresser is capable of one day changing his ways.” Male shame is a violation of social norms and carries that romantic appeal of trying to “save a bad boy.” But part of me also wonders if my affinity for these characters like Barry stems from a proclivity to see myself in them in tangent with being attracted to them; or if I’m attracted to them because I see myself in them. What’s that age-old question: if you met a clone of yourself, would you fuck it? Is this the same scenario?
The first time I watched the film Under the Silver Lake not too long ago, I realized how attracted I was to Andrew Garfield’s lead character, the listless, LA-based loner Sam, who is obsessed with conspiracies, codes, and sex. He was the exact type of character I’d typically find myself bewitched by; the morally ambiguous, horny anti-hero with maddening sex appeal and questionable emotional state. At the same time, I somehow saw myself in him. I realized that part of the reason he was so alluring to me was because I desperately want a guy like that to find me attractive but, simultaneously, I want to be him as well. His unkempt grunginess, absolutely no-effort appeal and constant flirtations were things that I desired in myself. To be found beautiful without trying, to attract people unintentionally, while I saw my more boyish personality and characteristics at home in a male character as opposed to female.
But I don’t think it’s necessarily that I see myself in Barry – although I do find myself in and out of self-deprecating bouts, there’s more to Barry than self-hate. There’s this charming, almost fish-out-of-water personality he embodies as he tries to adjust to interactions with everyday people, his ever-present insecurity about the nature of his true self; an adorable lack of confidence when it comes to his social life, like dating Sally, paired with the ongoing secret of his massively fucked up past, which is endlessly chasing after him. Then there’s the fact that he’s portrayed by Bill Hader, who has been far from an unattractive man but who has gotten decidedly more pleasing to look at as the years have passed. There’s a soft boyishness to Hader during his SNL days that has depleted as he’s gotten older, but it’s only worked to his favor. He often sports a five o’ clock shadow in Barry, while the age lines defined across his forehead and around his mouth give him more of a grizzled appeal. He’s slender but evidently out of shape – at a time when dad bods are highly coveted – with a face that’s just short of gaunt and an intensely defined jawline. The muscle he flexes in his cheeks to convey suppressed nerves even garnered its own entire article for how sexy it is.
In a way, Bill Hader sort of feels like forbidden fruit. It’s a combination of seeing this actor I’d never really noticed as anything more than a funny, recognizable media personality suddenly being so clearly attractive, in a surprising role that seemed to cater to the inclinations that manifested when I was a teenager. Hader is also quite candid about his real-life anxiety and struggles with panic attacks and stage fright, an openness about personal issues that prominent people in entertainment are often hesitant to reveal for themselves. There’s something hot about finding a guy suddenly so appealing, a guy who’s also sensitive and open with his emotions who then plays a sad criminal on TV. Darkness is enticing – unlike happiness, which coasts effervescently along the surface and asks very little of us. We want what we can’t easily have, we’re attracted to what we’re not supposed to see. Men aren’t always so emotional, and Barry has more emotions than he knows how to deal with – this unhappy, tortured and slightly pathetic man with a tragic past, desperate to redeem himself of his unhealthy tendencies and find happiness and true love.
To type that out reminds me too much of the guy I spoke of in my opening paragraph, who, at age sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, I was convinced I could love out of crushing depression and who, in turn, treated me badly. He did not treat me badly because of his depression, or because of the less than fortunate circumstances of his life, however, but because I believe he just wasn’t a very good person. I did romanticize his unhappiness and his unkindness, but I was a teenager and I romanticized anything within reach and with a beating heart. I thought that I was in love with him, but I was addicted to the melodrama. The soap opera love affair. The indie film romance. When he left me from time to time, I lived in my head and I stretched it all out like a stick of taffy. It was intoxicating, an emotional high that I wanted to live in forever, persisting even after I left high school. The guy I dated after him was perfectly nice. Things ended after eight months.
I find myself less agitated, more puzzled that my old habits have yet to die hard. I don’t go out of my way to find sad boys, but I seem to end up where I started time and time again, whether I’m sitting down to watch Legion or settling in with Under the Silver Lake. I’m still that wide-eyed and hopelessly romantic thirteen-year-old intent on fixing a guy with daddy issues, except now I’m reaching my mid-twenties. Once I’d fathomed just how immensely attracted I was to Barry, I realized how easily he fits into the rest of the pattern. Barry is just another cog in my endless sad boy machine. I pluck them out of TV and film like juicy berries, this never-ending smorgasbord of slender, occasionally-cigarette-smoking men harboring deep sadness, who just need someone like me to remind them that they’re beautiful, and that their lives have meaning – right?
No, of course not. And yet…when I watch Barry, I want to fuck him, and when he wrestles his trauma and the conflicting nature of his self with the good person he wants to become, I want to be the one to help him through it. I guess that’s what this all means, huh? Past and present me are forever linked by this childishly inherent desire to help sad men, even if it doesn’t always feel like a conscious thing. I’ve never gone after these men with any intention, not even way back when I was in the thick of my sad boy cravings and at peak teen angst intensity. It was never something I went after with a purpose, and yet I did relish in it when it came my way. It all just sort of happened. And it happened again. And again. Now, it just feels like an inevitability. I’m sure the therapist I’ll go to in a few years’ time will have more possible answers to all this. Some gravitational pull to do with the nature of my personality, or something about something or other that happened to me while I was growing up, or something about my family, or my very first relationship, which has truly seemed to color every single one after it. The first time I ever took a hit, and my body has been chasing that high.
Maybe the moral of this self-indulgent story is that I watch too many movies and TV shows. Those intense periods of rollercoaster romance, scenarios I’ve envisioned in my head that play out like a montage sequence against the music blasting in my car, saying just the right thing at the right moment and everything falls into place – none of it is real, but it all seems like the ideal way for my life to be. I was raised on the melodrama of cinema and screens, or maybe it’s that I have a savior complex, or maybe I just fucking hate myself. Barry hates himself, too. “We are magnetized towards the individuals that ‘fit’ our view for what love is,” writes the author Haley’s Comment. “We chase people where we can repeat relationship roles we’re accustomed to.”
“Everything’s so good right now,” Barry says calmly, but desperately, with both his hands in the air, gun pointed at his chest, in the season one finale of Barry. “I’m a good person now.” His hair is slightly disheveled, his eyes are wide, he’s scared but steadfast. He looks beautiful. In a perfect world, Barry would have the life he dreams of and the “good person” badge of honor that he wants emblazoned on his body for the world to see. But then there would be no Barry, and then there would be no reason to fall in love with him. We want the drama and the desperation, the vulnerability that comes with failure and the thrill of emotional highs and lows as Barry’s perfect life is pulled constantly out of reach. We love the excitement of a sad, hot man burdened by a life of crime. I don’t want Barry to be happy, because I want to be the one to save him.
So, I fall in love with Barry Berkman again and again – I’ve been doing it for over a decade now. Movies and television bleed into my life and my life bleeds back. It all just comes so easily.
Brianna Zigler is a freelance film journalist based in the Philadelphia suburbs. She is a staff writer for Screen Queens, and has bylines with Film School Rejects, Bloody Disgusting, Vague Visages, and more. You can find her being loud and annoying on Twitter @briannazigs.