Regularly scheduled programming: ‘Barry’ and ‘Killing Eve’ assassins will hold your heart hostage

Bill Hader as the titular character of "Barry" clad in red looks surprisedly at the viewer while holding up a gun. He stands next to Jodie Comer as Villanelle in "Killing Eve," who also wears red and holds up a gun to her lips, smiling. The black background is splattered with a maroon blood texture.
Graphic by Meghan Joyce

What do two (seemingly) cold-blooded assassins on two different shows have in common? More than 10 Emmy nominations. 

HBO’s “Barry” and BBC’s “Killing Eve” seem to be completely different. “Barry” takes place in America, while “Killing Eve” takes place in Britain. “Barry” focuses on male characters, while “Killing Eve” focuses on female characters. However, both shows feature assassins as their main characters — complex, three dimensional ones who warrant empathy. 

“Barry” centers Bill Hader in the titular role of Barry Berkman, an ex-marine-turned-hitman. In the first episode, Berkman finds himself in a Los Angeles acting class while tailing his latest target. Arriving at the main conflict of the show, Berkman realizes his desire to act and leave his life of murder and crime behind.

The assassin in “Killing Eve,” Villanelle, is played by Jodie Comer. The first season plays out like a cat-and-mouse chase between her and a British intelligence officer, Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh). Villanelle is a highly trained and successful assassin, who brings a certain flair to her duties because of her “attention-seeking tendencies.” She becomes highly obsessed with Polastri and sees evading capture from her like a game. 

At face value, both “Barry” and “Killing Eve” seem to be dark dramas about evil people killing other evil people, but they both play out to be so much more than that. The shows are both classified as dark comedies or comedy-dramas, and they use multiple technical elements to break the genre’s mold. 

As a comedian, Hader brings a kind of contrast to “Barry,” which looks serious at first glance. Personally, I will always see Bill Hader as someone funny, mainly because I grew up watching him on “Saturday Night Live.” Berkman grows increasingly confused and anxious throughout the first season, constantly stressing and constructing schemes to ensure no one figures out his secret. 

The perfection of “Barry” is a result of Hader’s ability to take such a complicated character in a dark topic and make it funny. To Berkman, being a hitman is just like any other mundane or unfulfilling job he can’t get out of, rather than a high stakes and highly illegal profession. 

But it’s more than just Hader’s acting ability that allows “Barry” to shine in comedy. The whole show seems to take a light approach to the idea of assassins and murder. A member of the Chechen mafia that Berkman comes to work for, NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), is a prime example of how the show is able to maintain a comedic feel. 

He frequently sends Berkman text messages complete with Bitmojis and spelling errors to inform him of his next hit or any change of plans. The idea that a boss who orders kills could fumble over Apple’s keyboard and refuse to use spell-check is ironic — it presents the possibility that these characters who supposedly lead top-secret lives could be hilarious messes just like us. 

“Killing Eve” is developed by comedian and “Fleabag” star Phoebe Waller-Bridge, so similar to “Barry,” it has someone hilarious taking creative liberty. However, in contrast to “Barry,” the characters in “Killing Eve” are more serious and intense about the idea of an assassin. Villanelle, unlike Berkman, seems to relish in her job of assassinating people and performs each hit with a kind of frivolous and fun-loving joy. 

There is a scene in which Villanelle asks her target what brand of bedspread he uses. After gleefully murdering him, she’s later seen smoothing out the same luxury sheets in her own apartment — purchasing them with the money she received from the hit! To Villanelle, murder is just a means to an end; she cares more about her own personal gain rather than moral purity. 

Villanelle effortlessly exudes the skills and confidence of a seasoned killer, but her motivations often mimic the impulsiveness and selfishness of a child. The contrast between these two identities is what drives the humor of “Killing Eve” forward. 

Another main difference between “Killing Eve” and “Barry” is the fact that “Killing Eve” bolsters the narratives surrounding its female characters. The strong female energy is felt in the show because of its expert direction from two female showrunners. 

As a result, I think Villanelle and Eve both represent empowering figures. Both of them work against patriarchal forces in trying to do their jobs, even though they’re on different sides. 

While there are certainly differences between “Killing Eve” and “Barry,” they both have an uncanny ability to make something as somber as death sinfully entertaining and absurdly funny. Both Barry and Villanelle twist the assumption that a show about an assassin should be dark and serious. Perhaps the most dangerous part about them is how they’ll make you die of laughter. 

Claire DuMont SC ’23 is one of TSL’s TV columnists. She’s an intended American Studies major from Manhattan Beach, California. She loves her dogs, cats and talking about TV (obviously); her current favorite show is “Daybreak.”

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