Discover more from Letters of Rec
Bleeding in a Prius
On Barry, Succession, and mine and Lil' Troy's near-death experiences
Where I teach, we’re on the quarter system, which means the school year is somehow—despite my professor friends’ Insta posts from beaches and Europe—still not over. I’ve spent half my teaching career on this schedule and it still seems inconceivable. But it’s the last few weeks of the year, and also the busiest, so the only things I’ve read this month that weren’t for work were two forthcoming books by former students. While both of them are stupendous, I should probably wait to plug them until closer to their release dates.
I have been watching a lot of TV, by my standards, mainly the NBA playoffs—which I suspect my readership doesn’t have much interest in—and the last seasons of a few shows I’ve been following for years. One of them is Barry, Bill Hader’s (extremely) dark comedy series about an assassin and aspiring actor. I followed the show from the beginning, and sometime during the second season it became one of my all-time favorites. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly why. I think it’s because of how the show portrays violence.
Thanks for reading Letters of Rec! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
This next clause is the sort of thing I try my best to avoid saying, but as someone whose life was transformed by an act of violence, I have a strange relationship to violent media. On one hand, I hold the seemingly unpopular belief that the casual, unthinking violence that permeates American media does have a direct—if not necessarily causal—relationship to the very real violence that permeates American life. On the other, I don’t think the practical solution that belief might suggest—censorship, basically—is possible or advisable. And I’ve published two books about murders and teach a true crime class, so I’m as complicit as anyone in all of this.
Barry is a spectacularly violent show. People get shot in almost every episode, and my favorite one is essentially one long fight scene during which multiple people die. The violence is often absurd, and occasionally satiric, but it’s also often brutal, direct, and authentic.
As far as I can tell, the reason I like the show so much despite that—other than it being morbidly and hysterically funny—is because, unlike most depictions of it, the violence in Barry doesn’t end with the act itself. It never lets the violence end; that’s part of the brilliance of the show. While most popular narratives of violence use it as a plot point or to develop the perpetrator as a character, Barry shows what most murder media never does: the impact on the victim’s loved ones, how violence warps and haunts the person who commits it. Even though it’s one of the most literally violent shows on TV, it manages not to celebrate its violence. Instead it feels like it critiques our proclivity and desire for it.
The last episode was an object lesson in what I mean. (Possible spoilers ahead.) Among other things, the finale involves an obviously deranged person walking into Wal-Mart and buying an arsenal of guns, the most visceral and realistic gun shootout I’ve seen in ages—including the immediate aftermath, as the wounded bleed out and cry for help—and a piece of popular media that depicts a serial killer as an American hero. A lesser show would’ve skirted the issue of mass violence, and a lot of them have, even as real shootings proliferate, one numbing example after another.
If my scant social media presence is any indication, people in my filter bubbles prefer Barry’s HBO sibling, Succession, which also ended its four-season run on Sunday. I also followed that show, recently watched the finale, and liked it. It has some of the best moments of any series I’ve seen, and while I’m no expert on acting, the performances and characters seem exceptional.But I’ve never been as interested in it as, say, most of Writer Twitter seems to be.
Succession is never quite as direct, sharp, or funny in its portrayal of wealth as Barry is in its critique of violence. Unlike Peep Show—the first show by its creator Jesse Armstrong, and one of my favorite shows of all time—Succession takes itself just a bit too seriously for my taste, and blurs the line a bit too much between critiquing obscene wealth and celebrating it. Part of what Succession does—and some might argue this is part of its genius—is make me wonder what it’s like to be that rich, and root for people who are, despite myself. Barry has no such ambivalence about violence. It makes being a murderer seem like a special kind of hell.
Last week I had a moment that felt straight out of Barry. I’m a notoriously clumsy person, but even by my standards, this was dumb. My house is a Fifties ranch that has been renovated a few times with varying degrees of expertise. One of its many resulting quirks is that it has a sliding glass door on the inside, between the kitchen and the living room.
Well, it did.
That door always stayed open, except in rare situations when I was trying to isolate my dog because, for example, the pest control guy was here and I didn’t want her to go quite as nuts as she usually does when strange men come to the door. The morning in question, that door had been closed, then left partially open.
So I was carrying some stuff to the garage when I tripped on the rug and fell face-first into the door. Pretty hard, but surely not hard enough to shatter the glass, I thought, as the glass shattered around my face and cascaded to the floor. I stood there in shock for a moment, until quarter-sized droplets of my own blood falling to the floor snapped me out of it.
Right then, the pest control guy, with whom an hour earlier I’d been having an idle conversation about the gas mileage of his Nissan Frontier—we’ve sort of struck up an acquaintance—knocked on the front door to settle up. My dog ran straight for the field of shattered glass. My face was warm and wet and I couldn’t see that well, but I steered Sadie onto the patio, stuck a dish towel against my face, and answered the door.
Stan was not prepared for that. He looked so frightened that for a second I was worried about him. I shoved my credit card into his hand, went back inside the house, grabbed a bigger towel to replace the one I’d already bled through, and looked in the mirror. Then I promptly drove myself to the ER one-eyed, with a bloody towel pressed to my head, bleeding all over myself and my car.The doc cleaned out the cuts, stitched me up, and that was that. Now I’m teaching classes with six stitches in my face and an entirely purple right orbit, which is sort of entertaining.
The doctor asked a few concussion questions, so I told him I thought I might have one, but not a bad one. He nodded and said there wasn’t anything they could do about it, anyway, and while we were on the subject, he figured my nose might be broken, but as long as I could still breathe, they weren’t going to do anything about that, either.
Anyway, I’m treating it like research, taking notes for my novel, in which one of the characters is a former football player with post-concussive issues. The last time I looked into it, there weren’t really grades for concussions anymore—that idea went out of vogue a while ago—but there are types. I remember reading some study that seemed more accurate to my experience and said it might be more about location. I’ve mostly had front- or side-of-the-head concussions. Leading with my helmet on a tackle, banging my head against the concrete wall of a gym during a basketball game, getting punched in the face. (I don’t think I’ve ever had a back-of-the-head, but I’ve seen a couple, and they seem like the worst.) This one’s a front-of-the-head: some pain, a headache, a fogginess behind my eyes, but I can still work out and walk the dog and do my job.
I don’t worry too much about my history of head injuries. Back when I was researching the subject a lot, it seemed like most of the worst issues were more about chronic low-level impacts than concussions specifically, although multiple concussions are no picnic, either. But my risks are nowhere near those college or professional football players, or soccer players, or the occasional very unlucky baseball player. Right now, it’s mostly a joke or an excuse, a reason why my memory sucks or why I have chronic headaches in the exact same spot or why my memory sucks.
I’d hoped my concussion days were over, but it could’ve been a lot worse. That door exploded into huge murderous shards. It’s a miracle I didn’t lose an eye.
If you’re around my age and your teenage years were anything like mine, you may remember Lil’ Troy’s 1998 anthem “Wanna Be a Baller.” Somehow, Spotify’s new AI DJ, Xavier, who otherwise makes me feel like I’m walking through the uncanny valley of death, knew that I love that song, even though I haven’t listened to it regularly since eight years before Spotify existed.
The app—I hesitate to say “he”—played it for me the other day, in my car, and I cranked it up before realizing that the song hits a little different now that I’m a humanities professor in my forties driving a Prius with no window tint, much less twenty-inch blades.
I looked up Lil’ Troy to see what he was up to, as one does. That’s how I stumbled on the best thing I read this month, this article about no-longer-lil’ Troy, who apparently gave up on music to start a trucking company, and narrowly escaped his semi truck when it burst into flames. It includes this magnificent quote:
"If you notice, I hit the highway making money the fly way. You know what I'm saying? Truck driving is the new way," he said.
Thanks to my friend Charlie Bertsch, who recently wrote about attending their concert in Tucson, I’ve been listening to a lot of Molchat Doma, a Belarusian post-punk band apparently most famous because of TikTok. (I am, as usual, two years behind on everything.) Charlie is my go-to resource for smart, history- and theory-informed music and film writing, as well as one of the most generally brilliant people I know. You can read an archive of his Battleground.eu articles here, and buy his recent ebook here.
Although so are Barry’s. That show is full of incredible performances, but they’re not playing NY media execs, so you don’t see endless fawning stories about the lengths to which they take their method acting. I also thought Barry’s plotting, especially in the last season, was smarter and more surprising than Succession’s; the latter basically repeats variations of the same doomed takeover scheme for four seasons.
This is no mystery: rich people in New York like stories about rich people in New York, especially when they supposedly embody entire American eras. Ten years ago, I was having this same argument about Mad Men and its AMC stablemate Breaking Bad, which I still think was a better show.
More proof of my theory that you can get away with anything while driving a seafoam green Toyota Prius.