Barry: Season 4
Courtesy of HBO

The Final Season of Genre-Twisting ‘Barry’ Nails Down Its Tricky Legacy

The final season of Barry irreparably breaks the mold of the tragicomedy genre and unflinchingly severs the umbilical cord between the audience and the protagonist(s).

Bill Hader
25 March 2018

There’s a scene early on in Barry’s fourth and final season in which the series’ eponymous protagonist (Bill Hader), an ex-marine-turned-assassin-turned-actor-turned-assassin, calls his former acting coach, Gene Cousineau (Henry Winkler) from prison. Having been lured into arrest by his one-time mentor at the end of Season 3, he is still trying to make contact with anyone he’s known on the outside. However, the eager-to-atone Barry Berkman, the distraught man with a meticulous facade and alleged “good nature” we’ve witnessed over the course of three seasons, no longer seems to be there.

Shot from behind in an ominously hunched position, Barry neurotically taps his fingers on the prison wall while adopting a tone more threatening than pleading to scream, “I love you!”, to which Cousineau smirks, “I got you.” As Barry slams the phone furiously, his musculature tensing, we gain a paramount insight: this man is no longer deluding himself (and us) to be anything but an antisocial maniac. 

It is but one of many bold moves from Hader, himself the co-creator, writer, and director of the show, to unflinchingly sever the umbilical cord between the audience and the protagonist(s). Despite his evident PTSD and goodwill (whatever that meant), as an assassin calculatedly ready to murder anyone who gets in the way of his “reinvention” to an actor, Barry could never have been sympathetic. Nevertheless, the audience is customarily “invited” to nurture its relationship with the character(s), to identify with them, and consequently excuse their horrendous behaviors.

Just think of the enormity of fandom of the repugnant likes of characters Walter White and Tony Soprano, most of which jeopardize the legendary shows’ intended legacy. Luckily, Hader and co-creator Alec Berg have always been sensible about not overplaying their hand when portraying despicable assholes, so despite our best effort to see Barry as a “dark comedy” about “conflicted” people, the final installment of this tremendous show makes it clear: this is no laughing matter, and these people are fucking monsters. 

The final season of HBO’s acclaimed and hugely beloved show, which premiered on April 16, continues where it left off last year. After being lured into a trap by Cousineau and Jim Moss (Robert Wisdom) for the murder of Moss’ daughter and Cousineau’s girlfriend, detective Janice Moss (Paula Newsome), Berkman is in a maximum security prison, trying to come to terms with his murderous personality. There he comes across Fuches, his groomer and former handler, whom he still perceives as a fatherly figure despite Fuches’ blatant duplicitousness and abuse of him.

The scenery has changed for everyone else as well. Barry’s ex-girlfriend and disgraced actress Sally Reed (Sarah Goldberg) moves back in with her parents in Missouri, while Cousineau continues to milk attention from his history with Barry by soliciting a story for Vanity Fair. Everyone’s favorite, the Chechen gang leader NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan), looks to get his happy ending by moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his lover, Bolivian kingpin Cristobal (Michael Irby), and becoming an entrepreneur. 

Unsurprisingly, it’s painfully clear all these attempts at reckoning with the self will quickly come to grief – and how. The behavior of Sally’s parents immediately shows us why this self-centered, disrespectful sorority reject of a woman grew up to be the wreck she is. Barry’s attempts to adapt to prison life are shocking and pitiful. Hank’s ideas of entrepreneurship will defy the traditional notions of doing business, to say the least. Cousineau will also try to modify his histrionic inclinations while revealing himself to be hopelessly self-centered. 

All of this happens in the first two episodes, which already aired – I will not be detailing anything that hasn’t already been shown to the public. Hader himself asked critics to refrain from discussing plot points and having seen all but the final episode, I can confirm it would be a travesty to spoil the last few episodes of Barry’s story. Still, the tone of the series and the artistic choices, especially at the start of this season, don’t hide that we’re in for a rough, nihilistic ride from which nobody will escape unscathed, assuming they survive at all. What seemingly started as an off-kilter satire of Hollywood, about a hitman trying to escape his past by becoming an actor, has now turned into a unique surrealist drama – horror even. 

Speaking of tone and scene-setting, Hader’s and Berg’s vision, already graced with 44 Emmy nominations, still delivers material worthy of studying across a variety of disciplines to an even greater degree than before. The exquisite final batch of episodes, all of which have been directed by Hader, expose the 44-year-old Saturday Night Live alum as a singularly gifted visual storyteller, combining tight plotting (he also serves as one of the primary writers) with elements of bleak drama, sitcom and farce, horror and body horror, and especially surrealism. 

Over the course of Barry‘s final season, the narrative Fichtean Curve of piling one crisis on top of another and putting the characters through a centrifuge of anxiety and malice works like a charm due to a uniformly strong cast, with Goldberg, Winkler, and Hader outdoing themselves. Most episodes end with similar final lines (no spoilers) but a shifted focus, denoting an endless, agonizing shuffle of musical chairs in which nobody wins. Again and again, we see the main bunch battling to secure an upper hand or their own happily ever after but doing so exclusively through chilling callousness, abuse, and often physical violence. 

If the final episodes’ many – and there are many – shocking twists truly work, it is because Hader and Berg set viewers up well over the first three installments. Knowing a straight-up nihilistic drama wouldn’t work (yet) in said setting, the creators offered us plenty of comedic elements, ranging from slapstick to observational or even deadpan, coupled with the prime satirical tease of a potential redemptive ark or a success story for the lineup. Since the show debuted in 2018, we’ve watched Barry Berkman, a superficially regular guy who happens to be a former marine with PTSD and a current assassin-for-hire, try to turn his life around and make an honest living by becoming an actor. By ingratiating himself to a failed actor turned acting coach, Gene Cousineau, and hooking up with a petulant aspiring actress Sally Reed, Barry ought to have had a shot at our favorite resolution, that of heroic redemption – except this was never really a possibility. Even an allegedly repentant killer is still a killer. 

Beneath the hilarity of acerbic satire of Hollywood’s inflated egos and vicious production mechanisms, we get scenes of Barry crying after shooting a former military friend point blank or, worse, Barry barely flinching after executing anyone who threatened to expose his criminal identity. All the while, Hader and Berg have been methodical about juxtaposing the violence carefully with the “lighter” aspects of the narrative, while a sense of paranoia and a general descent into savagery and madness of all involved grew over the seasons. The increased involvement of others in Barry’s criminal predicament served not to induce empathy but to expose everyone else as a hypocritical, self-centered fiend too. Sally, Hank, and Cousineau, not to mention Fuches, all turn out to be entirely deserving of the web of deceit and carnage that is being woven around them.

 By design, Barry has never been a clean comedy, not even a pitch-black one. The many scenes of murder or distress are (mostly) played straight and evoke dread and devastation. This decision to avoid tragicomedy and eliminate emotional anchoring by frequently changing genres proved brilliantly fruitful. As the body count went up, Hader and Berg were careful to keep lacing the story with quirky one-liners and comically dramatic grimaces but progressively substituted the former with pessimistic drama and horror. What used to be Barry Berkman’s and everyone else’s clumsy attempt at a “successful” life in Hollywood (of all places!) is, in Season 4, a barbarous attempt to save one’s skin – and destroy the rest. 

While the characters’ internal illusions of goodness have eroded, the question of whether any one of them, Barry especially, will manage to show a morsel of game-changing humanity in the brutal final act remains. Opportunities are still there, if not for redemption, then at least for a saving grace, especially in the jaw-dropping second half of the season. Hader and Berg evidently enjoy their dizzying balancing act, sadistically toying with viewers’ expectations and the possibilities yet ahead for the characters.

“This is not a good guy/bad guy story,” muses Cousineau about his pathological relationship with Barry late in the season. “I know they say you did a bad thing. But I’m sure you’re not a bad guy,” says a sympathetic guard in Episode 1 (entitled “yikes”), who also happens to be a fan of Barry’s mediocre acting work. We pause for a moment, wondering if this is a nod to something good coming out of so much bad, only to see Barry growl at the guard: “I’m a fucking cop killer. If I saw you walking down the street, I’d fucking kill you, I’d kill your fucking kids, I’d kill your fucking wife, and I’d kill your fucking mom.”

What follows is a genuinely chilling, slowly approaching 20-second closeup of Barry’s aggravated face, during which we anticipate what is about to happen. However, instead of a fist and a bang, there’s not so much as a whimper. With no cut, the scene continues, and a streak of blood suddenly starts dripping down Barry’s forehead. We hear birds chirping and waves crashing and know that Barry is dissociating, escaping into pleasant memories as the guard proceeds to batter him. It’s a potent way to show the extent to which these people are hurting without diving into sentimentality and “humanizing” them. 

This uncompromising direction by Hader, evidently a breakout talent, brings the many facets of Barry‘s story together in morbid and inventive ways. Drawing upon his major influences, the Coen brothers, but also the legend of televised storytelling, Vince Gilligan, Hader uses wide shots of space to distance the viewers from the “bodies” within it, as well as uncomfortable closeups to “confront” them with us. Perhaps most intriguingly, in this season, he also leans heavily into the use of surprising, frequent sudden movements and mystifying setups to shake up both the characters’ and viewers’ notions of reality. An early scene of Sally dreaming on a plane, hearing a child’s voice in front of her, only to see dirty nails grip the seat and the face of the motocross gang member she murdered in Season 3 emerge, paves the way for myriad manifestations of the unconscious. Surreal moments, hallucinations, and unreliable narration have always been among Barry’s storytelling spices, but in Season 4, they take center stage, seasoning the often sparse dialogue. 

The unconscious also turns out to be monstrous. In Barry’s and Hank’s case, we’re not sure if half the scenes they are in happened as they experienced them or at all; the aftertaste makes them realize they are both spiraling into a haze of rage and aggression. The same goes for many of Sally’s later-season happenings. At times, the very ground under them spins or shakes, such is the weight of their predicament, real or imagined.

Barry‘s much-talked-about humor is barely present throughout this final season, with the few laughs coming from deliberately banal snippets, such as a gang discussion on which Fast and Furious movie is the best (the argument is settled by a Mexican mobster who exclaims, “¡son películas de mierda!” – “they are all shit films!”). The chuckles and backhanded Hollywood commentary are here replaced with ambiguous silences and ghastly, uncanny spaces; characters are often trailed through extended wide shots where anything could happen (to them), or they are literally cornered in the claustrophobic, threatening confines of a prison, or Sally’s parents’ house. 

As a result, we get a continuously horrific, surreal atmosphere replete with psychological drama. The space itself is utilized to add a layer of distress to the cast and to unnerve viewers. Moreover, the sense of unease that runs through Barry is augmented by the supporting characters being little better people than the loathsome main bunch. FBI agents are conniving and opportunistic, Sally’s parents are detached. In true Hollywood industry fashion, nearly everyone, with a couple of notable exceptions, is thinking of only themselves. It is a bleak world, indeed.

In most directors’ hands, the many layers of Barry’s reality would be too much to bear in brief, 30-minute chapters, but Hader’s disturbing vision is impeccably executed. In the style of his iconic forebears, he understands that efficient plotting devoid of sentimental schemes allows for more audacious creative decisions. He and the writers focus on completing the story arks and bringing everyone together for a final showdown. He develops the narrative using psychoanalysis, and destroying the emotional familiarity of the genre is an excellent twist.

Among the best episodes of the season is Episode 5, “tricky legacies”. Drawing from its name, the story is somewhat centered on a character’s positive impression of Abraham Lincoln (“He’s on a penny”, someone says). In a later scene, Barry expounds on this impression: “I found out some interesting info on our buddy, Abe Lincoln. Turns out, he had a bunch of Native Americans killed. Executed. He also proposed to Black people that they go back to Africa… Tricky, tricky legacy.” While Barry is neither a racist nor a politician, this rumination adequately sums up Barry‘s theme.

Before Barry proceeds to berate him (and take a beating), that previously mentioned prison guard who tries to comfort him in “yikes” says, “When I was feeling low, my mom always used to say, each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I always liked that. Gave me hope.” The characters of Barry are certainly a lot more than the worst things they’ve ever done, but they are still not, nor will they ever be, good people.

Whether we can or should muster any hope for characters like those in Barry – and real people like them – is up for debate. In any case, the cliché of critics’ praise turns out to be true this time – there’s really nothing quite like Barry on television. With yet another outstanding streak of episodes, the show has cemented its tricky legacy of genre-bending satire and drama. Fans will wait with bated breath for Hader’s next project.