After having gone missing for almost two years, Barry is finally back tonight for its fourth and final season on HBO. When we first met Barry Berkman (Bill Hader) he was an ex-marine turned trained killer turned acting student who just wanted to be a better person. In season four that change may have been thrust upon him, but not completely by Barry’s own doing.
Barry was the fly lured into the spider’s web – that of Jim Moss (Robert Wisdom) the vengeful father of Janice (Paula Newsome), the police officer girlfriend of Barry’s acting mentor, Gene Cousineau (Henry Winker). Why would Jim want vengeance? Because Barry killed his daughter, of course. After three seasons of close calls and violent escapes, last season concluded with Barry painted into the tightest corner yet, surrounded by a heavily armed swat team with escape in sight. The most shocking twist, he was set up by the man he was trying to protect, Gene.
Season four opens with Barry entering prison as his crimes are publicized across tv news and the internet. Perhaps this is not the inner change he and viewers were hoping for, but at the very least he will have to pay for his sins in some fashion. Explaining all the intricate connections and relationships that have played out over the first three seasons would take awhile. That is especially true when you consider the series is considered a comedy while carrying with it much heavier themes.
Homicidal hitman killing innocent people, where’s the funny? Trust me, there are loads of laughs even as it skews towards full on drama at times. That is what makes Barry so special, it defies expectations and even explanation in so many ways. It is a tricky balancing act of the dark, absurd, and the atrocious. The show does take itself seriously, even when dark humor is injected into it, it never becomes a farce – the characters are at risk and face dire consequences for their actions. If the balance was off a hair the magic that keeps the series (created by Hader and Alec Berg) more captivating with every season, episode and scene would certainly fade.
The series, like Barry Berkman himself, has no shortage of grim surprises and shocking twists. They started as early as the pilot episode and have continued all the way through season four. Yet, even as the twist grows in size and stakes, they remain grounded in the world Hader/Berg created, often revealing the truly dark nature of its characters. Barry effectively shocks in ways no comedy that I can recall ever doing before.
And still, four seasons in as Barry grows progressively darker, the comedy aspects land even better and vice versa. Tonal shifts are often always just a heartbeat away too. One second it has us laughing, often quickly followed by some of the most horrific moments you can image, or we are letting our guard down as a character exposes their own insecurities. The juxtaposition created stacking them on top of each other would never work without well-defined and developed characters.
That may be the show’s biggest achievement, tying together this group of complex characters, each with their own flaws, and keeping us rooting for them through the freak outs, murders, ego flare ups, envy, heartless back stabbings, and more. Hader and Berg always stay true to the characters no matter how ugly what we find can be at times. Some characters are easier to love than others, but none are inherently evil or good. They each feel more like an array of shades of gray – their own mosaics of diversely gray shaded tiles.
There are plenty of layers to peel back with each, some scarred by past trauma, others may just have needed a few more hugs as kids. Whatever their past or current situation the incredible ensemble brings to life some of the most interesting and engaging characters on television. If any of them are lucky enough to survive this season any of them could lead their own spin-off series to expand this whacked out world (a la what Better Call Saul did for Breaking Bad.)
For season four all the familiar characters are back. Fuches (aka The Raven as he’d prefer, played by Stephen Root) is now a fellow prisoner in the same prison as Barry, where he’s trying to build a team. At the same time, outside of prison bars, NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) is building an empire with his lover, Cristobal (Michael Irby), by steering clear of crime and going legit in the sand business. That was not a typo, sand. The trio make up an unpredictable triangle of friendship/business relationships that keeps shifting shapes depending on where the relationships lie each day. Carrigan, whose Hank began as feeling mostly like comic relief has really come into his own as one of the series strongest characters.
Sally (Sarah Goldberg), Barry’s sometime-girlfriend, has fled back home to her parents after learning more truths about Barry. Sally’s career is all but over after her expletive-laced outburst go viral online. Goldberg is the series secret weapon – self-centered and broken. Like Barry, I cannot help but still root for her to get it all together but she keeps getting in her own way. Sally is one of the best unapologetically cringe characters out there – not an easy task to pull off.
Gene Cousineau is laying low – well, as low as fame-hungry Gene can, while Jim Moss keeps him in check as they wait for Barry’s conviction. Being Barry, things are never as simple as you would hope. The dynamics and allegiances between characters shift frequently and entertainingly, it is better I let you enjoy the surprises for yourself. I will say this though, in my book, the cast has earned another round of Emmy nominations.
That includes Hader’s work, he has been nothing short of brilliant from episode one right through season four. This season, for someone who was able to keep control of even the most difficult predicament Barry has lost it; shackled, weaponless, friendless. The most surprising part is that as horrific as his actions can be, I continue to find myself rooting for the guy. It is kind of incomprehensible and I almost feel guilty doing so.
Perhaps it is the childlike innocence behind the killer’s exterior that Hader brings to Barry. No matter what hideous acts he has committed, he feels a broken man just looking for someone to care for him as they pass him around like an emotionless weapon. In one powerful scene this season he asks, “Are you mad at me?,” like a kid on the playground who has upset a friend, but Barry’s wrongs are much more severe. Again, this is where we realize that he is not a straight up evil character – he has a conscience. He struggles with his past sins even if, at the drop of a hat, he can flip the switch and commit more.
Perhaps more impressive than his work in front of the camera is Hader’s work behind. His direction is exquisite, using the camera to build off of the razor sharp writing (which he’s also credited with through the run of the series). This season he taps further into Barry’s psyche, surreal escapes into the damaged mind of a killer who at once was just another kid playing with his toys. I have to believe that Hader’s comic instincts factor heavily into the balance I spoke about. Anyone who knows his work on SNL should be able to spot moments that have his fingerprints all over them.
Put into astonishing use again is the sound design and editing. Last season it was used to create a very memorable, heart racing scene that involved a lion (you know the one), told almost exclusively through sound. It was just one of the many instances where the series’ impeccable artistic sensibilities shine, elevating the story to new levels comedically, emotionally, or both. This season does not skimp on those moments. As many seasons grow lazy as they progress, Barry keeps raising the bar.
(Warning: this paragraph is slightly spoiler-ish) About halfway through the season the series takes a big shift, one that threw me at first. I was unsure if it would work, but ultimately enjoyed how it takes us to places in the character’s arc that we never explored before. I am curious how viewers will react. Also watch out for a few creative cameos you can experience on your own. One is just too clever to spoil. The big swings and the small are all working in this well-calculated last season.
The series is driven by the anxiety it creates in every episode. It has us holding our collective breaths as matches are tossed around a powder keg, all while keeping us laughing. It also tackles a plethora of themes, toying with our deep-seeded need for a redemption tale, a hard look at our fascination with fame, speaks to the horrors of war, celebrity, and ego through the twisted relationships of people looking to right their wrongs.
Barry proves there’s nothing else quite like it as it closes out on its own terms. There is much more than meet the eyes. Even as it heads into the final turn, it remains confident and compelling television, never feeling the need to slip into comfortable rhythms viewers have become accustomed to. Barry is remarkable storytelling disguised as a hitman dark comedy. One of the best series out there. I’d call it a hit.
The eight-episode fourth and final season of Barry premieres tonight on HBO.